Wage Slaves, The Slave Trade and Railways

March 25 2015. Today is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade  and I’m reminded of the connection between railways and slavery: not just in America, where jumping trains offered one possible escape route from the South, but the link between the slave trade and investment in Britain’s railways, particularly the line from London to Bristol, a theme I pick up in my book Station to Station.

The birth of the railway age in Britain coincided with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1883 and the payment of huge amounts of compensation to British slave-owners, money that was redirected to kick-start the expansion of the railway network as well as the development of many other industries. In my book I unpick the links between the creator of the line, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the men he referred to as ‘the spirited merchants of Bristol’, as well as examining the engineer’s own attitude to work. At the beginning of the Great Western project he told a friend he was rarely employed less than 20 hours a day and advised a relative in a famous letter ‘for God’s sake take to working not industriously but like a slave’.

Industrialisation brought new forms of slavery into existence; travelling long distances to a place of employment can be part of the burden for today’s workers. It is easy to see commuters, squeezed into subway cars in New York or Tokyo or crawling along arterial roads into Los Angeles or London, as ‘wage-slaves’. Perhaps those of us who ride the rails to work should not be surprised if we find ourselves in a condition of bondage: after all, the railways were built originally by navvies working in conditions scarcely better than those on the plantations and the railway companies partially funded by families grown rich through slave ownership. The rapper Immortal Technique captured these connections most succinctly in the track from his Revolutionary Number 2 album, Harlem Streets:

Working your whole life, wonderin where the day went

The subway stays packed like a multicultural slave ship

It’s rush hour, 2.30 to 8., non-stoppin

And people comin home after corporate share-croppin…

For him, work that is not paid enough to lift a family out of poverty is modern slavery. What was true in Harlem in 2003 must remain true in zero hours Britain in 2015…


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