Slavery and Empire Still Mark the British Countryside

Levant Mine, Cornwall. The Levant Mine operated from the late 18th century until its closure in 1930, mining tin and copper from beneath the sea bed. Credit - Peter Thompson—Heritage Images/Getty Images

In May 2024, the British Secretary of State for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch claimed that Britain was enriched by national “ingenuity and industry” rather than by colonialism and trans-Atlantic slavery.

Her statement flew in the face of mounting historical evidence to the contrary, notably the acclaimed Legacies of British Slavery database. In fact, Britain’s trans-Atlantic slavery business developed an entire infrastructure that shaped many British institutions and communities: transport, ports, docks, customs houses, warehouses, counting houses and all their employees. It encompassed plantation ownership and management, financial services and much more. And that doesn’t even include the reinvestment of slavery profits into British industry. 

Cornish copper mining, generally considered as part of a British national story of “ingenuity and industry” illustrates the economic impact of the slavery system on British rural life and physical landscapes during the industrial revolution. From the 18th century, the industrial revolution marked a shift from an agrarian economy to one dominated by machine-based industry during a period of technological change in which copper played a defining role, beginning in Cornwall.

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Surrounded on three sides by sea, Cornwall is England’s most south-westerly county. Today, holiday-makers love its mild climate, dramatic coastlines, and secret coves. Once a maritime hub for shipping, global trade, and communications, the county has an air of mystique with its history of smuggling and piracy.

Cornish copper mines were worked intensively beginning in the 1680s. Copper has special properties. It conducts heat easily, is malleable, and can be combined with alloys to make brass (using zinc) and bronze (using tin, which the region also possessed in abundance). Visit any antiques fair in Britain today and you will find an abundance of old copper jugs, pans, kettles, and coal scuttles.

The copper extracted by Cornish miners was widely used across the Atlantic. Once extracted from Cornwall, Cornish copper was mostly smelted in Wales. But this gleaming orange metal was not just made into kettles and coal scuttles.

By the late 1720s, global demand was such that over half of Britain’s copper and brass was exported. British laborers made products specifically designed for trade along the West African coast. One such item was a two-foot copper rod, designed for winding around arms and legs. According to a Swedish traveler at the time, these pliable rods were then known as “Negros.” Another was “manillas,” or bracelets, made at metalworks in the Welsh town of Swansea. Both these decorative items were then in great demand along the African Gold Coast, used as currency by European enslavers to pay local slave-traders for captured African people.

By the following decade, copper exports to West Africa amounted to 20 tons annually, shipped by the Royal African Company as well as by private enslavers.

Vast quantities of Cornish copper were also used on sugar plantations in the West Indies, used as rods for crushing cane, for boiling cauldrons, copper coolers and utensils. In 1732 just one estate in St. Kitts in the Caribbean, colonized by the British, needed £1000 of copper equipment and, by the mid-18th century, a single plantation worked by 300 people needed five tons of copper vessels, produced by London coppersmiths.

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Copper was also used for British vessels, helping to make ships’ wooden hulls last longer. In 1779, the Royal Navy sheathed its entire fleet with copper and, two years later, three quarters of British slave-ships had their hulls wrapped in copper sheeting. This sped up sailing times by up to 12 days, lowering the risk of provision shortages, mutiny, and sickness. From the callous perspectives of enslavers and their investors, sheathing increased slavery profits by reducing deaths on the Middle Passage.

By 1824, Gwennap Parish, in South Cornwall, produced over a third of the world’s copper. As a result, it was once termed the richest square mile on earth. The nearby town of Redruth served as the beating heart of the copper business where smelters bid for copper ore. Further east lay Truro, where wealthy copper investors and shareholders mingled in polite society.

For many workers, the story was different. The village of Gwennap is dominated by the church of St. Wenappa, which once served 10,000 parishioners from the surrounding mining community. These mining families lived in relative poverty and worked in dangerous conditions, laying explosives to extract copper ore from the rocks. Accidents and deaths were common. Families contended with the environmental degradations caused by the mining industry.

What had paved the way for this copper boom were advances in steam power. James Watt’s famous 1776 steam engine had initially been designed to pump water out of deep copper mines. This new steam technology went on to power the nation’s cotton mills in the second half of the industrial revolution from this period and well into the 19th century. Britain’s industrialists imported raw cotton picked by enslaved people in the southern United States. British factory workers produced finished cotton cloth in the factories of East Lancashire. Wages sustained the households of both copper and cotton workers, while profits bolstered the British economy.

To suggest, then, as Badenoch has, that colonialism and slavery were not central to the history of British wealth and power is to overlook the impact that colonial trade and enslavement had on British labor history. For decades, British historians similarly dismissed the contention that slavery profits partially sustained the industrial revolution, an argument made back in 1944 by Eric Williams, in his book Capitalism and Slavery. New evidence from sources like the Legacy of British Slavery database means that economic historians are inclined to agree.

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Even today, walking through these old Cornish places provides plenty of food for thought. Standing at the green edges of a disused Gwennap pit you can see flocks of yellow-winged goldfinches enjoying a lush, green setting that was once scoured of vegetation, the air filled with toxic vapors as workers mined the copper that would build the nation’s wealth and line the pockets of its richest families. When the global market became flooded with copper in the mid-19th century and the market crashed, copper mining vanished from Cornwall. But all around, the remains of these mines still define the landscape, with old spoil heaps, engine houses, and abandoned brick chimneys poking above the greenery.

On the coast, pink daisies line the lane to an old inn with a wobbly thatched roof at the sea’s edge. Beyond that is a pier which protrudes from England’s western tip and points to the American continent far beyond, where so much of the valuable mineral entered those old circuits of empire and enslavement.

Countryside walks are an opportunity for quiet reflection.

As one walks through central South Cornwall, one can see how heated conversations about this sensitive history so regularly get. In Britain it is common for historians of empire to be told they are denigrating the nation’s history by linking the British countryside to the trans-Atlantic slavery system. Yet we can’t acknowledge the uncomfortable parts of this history—let alone address them—unless we know in more detail what actually happened.

Most nations have histories that they would rather forget, and Britain is no exception. But by recovering rural and local histories that explain and explore the legacies of slavery and colonialism, we can better understand Britain and its place in the world.

Corinne Fowler is the author of The Countryside: Ten Rural Walks Through Britain and Its Hidden History of Empire (Scribner, 2024). Copyright © 2024 by Corinne Fowler. Originally published in Great Britain in 2024 by Allen Lane as Our Island Stories. Adapted from the book THE COUNTRYSIDE: Ten Rural Walks Through Britain and Its Hidden History of Empire by Corinne Fowler, published by Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC. Printed by permission.

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