Three words from Latin roots indicating different degrees of being of use to others. King Charles has drawn attention to service. This word has come to imply a voluntary act, while servitude implies involuntary or forced labour and slavery, from its root sclavus
, implies capture, enforced labour and loss of any autonomy. However, the boundaries between them are blurred, and this occurred to me recently when The Guardian
newspaper discovered and confessed its foundation by businessmen whose wealth in part had been derived from slavery, a discovery accompanied by great soul-searching. Why this was a surprise to what was the Manchester Guardian
My ancestors were handloom weavers who migrated from Perthshire to Glasgow in the late 18th century to take advantage of the expanding cotton industry. The cotton was imported from the Caribbean and North America and must have been a product of slavery. Some of the cloth they wove would have been exported as cheap clothing for the same slaves. As the system of water- and coal-powered mills developed, my ancestors and their fellow weavers lost their jobs to the new machines, operated very profitably for their owners by servitude, including that of poor women and children. The growth of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution was based on the exploitation of labour, and to that extent all of us in the prosperous West are beneficiaries of both slavery and servitude.
Many people in Britain became rich in the 18th and 19th centuries, and few who did so could claim clean hands when it came to looking at the source of their wealth. Whether it was Africans captured and forced to work in plantations or children forced into the mines or mills, helpless uneducated people were effectively enslaved into producing the wealth of capitalism. That wealth accumulated and gave the owners great houses and estates, a source of fortune for their descendants even to this day. However, some filtered down and the British economy grew accordingly. By the mid-19th century, few in the growing middle classes could claim not to have benefitted.
At that time, the burgeoning economy of Britain was associated with tripling of the population and a shift from rural to urban dwelling. Factories provided employment and the great cities developed slums. Infectious disease was rife but those children who survived went to work in the manufactories and mines.
At the very start of the 19th century, the first city Board of Health was established in Manchester, led by an Edinburgh graduate, Dr Thomas Percival. Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, visited his factories round Manchester and was shocked at the conditions of the children working there and introduced the first Act of Parliament intended to improve their lot, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1805. This obliged owners to introduce some basic education and restrict hours worked to 12 per day! However, it was not enforced and only applied to apprentices, ignoring the lot of orphans who were essentially slaves of their employers.
Servitude of children in coal mines was only recognised as late as the 1840s after a Royal Commission reported on their conditions, which they described as slavery – thereafter employment of children younger than 12 was prohibited. Painfully slowly, times were changing as the conscience of Britain awoke. Manchester was central to this, a change in attitudes that also led to the foundation of The Guardian
My own family history provides an illustration of those changing times of widening opportunities. My great grandfather James would have been expected to follow his father and brothers into weaving, but the Glasgow weavers collectively provided educational opportunities and he was admitted to study medicine at Anderson's Institute, a body founded by a bequest from the radical scientist and Glasgow professor, John Anderson, to educate workers. This later, through mergers, contributed to both Glasgow University Medical School and Strathclyde University.
After qualifying, James migrated to Leeds where there was a new medical school and he played a part in its eventual development into Leeds University, but he died when his children were young. The school merged with the Yorkshire College of Science, founded on similar principles to Anderson's University's, to form with Manchester and Liverpool the combined Victoria University. As in Glasgow, tertiary education open to the most able was being introduced across the north of England in the first half of the 19th century on principles derived from Glasgow's Francis Hutcheson and the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham.
These new Victorian universities emphasised science, engineering and medicine, practical subjects of potential benefit to humanity, over the traditional classics and philosophy. They generally had a Christian Protestant ethos, but were not exclusive, admitting people of all religions or none, and were pioneers in admitting women. But they needed funding, and donations played the important role. It is unlikely that they would have looked very critically at the source of their donors' wealth. They would have put the money to good use, ensuring that their graduates embraced their ethos, of putting their learning to the benefit of others, through service to humanity. My grandfather, having lost his father, the breadwinner, in childhood, was a beneficiary who went on to learn his medicine in the Victoria University and was among the first to receive a degree from the new Leeds University.
So, I am not surprised that behind The Guardian's
founders lay tainted money, because the history of the industrial development of Manchester (and Glasgow and Liverpool) is of the importation of cotton and its use in its dark satanic mills. Dark because of the smoke from burning coal, mined by workers in servitude to power the mills slaved in by others, satanic because of the abuse of their fellow humans by the owners of the mines and mills and of the sources of the raw products. Engels and Marx were driven by this, following the former's experiences in his father's cotton mill in Salford and the slums of Manchester.
Our universities, like The Guardian
, are now being urged to investigate whether they are indebted to money from slavery. I'm afraid that if they look hard enough, they will find that among their generous Victorian sponsors there will be some who benefitted from slavery and many more who did so from exploitation of their native British workers. Indeed, many modern wealthy benefactors may owe their wealth to investments made originally in the 19th century.
This finally brings me back to the concept of service and why I welcome the reminder of this from our new King. It is easy to trivialise it as helping out, volunteering at weekends, scouting, and so on. Such actions are of course valuable and worthy, of benefit both to the giver and receiver, but service is more than this. It should be noted that until the relatively recent opening of opportunities across the workforce, a life of service was the only serious option for most women.
The philanthropists who founded The Guardian
and the inclusive Victorian universities and the politicians who oversaw the expansion in educational opportunities in the 20th century had as their objective the advancement of civilisation and saw their graduates as serving mankind. As beneficiaries of a good education, we have a duty to return some of that value to society, and to do so is to serve. This is the way to make reparation for the exploitation that led to our good fortune. Sometimes that will bring financial reward, sometimes not, but a life without purpose other than the accumulation of wealth is a life to regret as you approach its end.
There has been a noticeable emphasis since the 1980s in Britain on glorifying wealth, envying those who earn more than us, as CEOs compete for even more millions in their so-called bonuses. Bonus melior optimus est
is their motto. Jobs become measured in pounds rather than value to society. Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of royalty, King Charles has made an important and timely point on service that groups of professionals contemplating stiking should reflect on. I anticipate that he will be considering with his advisors how his family can best set an example, perhaps more in line with some other monarchies.
When we consider the servitude and slavery on which capitalism developed, we should realise that money alone can never be adequate recompense; each one of us, however, can pay something back in how we live our lives.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own