‘Colonise at home!’ Paupers, Serfs, Slaves and the making of the English State

I am continuing to blog some extracts from my new book, of Stigma: the Machinery of Inequality. I have chosen this extract as it is also one of the starting points for my current project on “Decolonising Lancaster” and the histories of slavery and plantation labour which shaped this small city in Lancashire.

This extract from Chapter One examines the emergence of what E.P Thompson describes as ‘a moral machinery’, and what I term a ‘stigma machine’, to legitimate the punitive measures introduced to govern the poor in the England as the country transitioned over centuries into a fully-fledged capitalist state. This process of state formation involved the enclosure of land and labour and was, as we shall see, imagined by some 18th century elites as a process of ‘internal colonisation’.

I particularly consider the emergence of the stigmatised figure of “the pauper” in this period. As the political economist Karl Polanyi argued, the pauper and the market economy ‘appear in history together’.[i]  In Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit (2018), Robbie Shilliam details how the British (welfare) state emerged, as Polanyi suggests, out of distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor, but Shilliam crucially adds and evidences how classificatory distinctions between the deserving/undeserving poor in England were grounded in and produced through stigmatising analogies to the black slave. As Shilliam details, we cannot understand the emergence of the British state without a deeper account of how the deserving /undeserving axis which organised the moral and political economy of this state, was symbolically, culturally and economically secured by slavery in the West-Indies and Americas. 

In the larger book, I explore some of these arguments in relation to colonial India, and the relationship between the emergence and hardening of class systems and caste systems in the same period. Also touched on, but undeveloped here, is an understanding of systems of serfdom and enserfment in wider Europe in the same period shaped understandings of free and unfree labour (see footnotes for more on this).

Many excellent histories of colonial capitalism have been written by others; see for example Eric Williams, Catherine Hall, Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and more. What I seek to contribute is an understanding of how penal practices of stigmatisation and classification which differentially devalue and dehumanise people, underpinned the emergence of the British state, and capitalism as a world system.


In The Making of the English Working Class (1963), E. P. Thompson details in transformation of feudal agricultural England into a capitalist state was characterised by the mass enclosure of land, a practice that began in the fifteenth century but continued over many centuries.[ii] Land enclosures were most intensive during the eighteenth century, and between ‘1760 and 1810’ alone it is estimated that ‘five million acres of common fields’ were enclosed.[iii] This mass privatisation of land saw the ‘open field’ system (in which land was divided and shared amongst a community) transformed into a tenant farm system, in which land became the property of individual landowners, and was worked by wage labourers.

As Robert Allen has argued, in terms of productivity land enclosures brought few if any benefits, but greatly enriched landowners.[iv] Critically, these enclosures cut off people’s rights of access to the common wealth of the land –-freedoms to graze animals, grow crops, gather firewood and hunt for food. The enclosures also eroded long-established customs and moral codes of social provision, by transforming those who could work into precarious waged worker and tenants, and making those who couldn’t, such as the sick, elderly or disabled, vulnerable to the whims of aristocratic landowners and their tenant farmers. (Jim Crace’s wonderful novel Harvest (2013) imagines land enclosures from the perspective of dispossessed villagers).[v]

As the poet Robert Crowley reflected in 1550, working people were increasingly held to ransom by ‘the great farmers … the men of law, the merchants, the gentlemen, the knights, the lords’. These men, Crowley laments

‘take our houses over our heads, they buy our grounds out of our hands, they raise our rents, they levy (yea unreasonable) fines, they enclose our commons’.[vi]

Men without conscience. Men utterly devoid of God’s fear. Yea, men that live as though there were no God at all! Men that would have all in their hands; men that would leave nothing for others. …

Cormorants, greedy gulls; yea, men that would eat up men, women and children.[vii]

In short, the transformation of England into a capitalist society was a form of “internal colonisation” in as much as it involved the theft of land, and the systemic destruction of people’s customary access to independent means of subsistence.

This massive act of state-legislated theft was implemented through forced evictions, the use of bloody penal codes, the innovation of stigmatising Poor Laws, the introduction of new policing and surveillance measures, the incarceration of people in workhouses and prisons, mass transportation (forced emigration to the colonies) and the use of hunger as a weapon.

