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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 12: Slavery •


An engraving of jubilant emancipated slaves from the British Empire, 1834

Commemoration of slave emancipation in the British Empire, 1834

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr. .

Abolishing the slave trade

James Walvin

The bi-centenary of the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807 seems another opportunity to indulge in communal good feeling: commemorating a dramatic piece of legislation that put an end to an ethical and religious outrage and which ushered in a new way of dealing with the world at large. Before 1807, the British dominated the trade in shipping Africans to the plantations of the Americas. But after 1807, the Royal Navy (joined by the Americans a year later) became a fierce global opponent of slave trading. The most successful slave poacher of the eighteenth century (British ships carried more than three million Africans in that century) became the self-appointed game-keeper of the nineteenth century. It was a stunning legislative and strategic volte face. Yet the more we scrutinize 1807, the more troublesome abolition appears. What seems, at first glance, straightforward rapidly blurs into a complex historical and moral conundrum.

Before abolition however, there was that highly racialized form of slavery devised by Europeans for the conquest and development of key regions of the Americas. Satisfying the voracious appetite of American plantations required the enslavement and oceanic transportation of millions of Africans. Europeans turned to enslaved labour in the Americas (at the time they had abandoned it in Europe) not for any ideological or philosophical reason. The demand for labour was generated by the emergence of labour-intensive plantations producing tropical staples for western consumption. But why Africa? And why slaves? (The word 'slave' is rapidly losing favour among historians; 'enslaved' is becoming the word of choice, even though it creates enormous complexities of expression.) Early European maritime adventurers and traders to West Africa went not in search of slaves, but for well-known African commodities (especially gold) traditionally acquired via overland trade routes. But in the process, they encountered forms of African slavery and slave trading. They bought Africans, shipped them back to Portugal and Spain, later to the Atlantic islands, where they were slotted into a number of roles as enslaved roles. By the mid-fifteenth century about eight hundred Africans a year reached Portugal. Europeans still remained much more interested in gold and spices, but all this changed with the rise of sugar plantations.

Cane sugar was transplanted from plantations in the Mediterranean to the Atlantic islands, and later onto the islands off the African coast—Sao Thome and Principe. European markets could not get enough sugar, mainly to mix with their new drinks, tea and coffee (both of them bitter). The more sugar the plantations produced, the more African labourers they required. If the trade in Africans encountered difficulties on one stretch of the African coast European traders simply took the ships elsewhere on Africa's vast coastline. From haphazard origins, there developed that creeping zone of coastal slave trading which was to characterize the slave trade for centuries. But it was utterly transformed by events on the far side of the Atlantic. There, early efforts to cultivate sugar using indigenous labour, failed in the teeth of the universal refusal of Indians to bend to the imported disciplines of plantation labour (in addition to the devastation caused by imported disease and sickness). With never enough European settlers, and faced by a disappearing or dying indigenous labour force, pioneering settlers fell back on the labour system already tried in Spain, Portugal, and the Atlantic islands-African slave labour. By 1600, the booming Brazilian sugar industry had proved that sugar plantations, using African slaves, could generate prosperity on a remarkable scale-although not for the Africans. The British were late-comers, but (along with the French) joined in with growing enthusiasm after the acquisition of their Caribbean islands from the 1620s onwards.

This new trading system intimately linked the peoples and economies of three continents. European traders arrived on the African coast in vessels packed with European (and later Asian) goods to be exchanged for Africans; colonial plantations devoured African slaves by the boat load; and homebound ships were filled with slave-grown produce to slate the insatiable European appetite for tropical staples. It was a highly successful agricultural-industrial system (sugar 'factories' were the heart of the sugar plantations) which was quickly copied in other crops and regions; tobacco in the Chesapeake, rice in Carolina, coffee at higher altitudes, and, last of all, cotton in the south of the United States in the nineteenth century. The cultural and economic consequences were vast. And everywhere the whole system hinged on the supply of Africans.