Enclosure Propogandists

In the eighteenth-century utilitarian arguments about the need for greater efficiency in systems of agricultural production were used by the social elites to justify the enclosure of land. Economic arguments were supported by the construction of what E. P. Thompson terms ‘a moral machinery’.[viii] Indeed, in the eighteenth century a panoply of ‘enclosure propagandists’, aristocrats, politicians, journalists and a new middle class of social-policy gurus, argued that land enclosures were a moral and civilising mission.[ix]

Enclosure propaganda painted the commons ‘as a dangerous centre of indiscipline’ and a ‘breeding-ground for barbarians’ [x]  For example, Arthur Young (1741–1820), an influential writer on agricultural improvements, described the commons as ‘nursing up a mischievous race of people’.[xi]  As Thompson puts it, ‘Ideology was added to self-interest’ and

‘it became a matter of public-spirited policy for the gentleman to remove cottagers from the commons, reduce his labourers to dependence, pare away at supplementary earnings, drive out the smallholder.’[xii]

Within this new moral schemata, the village poor were transformed from entitled and rights-bearing subjects into undeserving populations, ‘designing rogues, who, under various pretences, attempt to cheat the parish’ and whose ‘whole abilities are exerted in the execution of deceit which may procure from the parish officers an allowance of money for idle and profligate purposes’.[xiii] Indeed, there was a growing consensus amongst the propertied elites that

it was essential to restore in the poor a proper sense of degradation’.[xiv]

Essential not only because the existing systems of poor relief were perceived as unaffordable (poor rates had inevitability increased as common land was enclosed) but because the very idea of relief was increasingly perceived as incompatible with the new capitalist doctrine of laissez-faire; an ideology which sought to enhance the rights and increase the wealth of the propertied classes by encouraging self-sufficiency, resilience and rugged individualism amongst the unpropertied masses. What this meant in practice is the devastation of people’s access to a measure of security and the basic resources they required to sustain the lives of themselves and their dependents.

Enclosures were a ‘revolution of the rich against the poor’.[xv]

As Thompson documents, resistance to enclosures was fierce and sustained. Faced with this catastrophe, people gathered to plan how to resist the violence wrought upon them. Popular radical movements emerged, as people furiously debated the pros and cons of continuous agitation, riots, large-scale organised revolts (including the bearing of arms), and softer tactics of democratic enfranchisement and moral persuasion. Mass campaigns of direct action saw the levelling of the ditches and walls which had enclosed common land, machine breaking, rioting, the destruction of private property, and bread riots: As Thompson notes, there were repeated food riots, ‘in almost every town and county’ up until the 1840s.[xvi]

Branding the vagabond, badging the poor

Karl Marx summarises the history of the English enclosures in Capital, describing how ‘agricultural people [were] first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system’.[xvii]

As this reference to branding suggests, penal stigmatisation was a pivotal technology in these processes of enclosure, deployed to manage the massive social upheavals and class conflicts that followed in the wake of the destruction of people’s customary access to the means of subsistence.

In a chapter of Capital titled ‘Bloody Legislation Against the Expropriated, from the End of the 15th Century’ Marx details how new criminal codes and poor laws were devised to apprehend ‘masterless’ men and women within systems of indentured, coerced or low paid labour such as the Elizabethan Roundsman System, which involved the public auctioning of unemployed men – an early form of workfare.

Marx gives the example of a late Tudor law, the Vagabonds Act of 1547 which ordained that anyone in England who refuses to work ‘shall be condemned as a slave to the person who has denounced him as an idler’.[xviii] This act mandated a series of stigmatising punishments, notably the use of branding irons to mark the skin of offenders: V for vagabond, S for slave.

A subsequent act ordered that ‘incorrigible and dangerous rogues are to be branded with an R on the left shoulder and set to hard labour, and if they are caught begging again, to be executed without mercy’.[xix]

The use of penal stigmatisation and other bloody practices to mark out the wayward, displaced, marginal and unemployed continued over the centuries that followed. What I want to emphasise here is that stigma statues and stigmatising practices were introduced, as Marx puts it, to ‘shorten the transition’ to a society in which people would have nothing left ‘to sell but their own skins’.[xx]


The word pauper, a deeply stigmatising term for an ‘unproductive’ person –’a person having no property or means of livelihood; a person dependent on the charity of others’ Oxford English Dictionary first came into everyday use in the eighteenth-century to describe the mass impoverishment which followed in the wake of enclosures.[xxi] 

As William Cobbet, writer and Member of Parliament, wrote in 1816:

‘Look at England, swarming with paupers, and convulsed in every limb of her body.’[xxii]

Experiments in the stigmatisation of the poor intensified as social elites sought to find ways to deter people from making claims on the parish for relief. During the seventeenth century, violent physical practices of stigmatisation, such as branding, were supplemented with less permanent but still visible penal stigmas, such as the wearing of cloth badges and humiliating forms of dress. For example, a 1697 Poor Law decreed that paupers in receipt of alms were compelled to at all times display a cloth badge with the letter P and ‘the first letter of the name of the parish or place where they lived’ upon their right sleeve.[xxiii] These impermanent stigmas allowed the possibility of reform if you were willing to adopt new forms of work discipline.[xxiv]

While practices of badging of the poor were formally repealed in England in 1810, badging continued into other similar practices of social stigmatisation and public shaming. Practices of badging emerged in concert with new workhouse experiments, for example. Like badging, these houses of correction sought to use stigma, incarceration and hard labour to deter people from seeking relief from the parish – those who had no option but to enter a workhouse were stripped of their remaining worldly possessions, forced to wear humiliating uniforms, and had to undertake demeaning and often backbreaking work in return for their keep. As a blind tailor told journalist and social reformer Henry Mayhew in 1851:

I dread the workhouse, for the workhouse coat is a slothful degrading badge. After a man has had one on his back, he’s never the same [xxv]

As Virginia Richmond details, up until the early twentieth century men from workhousesin the North of England were forced to work in public ‘with a large P stamped on the seat of their trousers’.[xxvi] These practices of badging the poor continue in the government of welfare today– for example, through stigmatising media depictions of benefits claimants as ‘designing rogues’ (see Chapter Four).

In The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time (1944), the political economist Karl Polanyi argued that the stigmatised figure of the pauper and the market economy ‘appear in history together’.[xxvii]

As Marx writes,

‘it is already contained in the concept of the free labourer, that he is a pauper, virtual pauper’.[xxviii]

What Marx meant by this is that for ordinary people the institution of capitalist systems of government made people radically vulnerable to poverty—a system of dependence in which only work for the profit of others could secure some measure of freedom.

Jeremy Bentham’s panoptical welfare stigma machine

In the late eighteenth century, near famine conditions, and revolts and uprisings, saw the problem of paupers become central to social and political debate.

Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), famously concerned about population growth, argued that hunger, disease (and war) were checks on population size which shouldn’t be interfered with. Hence he proposed the total abolition of the poor relief, with workhouses used as a place of last resort, arguing that ‘survival of the fittest’ policies combined with moral restraints, such as limitations on marriages amongst the poor, would naturally curtail population growth.

Another popular suggestion was that paupers should be encouraged (or forced) to migrant to colonies, to release tax-payers from the burden of relief. Edward Wakefield (1796–1862), a major player in the British colonisation of New Zealand and Canada, argued that the new ‘misery of the bulk of the people’ could be ameliorated through ‘systematic colonization’.[xxix]What Wakefield meant is that forced emigration and settler colonialism might solve the problem of the growing pauperisation in England.[xxx] Of course this implied the seizure and enclosure of overseas land, and the displacement and pauperisation of indigenous populations.

In contrast, one-man social-policy think tank Jeremy Bentham (1748 -1882) argued that deporting paupers to the colonies was an expensive and uncertain enterprise. The American War of Independence from 1775 to 1783 had stalled transportation of British convicts to North American colonies, which had created a prison population crisis: prison hulks (prison ships) were periodically overflowing with people sentenced to transportation. Bentham advocated instead for internal colonisation, by which he meant the building of a vast carceral welfare state within England in which paupers could be ‘farmed’ for profit.[xxxi]

Bentham’s extensive proposals, the first detailed plans for a fully comprehensive system of state welfare in Britain, was a panoptical stigma machine.


Augustus Pugin ‘The Modern Work House’ referencing Bentham’s Panoptical Charity Company, and Chadwick’s subsequent Poor Law

 The enclosure of the poor

In Outline of a Work Entitled Pauper Management Improved, first published in serial form in the Annuals of Agriculture in 1798, Jeremy Bentham outlined ‘the most radical and comprehensive revision of the poor law ever proposed’.[xxxii] An extraordinary and terrifying work of utilitarian speculative fiction, Bentham’s scheme for farming paupers involved transforming what he called ‘that part of the national live stock which has no feathers to it and walks with two legs’ into a profitable captive labour force.[xxxiii]

Bentham’s proposals for the management of paupers called for mass privatisation of welfare, including the abolishment of all existing practices and institutions of poor relief, the ending of all outdoor relief, especially cash payments and wage supplements (as in the Speenhamland system),[xxxiv] the rescinding of all existing poor laws and the closure of all existing prisons, bridle houses, asylums, hospitals, workhouses and orphanages. In the place of this uneven patchwork of welfare institutions and provisions, Bentham proposed the setting up of a National Charity Company:

The management of the concerns of the poor throughout South Britain to be vested in one authority, and the expense to be charged upon one fund. This Authority, that of a Joint-Stock Company under some such name as that of the National Charity Company.[xxxv]

Bentham argued that his scheme would rid the government once and for all of ‘the whole body of the burdensome poor’: the disabled, the elderly, widows, orphans, felons, vagabonds, beggars, any and all who might be a drain on the public purse.[xxxvi]

His charity was to be state subsided (a public-private partnership), funded through the existing systems of poor relief (local taxation), but this tax-booty would now be transferred directly to Bentham’s company, which would have ‘responsibility for the entire management and distribution of relief, having at its disposal the entire sum available for relief, and functioning solely through the medium of industry-houses’.[xxxvii] This income would be supplemented by funds derived from private share-holders in the company – Bentham particularly hoped to encourage small-scale investments from middle-class shareholders.[xxxviii]

The setting up of this company would involve the building of an ‘unprecedented multitude of establishments’ to be known as ‘industry-houses’.[xxxix] These industry houses were modelled on Bentham’s famous panoptical prison plans, which he had initially designed (in response to a newspaper competition to design a new prison) to incarcerate three thousand people in a single building. In Pauper Management, Bentham scaled up these plans, proposing the building of 500 industry-houses, which together would form a massiveprison-like estate within England, initially housing five hundred thousand people and rising to one million within twenty-one years. Bentham estimated that the resident population in England and Wales was nine million, so his plan was to forcibly incarcerate one in nine people, targeting those who were reliant (or were at risk thereof) on poor relief; one million people interned to undertake forced labour.