The numbers of Africans involved are staggering. We have records for some 35,000 slave voyages—there may have been 40,000 in total before the Atlantic trade was effectively ended in the 1860s. About twelve million Africans were loaded onto the slave ships, the more than ten million survivors scattered across the Americas, largely in Brazil and the Caribbean (North America took less than ten per cent of the total). Revealingly, about seventy per cent of all Africans were destined, initially at least, for the sugar colonies. Though the figures can confuse, and can never stand as the complete story, they are vital to an accurate appreciation of the importance of the enslavement of Africans. For example, before the 1820s about two and a half million Europeans had crossed the Atlantic to settle in the Americas. But in the same period almost eight and a half million Africans had been transported from Africa on the slave ships. In the critical tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Americas, the key pioneer of conquest and settlement was the African, and there were swathes of the Americas which were dominated not by Europeans and their transplanted cultures, but by Africans.

This Atlantic trade in Africans was an issue in the remarkable political and strategic struggles between European maritime powers. How best to regulate (and tax) the trade, how best to promote it (monopoly or open trade?) to the best colonial and metropolitan advantage, and how to dominate it and exclude rivals and interlopers? All these and more were major themes in European economic, diplomatic, and strategic thinking between the early-sixteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. The trade in Africans became in effect a lubricant of trade and commerce throughout the vast littoral of the settled and trading Atlantic. Indeed, it reached even further than that, sucking in commodities and trade from distant posts and settlements in Asia (Indian textiles, cowry shells from the Maldives) and penetrating deep into American interiors, far beyond the sight and the ken of Europeans. The Atlantic slave system had vast reach and global consequences.

All of Europe's major maritime powers became slave traders, but the trade was dominated by those with slave colonies in the Americas, in turn by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English (British), and French—all helped of course by their colonial settlers in the Americas, notably the Brazilians and the North Americans. Slave ships acquired Africans from a vast coastal stretch, from Senegambia south to Angola and round the Cape to Madagascar. But by the late-eighteenth century, the apogee of the trade, the bulk of Africans were drawn from a narrower region of coastal West Central Africa. Of course the regions of original enslavement—where Africans were initially enslaved—often went deep into Africa, entangling African societies far from the view and knowledge of the traders on the coast. Outside slave traders perched nervously on the coast, a few in castles or trading settlements, but most operating from on board their ships, dealing with African traders who brought captives in small batches to be exchanged for the variety of goods waiting in the holds. This transfer of Africans onto the slave ships could not have thrived as it did without the arrival of Africans on the coast via other African traders and merchants, themselves linked to distant, interior trades in enslaved people. The spur was the securing of captives for onward movement to the slave ships in the Atlantic. For all its violence and uncertainty and despite the overarching sense of fear, it became a mature and sophisticated trading system.

The peak years of the Atlantic trade were 1690-1807 when something like six million Africans were transported to the Americas, almost half of them in British or British North American ships. Of those, between one fifth and a quarter pitched their way across the Atlantic in ships from Liverpool. Here lies a critical point in the whole story, and one with a major resonance for 2007. The Atlantic slave trade was not merely an exotic off-shoot of mainstream British history, but, like slavery itself, it was part of the warp and the weft of the British historical experience. Yet its importance has been blurred by distance and by geography: viewed from Britain it is 'over there', out of sight and out of mind. Moreover the intimacy of slavery to British life has often been deflected, oddly enough, by abolition itself. There has been a tendency to think of Britain's involvement with slavery largely in its death throes—at abolition in 1807 or emancipation in 1833–38 (when Parliament compensated slave owners with a massive 20 million)—rather than viewing slavery as a main theme of eighteenth-century British history. The discussion about British morality and sensibility in 1807 has served to obscure what went before. And what went before was not only important to Britain, but it was brutal on a scale which, even now, is scarcely credible.

As the trade grew, and as its economic and social ramifications multiplied, voices of objection were few and were largely ignored; silenced or marginalized by the relentless march of a profitable trade. Even Parliament (now famed for its Abolition Act of 1807) had, for a century and a half, been more concerned with legislation to assist the slave trade, to maintain the tranquillity of the slave colonies, and to encourage the growing prosperity of the slave-based economy. Voices of religious or ethical outrage were simply drowned out by the tumult of profitable trade.