The National Charity Company was to be granted legal powers to compulsorily enclose land, and the industry houses would be spread across the entirety of southern England, their location determined by mathematical division of land to produce ‘an exact equality of distribution’, the ‘Average distance accordingly between house and house 10 2/3 miles’.[xl] Every ten miles then, a panoptical workhouse with an accompanying farm (or what he sometimes and significantly refers to as a plantation), in which to segregate, incarcerate, breed and farm England’s paupers. While the clientele of Bentham’s original panoptical prisons (if they had been built) would have been convicted criminals supplied by the courts, these mixed welfare institutions would receive a vast and diverse clientele rounded up by the company itself.

For this purpose, Bentham stated that his company would be granted unlimited legal powers for ‘apprehending all persons, able-bodied or otherwise, having neither visible or assignable property, nor honest and sufficient means of livelihood, and detaining and employing them’.[xli]  Indeed, Bentham’s new privatised welfare state involved the creation of a private police force – one of the first proposals for a national police force. It is significant in this regard that Bentham argued that his scheme would remove the fiscal burden of paupers from hard-working taxpayers and contain the insurrectionary threat to property (and the propertied classes) posed by the indigent poor. State welfare was imagined from the outset as a system for policing the poor.

Bentham’s proposals were not without precedent, he drew on existing practices of identification and surveillance, such as the registration and badging of the poor. He also drew on existing workhouse experiments in England, notably The Relief of the Poor Act 1782 (Gilbert’s Act) which allowed neighbouring parishes to join together to develop regional workhouses. Bentham’s friend, the philanthropist Jonas Hanway was experimenting with similar systems of carceral work discipline in his Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes (opened in 1758).[xlii] However, the proposed National Charity Company was on a totally different scale, the enserfment of the entirety of England’s poor in a system which would combine the panoptical prison-factory with the colonial plantation system to form what Bentham termed ‘a domestic colony’.[xliii]

Colonize at home!

Bentham’s entire scheme was dedicated to the proposition, ‘Colonize at home!’, and he imagined it as a pauper empire.[xliv] He argued that his industry houses and plantations would provide all the advantages of colonisation without the risks which came with the management of foreign colonies.[xlv]Further, his charitable company was to run on the mercantilist principles of the East India Company, and managed, like the East India Company, by a Board of Directors elected by the share-holders.[xlvi]

Indeed, Bentham argued that ‘the government of such a concern as that of the proposed National Charity Company would be like child’s play to a Director of the East India Company’, writing that in India ‘you see twenty or thirty millions under the management, and much more absolute government of one Board, and those spread over a surface of country several times as large as South Britain’.[xlvii] Bentham himself was to be director of this charitable company, a role he described as ‘Sub-Regulus of the Poor’.[xlviii]

It is notable that Bentham proposed introducing a system of what he termed ‘identity washing’ (using chemical dyes to mark the faces of inmates) as a surveillance technology for managing the pauper labour force in his proposed domestic colony of industry houses.[xlix] (see Introduction)

A plantation system

Bentham’s plans drew extensively on the new tools of accountancy and labour management (forms of punishment and discipline) innovated in colonial plantations in India, the West Indies and North America.[l] Bentham and his brother Samuel had previously spent time (1786-7) experimenting with new systems of labour discipline on a Russian colonial estate – where Samuel managed a serf labour force.[li] Indeed, it was on this Russian colony that Bentham had first devised his famous panoptical prison design. Bentham wanted to refine these management techniques   England’s waste populations into work machines. As he wrote:

‘Not one in a hundred is absolutely incapable of all employment. Not the motion of a finger—not a step—not a wink—not a whisper—but might be turned to account in the way of profit in a system of such magnitude.’

This marked and captive population would labour for their keep on a debt-bondage model. Breeding was to be encouraged by the company, and children would be held as collateral and security – with child labour used to pay off any inherited debts owed to the company. He imagined paupers (and crucially their offspring) as an untapped treasure trove whose capture and exploitation would yield dividends for investors in his scheme, calculating that within a short number of years his company would become profitmaking.