From the first, however, the armies of the enslaved railed against their bondage and, time and again, sought to end or mitigate it. From the moment of enslavement, through the Atlantic crossing, to the daily grind of slavery on the plantations, slavery's victims made their objections felt. (We know for example that about ten per cent of all the slave ships suffered some form of revolt.) Slave traders were permanently fearful and on their guard against insurrection. Planters too lived out their lives under the shadow of slave resistance and threat. Indeed, the violence of everyday plantation life only makes sense when weighed against the ubiquity and depths of slave resentment. Yet slavery survived, for centuries, and seemed immune to external criticism.

Then, within a relatively short period, this sprawling and unchallenged slave empire (unchallenged, that is, save for the internal threats from the enslaved) began to come apart. The first major blow was the abolition of the slave trade.

There were deep-seated intellectual anti-slavery criticisms in French and Scottish Enlightenment writing. But British abolition had more immediate origins. First of all were the English slave cases; that string of court cases which focussed on the legality of slavery in England itself. From the 1760s onwards this legal challenge had, in Granville Sharp, a resolute campaigner determined to prove the illegality of slavery in England, and to prevent the removal of Africans back to the slave colonies against their will. The culmination of his campaign was Lord Mansfield's decision in the Somerset case of 1772 which, though taking a narrow legal focus (that blacks could not legally be removed from England) had the effect of undermining slavery in England. Sharpe, personal friend to distressed Africans, and tireless campaigner on their behalf, was the first real English hero of abolition.

The major turning point however was the break-away of the American colonies in 1776–1783. The ideology of that revolution established a universal vernacular of equality which could not simply be limited to white people (its impact on slavery in North America took a different trajectory, however). That war also left the British with thousands of 'loyalist' ex-slaves on their hands; people who had accepted the British offer of freedom in return for joining the (losing) British side. This group was scattered to a cold fate in Nova Scotia or to penury on the streets of London, the latter attracting charitable efforts to relieve them in 1787, which, eventually, prompted a government-backed scheme to encourage black migration to Sierra Leone. From the confusion of that scheme there emerged the one black spokesman who brought an African voice to the gathering arguments about abolition—Olaudah Equiano.

Africans and their descendants made their own impact on abolition, but it was, until the 1780s, at a distance, and in a form which has often been overlooked by historians. The persistent rumble of enslaved misery and discontent lay behind the violently-draconian control exercised by slave trader and planters. At times, what happened to the enslaved was barely believable, and in the 1780s that evidence began to circulate throughout Britain. To put it simply, the propaganda campaign unleashed by early abolitionists was designed to shock the British people—who responded with an extraordinary upsurge of popular opposition to slavery after 1787.

The whole movement was driven forward by the Abolition Committee, founded in 1787 by a group dominated by Quakers with a small number of Anglicans. They wanted to end slavery, but they also appreciated the need for a practical, politically realizable goal; the slave trade was the obvious target. Quakers were vital, and their importance was out of all proportion to their numbers. They had an efficient national organization which was put at the service of abolition (as were their important ties to North-American Quakers); they were literate, had willing publishers and writers, and offered a bed for travelling speakers. In effect abolition sprang into being with a ready-made national organization. Within weeks, tens of thousands of abolitionist tracts came spitting off the presses, and were distributed efficiently to all corners of Britain. They were promptly devoured by an increasingly-literate people, many of whom, in the newer urban areas, were nudged towards abolition by their own dissenting churches. In Thomas Clarkson, the indefatigable foot soldier of the movement, abolition had a brilliant researcher and lecturer, who toured the country endlessly, speaking to crowds wherever he went, and accumulating persuasive data to present to Parliament. There, Wilberforce accepted the role of political leader. (When abolition finally passed in 1807, MPs from all corners admitted that it would never have succeeded without Wilberforce.)