Bentham’s lengthy proposals are best understood as both a policy document and a business proposal. He described his colonial style welfare scheme as ‘my Utopia’.[liii]Bentham’s utopia was never realised in his lifetime. He blamed the government and the king for not adopting his plans, as he lamented: ‘But for George the Third, all the paupers in the country would, long ago, have been under my management’.[liv]However, his proposals deeply influenced the draconian The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (also known as the New Poor Law) passed into law the year of Bentham’s death. The 1834 Poor Laws were composed by Bentham’s devoted former secretary and acolyte Edwin Chadwick.

Indeed, Bentham’s vision of houses of industry spread across the land was effectively a blue print for the 1834 Act, which legislated for the abolishment of all outdoor relief and the building of pauper workhouses across England. This Act was, as E.P Thompson describes it, ‘the most sustained attempt to impose an ideological dogma, in defiance of the evidence of human need, in English history’.[lv]

Bentham’s panoptical workfare scheme has continued to cast a long shadow over welfare policy making in Britain (and further afield). Indeed, Bentham’s legacy weighs heavily on the ongoing austerity enclosures of the twentieth-century welfare commons, and the rise of what Virginia Eubanks has described as ‘digital poor houses’, namely the development of high-tech tools to mark out, survey, profile, police and govern the poor.[lvi]

 ‘Flogged, fettered and tortured in the most exquisite refinement of cruelty’

As Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi and other many influential political economists have highlighted, the stigmatised figure of the pauper, and the constellation of stigma practices innovated to mark out and govern populations pauperised by capitalism ‘stands at the centre of a political and epistemic complex’ from which the British state emerged.[lvii] However, it is no coincidence that the stigmatising laws and terrorising punishments employed in England from the fifteenth-century to transform (and sort) agricultural peasants into waged labours and paupers bear resemblances to the English slave codes devised in colonial plantation economies in the Caribbean and North America; laws which sought to transform chattel slaves and their descendants into ‘Negros’ – ‘a marginally human group … fit only for slavery’.[lviii]

Indeed, the proposals of people like Wakefield for ‘systematic colonisation’, and the schemes of people like Bentham’s for an internal colony of pauper industry houses and plantations within England, underscores the extent to which ‘the enclosure movement in England [was] continuous with colonial dispossession and possession in the “New World”’.[lix]

It is imperative to consider the operations of this stigma politics, not least as it highlights the ways in which racial capitalism operates through the production of race-class distinctions—classificatory distinctions which differentially function to enclose and exploit those dispossessed by the advocates and beneficiaries of colonial capitalism.

In Slavery and Capitalism, Eric Williams notes that by ‘1750 there was hardly a trading or a manufacturing town in England which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade. The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution.’[lx] The eighteenth-century history of Lancaster, my home town, is instructive in this regard.


                  Low Mill, Caton (now apartments)  Thomas Hodgson, Slave Trader  

The first cotton mills in the Lancaster district were established in a village called Caton in 1783 by a man called Thomas Hodgson (1738–1817). Thomas Hodgson and his brother John worked as slave traders for over 30 years. Between 1763 and 1791 they were involved in the capture and selling of at an estimated 14,000 people. Thomas began his slaving career working for the Lancaster-born slaver Miles Barber; indeed, records suggest that the Hodgson brothers took over the running of ‘Factory Island’ from Barber in 1793 – a decade after they opened their first cotton mill (see Introduction on Barber). For a period, then, these Lancashire brothers owned and managed these two factory complexes simultaneously.

The Hodgson cotton mills in Caton specialised in the exploitation of pauper child labourers, transporting children from urban centres across England to work in their mills – primarily from Liverpool but also from London.[lxi] As Karl Marx details, alongside colonial planation slavery, it is child factory labour which characterised ‘the infancy of Modern Industry’.[lxii]

Marx quotes from Fredrick Eden’s The State of the Poor (1797) who describes how the ‘small and nimble fingers of little children’ were procured by men like the Hodgson’s from parish workhouses and orphanages to be ‘flogged, fettered and tortured in the most exquisite refinement of cruelty’ to work ‘the newly-invented machinery’ of Lancashire’s cotton mills.[lxiii]

Child plantation slaves, North Carolina, circa 1850   Child cotton mill worker, circa 1910

The cotton that connects, the cloth that binds’

Cotton is one of the threads which connects and binds together the lives of those who ‘built the wealth of the European machine’ over centuries.[lxx]  Manufactured woollen and cotton goods were sometimes used by slave traders to purchase people on the West African coast. The raw cotton, picked by the enslaved in plantations, was weighed and baled, before being shipped to the same quaysides from which slave ships had departed; ‘Negro Cloth’ – a coarse material sometimes made by grinding up the rags of factory workers– was sent back across the Atlantic as clothing for plantation slaves:an industry of recycling waste cloth which was known as the shoddy trade.[lxxi]

In an art work called Cotton.com (2002), installed inside a former cotton mill in Manchester,the artist Lubaina Himid brings the ghosts of mill-workers and plantation workers into dialogue through the medium of cotton, paint and words.As Himid describes this project in an interview with the scholar, Professor Alan Rice:

[I] imagined the cotton workers in these buildings taking the cotton off the barges that had come up the ship canal and finding little bits of fabric, perhaps finding a bit of cloth, or a bit of hair, some kind of thing that had accidently found its way from the cotton picker’s body or clothes or field … into these bales and managed to find its way back across the Atlantic, up the Manchester Ship Canal, there you get this whole bale of cotton off and you have to card it and thin it …. imagine all the thoughts you might have had.[lxxii]


We cannot understand the history of industrial capitalism separately from the history of slavery and colonialism.