After 1787 abolition was instantly popular, and on a totally unexpected scale. Petitions rained in from across the country; tens of thousands of people, men and women, and from all social classes, added their names to the demand for abolition. Time and again, organizers were taken aback by the popularity of abolition sentiment. But they needed to win over Parliament (especially a resistant Lords). When various parliamentary committees began to hear evidence about the slave trade after 1788, the evidence, orchestrated by Thomas Clarkson, was stunning and appalling. It became apparent to more and more people, inside and outside Parliament, that the benefits spawned by the slave trade came at an outrageous price—suffering on a vast, unimaginable scale, by tens of thousands of Africans and their descendants. Few doubted, or argued, that the system remained profitable, and those most intimately involved (merchants, traders, and planters) remained vociferous in defence of the slave trade. They showed no signs of conceding defeat because of economic failure. Indeed, the slave trade was as buoyant as it had ever been in the very years when it came under fierce attack after 1787. In that decade alone, more than one thousand British ships were loaded with 300,000 Africans bound for the Americas. If anyone involved felt that the trade in African humanity was in decline, they kept their worries to themselves. There were, however, some important shifts within that trade which help explain its potential weaknesses.

A growing proportion of Africans were being trans-shipped through British islands (where the local enslaved populations were beginning to increase naturally) to the other European slave colonies, notably to the booming French islands. The French Revolution initially encouraged abolition, but the growing chaos in France threw the movement into confusion. Then, in 1791, the spectacular slave revolt in St. Domingue (Haiti), and, after 1793, the war with France effectively derailed abolition. Slave violence played into the hands of the slave lobby, confirming everything they had always claimed: tamper with slavery and disaster would follow. Pitt, an early supporter of abolition, now saw the chance to seize the lucrative French colony of St. Domingue, but the British invasion proved a military disaster and the British retreated, with massive casualties, driven out by disease and an army of ex-slaves. Abolition, understandably, languished.

It revived again, in the early years of the new century, encouraged by the emergence of a new administration led by abolitionist supporters (Fox and Grenville) and helped by Napoleon's efforts to reimpose slavery in the French islands. To attack the slave trade would now help undermine Napoleon's plans for the Caribbean, abolition could appear to be both moral and strategic. When Parliament passed the Act (1806) banning trading in slaves with foreign colonies it was intended to attack French interests. But it also it undermined the bulk of the British trade. The Act of 1807 outlawing the trade totally, the Act we commemorate this year, was simply the coup de grace to a process put in place the year before.

Celebrations in Parliament (only sixteen voted against abolition in 1807) focussed on Wilberforce. But is it plausible that so momentous a political shift could be the work of one man? Equally, is it credible that so massive a change could have happened without a major shift in underlying British self-interests? Here we confront the legacy of Eric Williams and his seminal book Capitalism and Slavery. Can this story be told without the defining elements of economic causation? What was the connection between economics and abolition in 1807? Historians continue to circle round the arguments—and around Williams's thesis. In the course of my own career, I've changed my own mind. I came to the subject convinced of Williams's argument that economics explains abolition. Today, the argument is much less persuasive (although, oddly, more widely accepted than ever).

For a start, the evidence does not add up so easily. The slave trade boomed in the very years when it came under attack. It was ended when Africans were in great demand. Equally, it is far from clear that profits from slavery underpinned Britain's shift into industrial growth. Yet this is far from denying the economic importance of the slave system to Britain before 1807. How could it have been otherwise? After all, the whole Atlantic system was devised for economic well-being and progress (except for the Africans and Africa).

The economic value of the slave trade was visible and unavoidable. There were massive ship-building and out-fitting industries which sustained the slave trade throughout. Most of the thousands of slave ships sailing to Africa were packed with cargo disgorged by a host of British industries: textiles from the west country, later from Lancashire; metal goods from Sheffield; fire-arms (shipped by the hundreds of thousands) from Birmingham. The slave plantations in the American colonies were equally dependent on imported goods (and people). Africans in the sugar fields wore imported clothing and hats, used imported hoes, axes, and other tools, the animals were harnessed in imported leather (and the slaves beaten by imported whips). Planters' homes were filled with goods from British industries, from the cutlery and crockery on the tables to the books on the shelves. Finally, of course, barrels and bales of slave-grown produce were packed into returning ships, to feed those other booming sectors of Britain's Atlantic economy—the processing, distribution, and retailing trades. Sugar to the refineries of Bristol and Liverpool, tobacco from the Chesapeake passing down the Clyde to the warehouses in Glasgow, all before reaching millions of consumers via that profusion of shops which Adam Smith and Napoleon commentated on.