We cannot separate Lancashire’s cotton mills from the Lancashire-owned slave factories on the African coast, and the Lancashire-owned cotton plantations – they form part of the same archipelago of enclosure and exploitation.

As the economic, judicial, political, architectural and welfare histories of cities like Lancaster attest, the unpaid labour of the enslaved was the source of surplus value which structured the ‘free’ but exploited waged labour of the English working class. That is, the ability of the ‘freeborn’ English man to sell ‘his own skin’ was grounded in the radical unfreedom of others.

In 1862, a ‘cotton famine’, precipitated by the American Civil War, saw the threads of connection between enslaved cotton pickers in the American South and Lancashire mill workers become visible in people’s everyday lives in Industrial England, with many mill workers, unions and co-operative organisations expressing their solidarity with the enslaved through an embargo on Southern picked cotton, and waves of strike action.[lxxiii]

These acts of transatlantic solidarity testify to the fact that we cannot disentangle class struggles in England – the machine breakers, the levellers and strikers of Britain’s multi-ethnic working class – from the freedom struggles of those enslaved in factories, ships and plantations.

As Marx reflected on the tumultuous events of the Lancashire cotton famine,‘Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded’.[lxxiv]

Plantation slaves, enserfed agricultural workers, indentured ‘coolie’ workers, child labourers, waged factory workers and workhouse paupers are ‘concretely intertwined and ideologically symbiotic elements of a larger unified though internally diversified structure of exploitation’.[lxxv] Indeed, chattel slavery and plantation labour were as instrumental in the formation and structuring of English class society as the enclosure of common land and the exploitations attendant with the growth of Industrial capitalism in factories and mills.

We cannot disentangle the history of the development of the English welfare state and its ‘charitable institutions’ of orphanages and workhouses from the history of slavery and colonial capitalism.[lxxvi]As Robbie Shilliam writes,

‘the working class was constitutionalized though empire and its aftermaths; and in this respect, class is race’, by which he means that ‘there is no politics of class which is not already racialised’.[lxxvii]


[i]Polanyi,The Great Transformation, 105.

[ii]Edward Palmer Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class(New York: Vintage, 1963).

[iii]Robinson, Black Marxism, 31.

[iv]Robert Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman(Oxford: Clarendon, 1992).

[v]Jim Crace, Harvest (London, Picador, 2013).

[vi]Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 57.

[vii]Linebaugh, 57.

[viii]Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class.

[ix]Thompson, 217.

[x]  Edward Palmer Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class(New York: Vintage, 1963), 219.

[xi]  Thompson, 217.

[xii]Thompson, 219.

[xiii]Thompson, 220.

[xiv]Paul Spicker, Stigma and Social Welfare(Creative Commons, 2011), 11, http://openair.rgu.ac.uk.

[xv]Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time(Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), 37.

[xvi]Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 63.

[xvii]Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 523.

[xviii]Marx, 523.

[xix]Marx, 523.

[xx]Marx, 507.

[xxi]Anon,Oxford English Dictionary (Online).

[xxii]William Cobbett, Cobbett’s Political Register, vol. 30 (London: Cox and Baylis, 1816), 691.

[xxiii]Vivienne Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 189.

[xxiv]Robbie Shilliam, Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit(Newcastle UK: Agenda Publishing, 2018), 13.

[xxv]Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 346.

Mayhew’s ethnographic study of London’s poor grew out of a journalistic assignment to investigate a severe outbreak of cholera in Bermondsey in 1849.  London was so geographically segregated by extremes of wealth and poverty in this period, that Mayhew described himself as a ‘traveller in the undiscovered country of the poor’ who was bringing back stories about people ‘of whom the public has less knowledge than of the ‘most distant tribes of the earth’. Mayhew, 3.

[xxvi]Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England, 289.

[xxvii]Polanyi,The Great Transformation, 105.

[xxviii]Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1973), 526, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/.

[xxix]Edward Wakefield, England and America: A Comparison of the Social and Political State of Both Nations, vol. 1 (London: Richard Bentley, 1883), 47.

[xxx]Wakefield, 1:47.

[xxxi]In Bentham we have an example of what today we might call a neoliberal state interventionist. A policy guru, government advisor and enclosure propagandist who argued for massive state intervention in order to set the market free.

[xxxii]Charles Bahmueller, The National Charity Company: Jeremy Bentham’s Silent Revolution.(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 104.See also Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Bentham’s Utopia: The National Charity Company,” Journal of British Studies10, no. 1 (1970): 80–125.

Bentham’s writings on the poor laws have been collected and edited in a number of different places, the most comprehensive collections are Jeremy Bentham, “Tracts on Poor Laws and Pauper Management,” in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 8, ed. John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1841); Jeremy Bentham, The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham: Writings on the Poor Laws, Vol. 1, ed. Michael Quinn (Oxford University Press, 2001).

[xxxiii]Bentham, “Tracts on Poor Laws and Pauper Management,” 367.

[xxxiv]The Speenhamland system was a system for topping up wages to subsistence levels – pegged to the price of bread. It was developed in 1795 to alleviate the distress caused by high grain prices. The introduction of this system to supplement wages was in part an attempt to contain uprisings and resistancein what were famine conditions, an insurance measure against a revolutionary threat during a period which saw the French Revolution and the American Revolution. See Polanyi, The Great Transformation.

Speenhamland was adopted in modified forms across many counties in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It was highly controversial as it allowed employers to keep wages artificially deflated. It was at the time, and remains today, at the centre of political and economic debates about poverty, welfare and taxation – as it effectively is a measure through which taxpayers subsidise employers for below subsistence wages. This system continues in modified forms in benefit systems such as tax credits (now universal credit) in the UK today.

[xxxv]Jeremy Bentham, “Tracts on Poor Laws and Pauper Management,” in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 8, ed. John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1841), 369.

[xxxvi]Bentham, 369.

[xxxvii]Himmelfarb, “Bentham’s Utopia: The National Charity Company,” 88.

[xxxviii]Reminiscent of the ways in which the British Prime-Minister, Margaret Thatcher, sought to enrol the middle-classes to neoliberal projects of privatisation through the selling of shares in formally public goods and assets some one hundred and fifty years later.

[xxxix]Bentham, “Tracts on Poor Laws and Pauper Management,” 392.

[xl]Bentham, 374.

[xli]Bentham, 370. Bentham’s incarcerated pauper labourers would have had little or no recourse to the law, and would have be stripped of any residual sense of themselves as subjects with rights (citizens). Indeed, the company’s coercive powers to apprehend and detain people would be unlimited. The pauper would be defined ‘by his own action in applying for relief’ and it was the company alone who would determine whether he had any property, honest means of livelihood, or prospect of honest education, and therefore whether he should be confined to an industry-house.’ Himmelfarb, “Bentham’s Utopia: The National Charity Company,” 89.

[xlii]On the relationship between Bentham and Hanway and their panoptical industry houses see Alessandro Stanziani, “The Traveling Panopticon: Labor Institutions and Labor Practices in Russia and Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Comparative Studies in Society and History51, no. 4 (2009): 53.

[xliii]Bentham in Bahmueller, The National Charity Company: Jeremy Bentham’s Silent Revolution., 122.

[xliv]Himmelfarb, “Bentham’s Utopia: The National Charity Company,” 124.

[xlv]Himmelfarb, 120.

[xlvi]See Himmelfarb, 83.

[xlvii]Bentham in Himmelfarb, 83–84.


[xlix]In his ‘View of the Hard Labour Bill’, Bentham had proposed that chemical washes be applied to the face of every prisoner spelling out the name and sentence of those incarcerated. See Jeremy Bentham, View of the Hard Labour Bill: Draft of a Bill, to Punish by Imprisonment and Hard-Labour, Certain Offenders; and to Establish Proper Places for Their Reception(London: T Payne and Son, 1778).

Bentham returns to the theme of identity washing in his plans for his national charity company, proposing also the establishment of a universal register of names (a national census). He also, in scribbled footnotes in one version of his pauper manuscripts, suggests that a system of permanently tattooing people would make sense as an identification system. Caplan argues that he was unwilling to publish this tattooing proposal because his previous ideas about identity-washing criminals and tattooing everybody at birth had caused outrage.

On Bentham’s proposals for a ‘universal tattoo’ and how this informed modern systems of identification such as passports, identity-cards, and digital forms of identification see: Jane Caplan and John Torpey, eds., Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2001), 65. Sophie Coulombeau, Jeremy Bentham’s Universal Tattoo, New Generation Thinkers, 2014, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p020v6gb.