The fruits of slave labour helped transform the fabric and landscape of British urban life. Look at Glasgow's tobacco mansions, the fine homes of merchants and traders in Bristol and Liverpool. Look too at the rural retreats of the most spectacularly successful returnees from the slave colonies: Harewood House in Yorkshire, Penryhn Castle near Bangor. Scratch the surface of mid-eighteenth century Britain, and slavery quickly oozes to the surface. It is thought, for example, that in the 1780s forty per cent of the income of people in Bristol was slave-based. And Liverpool was no different. There were other, less obvious, economic consequences. The development of a credit-system for example—vital for so protracted and far-flung a system as slavery (when voyages might take eighteen months, and where credit was required at all corners of the Atlantic trading system). It was a credit system that fed into the development of a new banking system in provincial Britain, and all in addition to the role of the City of London, whose bankers and insurers invested in, and were beneficiaries of, Atlantic slavery. Again, to state the matter simply, the continuing success of Atlantic trade and commerce was intimately linked to the success and expansion of the slave system. What is equally clear, is that those who made most from the Atlantic system were those engaged in slavery. For anyone who doubts the economic benefits of the system, visit the homes of merchants and planters in Natchez, New Orleans, or Mobile; the Great Houses in Jamaica, Barbados, and Brazil, or merchants' houses in Liverpool, Bristol, and Glasgow—all secured by enslaved African labourers in the Americas. But this same wealth-generating slave machine also created poverty and misery on an epic scale. The impoverished African-based populations of the Americas made possible the material well-being of the west, but secured little in return.

All this takes us back to the basic conundrum. Why should the British end the slave trade at the very point it was in the ascendancy? The results of 1807 were, of course, profound. After 1807, the British—followed by the Americans in 1808—became a crusading abolitionist power, using the Royal Navy and diplomacy to impose abolition on others. Even so, more than a million Africans were illicitly shipped across the Atlantic after 1807, mainly to Cuba and Brazil. Slavery itself survived, of course, in the British colonies until 1833-38, in the USA until the Civil War, in Brazil until 1888. And this was in addition to the destructive legacy of slave trading within Africa itself, and the continuing (indeed thriving) slave trades north and east from tropical Africa.

At a stroke in 1807 the British changed their trading and strategic policy. The Royal Navy, once the guardian of the Atlantic slave lanes, was now the scourge of slave traders. Parliament, once a legislature anxious to promote Britain's slaving interests, was now wedded to global abolition (although it was also keen to ship indentured Indian labour to fill labour vacuums round the colonial world). Henceforth, the British prided themselves on their abolitionist credentials.

Yet if slavery was wrong/immoral/unChristian in 1807, why not in 1707? What had changed was not slavery and the slave trade (both buoyant and booming in the years before 1807), but Britain itself. There had been a shifting of the tectonic plates underpinning British life, a shift which produced major changes in sensibility and attitudes. New forms of religious dissent, a more literate populace, the impact of democratic ideals, all and more laid the basis for popular abolitionism (itself made easier in an urbanizing, literate society). In 1807 it was widely accepted that opinion had flowed upwards, not downwards. In the words of the Edinburgh Review, 'the sense of the nation has pressed abolition upon our rulers'.

Today the real challenge is to integrate the story of Atlantic slavery into the broader story of abolition. While 2007 might offer the chance to think of abolition in the short run—to view that remarkable Act as a historical moment which reflects well on the British people at large—we also need to think in the long run. When we do, we face a much more problematic issue. The current debate about reparations for slavery (modelled on the Israel/Germany example, but sustained by the staggering 20million given to the planters in 1838) is often confused, and is largely discussed simply as a financial issue. In fact, the reparations issue is better seen as part of the continuing debate about the British past, and the coming to terms with a historical episode which remains raw and painful for large numbers of British citizens.

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