[l]For a detailed account of the innovation of management and accountancy techniques on American cotton plantations, which were exported back into Europe, see Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

[li]Samuel Bentham was a naval engineer and entrepreneur who was employed by Prince Grigori Potemkin to manage the estate of Krichev in the Mogilev province of White Russia (modern-day Belarus), which had been partitioned from Poland in 1772 under a period of Russian Imperial expansion under Catherine the Great. In return for managing this colonial estate, Samuel Bentham was granted a house, servants and a large bonded serf labour force (unfree labour). For Samuel, assuming the position of overseer of this colony meant assuming a role akin to an oligarch. Letters from this period reveal that he was, initially at least, struggling to manage an unruly multi-ethnic immigrant workforce, composed of bonded Russian serfs, local peasants, Polish Jews, and British workers – the later group had been enticed to migrate from England by the Bentham family to work as foreman, crafts people and household servants. Samuel negotiated a business arrangement with the Prince which made him a major shareholder in the industrial works on the estate. He set about industrializing the colony, introducing steam powered engines, tools and machines imported from England. Alongside these technological innovations, he developed new managerial systems of workplace supervision and discipline. For example, Samuel designed a new circular factory building in which workers (serfs) could be supervised by means of an inspector’s lodge at the centre of the building, the lodge was to be punctured by peepholes, which meant the workers wouldn’t know when and if they were being watched. It was from these unrealised architectural plans that Jeremy Bentham designed his famous panoptical prison design, which in turn formed the basis for his pauper industry houses scheme. What I want to underscore here is that it is significant that the idea of the panopticon, which as many theorists, from Foucault onwards have argued, had a significant role in the emergence of modern ‘surveillance societies, originated in the context of the management of unfree labour on a Russian colony. Additionally, the history of European serfdom & the ‘second serfdom’ in Eastern Europe from the fifteenth century is too often occluded from our understanding of the history of modernity, capital, capitalism, colonialism and the modern state.

For more on the Bentham brothers time in Russia see Ian Christie, “Samuel Bentham and the Western Colony at Krichev,” The Slavonic and East European Review48, no. 111 (1970): 232–47; Simon Werrett, “Potemkin and the Panopticon: Samuel Bentham and the Architecture of Absolutism in Eighteenth Century Russia,” Journal of Bentham Studies2 (1999): 1–25; Stanziani, “The Traveling Panopticon: Labor Institutions and Labor Practices in Russia and Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.”Philip Steadman, “Samuel Bentham’s Panopticon,” Journal of Bentham Studies, January 1, 2012.On serfdom as a class and gendered relation, and anti-feudal struggles against enserfment see Federici, Caliban and The Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation.On the second serfdom see Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein, Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century: With a New Prologue (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2011).

[lii]Bentham, “Tracts on Poor Laws and Pauper Management,” 382.

[liii]Himmelfarb, “Bentham’s Utopia: The National Charity Company.”

[liv]Himmelfarb, 123.

[lv]Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 267.

[lvi]Virginia Eubank, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor(London: Picador, 2019).

[lvii]Mitchell Dean, The Constitution of Poverty: Toward a Genealogy of Liberal Governance, Repr, Routledge Revivals (London: Routledge, 2012), 3.

[lviii]Robinson,Black Marxism, 81.

[lix]Gurminder K Bhambra and John Holmwood, “Colonialism, Postcolonialism and the Liberal Welfare State,” New Political Economy23, no. 5 (2018): 578.

[lx]Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, 52.

[lxi]see Elder, The Slave Trade and the Economic Development of 18th Century Lancaster.

[lxii]Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 573.

[lxiii]In Marx, 537–38.

[lxiv]The colonies of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice on the Caribbean coast of South America became British Guiana in 1831. After independence in 1966, this territory became the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.

[lxvi]George Pinckard, Notes on the West Indies: Written During the Expedition Under the Command of the Late General Sir Ralph Abercromby, vol. 3 (London: Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1806), 73.

[lxvii]Pinckard, 3:74.

[lxviii]Pinckard, 3:67.

[lxix]Pinckard, 3:66.

[lxx]Katy Kellaway, “Lubaina Himid: The Turner Prize Nominee Making Black Lives Visible,”The Guardian, September 24, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/sep/24/lubaina-himid-turner-prize-2017-interview.

[lxxi]On the shoddy trade see http://www.bbc.co.uk/bradford/content/articles/2007/02/26/slavery_west_yorkshire_feature.shtml

[lxxii]Alan Rice, “The Cotton That Connects, the Cloth That Binds,” Atlantic Studies4, no. 2 (2007): 292.Rice is an important Lancashire based historian of the Black Atlantic who works collaboratively with Lubaina Himid. He was central to a 2005 Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project in Lancaster which saw the first quayside monument to victims of the slave trade in Britain. Rice also regularly undertakes history walks in Lancaster which I have been fortunate enough to participate in and have learnt much from.

[lxxiii]See Rice, “The Cotton That Connects, the Cloth That Binds.”For the history of the cotton famine see also Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History.

[lxxiv]Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 195.

[lxxv]Walter Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question,” Journal of the Early Republic24, no. 2 (2004): 306.

[lxxvi]In Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit (2018), Robbie Shilliam details how the British welfare state emerged out of distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor, and how these distinctions which were grounded in and produced through stigmatising analogies to the black slave.

[lxxvii]Shilliam, Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit, 178, 180.


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