Great Britain abolishes the Slave Trade

Often when the subject of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is raised in the United States, the legacy of the bitter racial polarization lends to the casual student drawing conclusions that tend to lean toward the simplistic, such as all African slaves were “captured” by “evil” and “greedy” white Europeans for sale in the Americas. As we have noted this month, while such captures certainly did occur, it is important to note that the reason that this era is often referred to as the “Triangular Trade” is that three lines consisted; European slave traders (line 1) provided money and goods to many African leaders and profiteers who captured members of neighboring tribes or sold off some of their own people (line 2) for shipment to the Americas, where they worked to provide commodities that would be exported back to Europe (line 3).

Further, due to the slant within which the subject of the slave trade itself is raised in American classrooms and even within popular depictions, there are times when the subject of abolition tends to be skewed heavily toward the period between the late 1820’s and 1860’s, when abolitionist newspapers such as “The Liberator,” “Freedom’s Journal” and later “The North Star,” coupled with the fervent advocacy of former slaves such as Frederick Douglass as well as some Northern whites who began actively seeking the elimination of slavery in the southern United States, and its prevention in new territories gained either through purchase (Louisiana Purchase) or war (Mexican War).

But the truth is that long before the United States came into being, the concept of abolition had its earliest seeds in Great Britain. As I wrote in yesterday’s lesson, while Portugal was the first European nation to commit vast resources to the promulgation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, by the late 17th Century, Great Britain was easily the most prolific European nation as far as providing many of the tools necessary for success in this enterprise both by British subjects as well as its European neighbors. Britain, by this time, was churning out the largest and fastest ships that were specially designed to hold vast numbers of Africans in their bellies in its ship-yards in Liverpool.  Lloyd’s of London, a British company established in the late 17th Century, was by the early 18th Century was raking in exorbitant profits by insuring both slave ships and slave cargo.

Further, while still in the pre-Industrial Revolution stages, much of the exports in the form of textiles, molasses and sugar that were shipped from the Americas often made its way to Britain for further trade and distribution throughout Europe and Africa. As such, there were many British subjects who either became nouvea riche from the slave trade and its related industries, or many others who were able to be employed in industries that rapidly modernized a British economy that for centuries prior had been agrarian based under the feudal or manorial system of farming.

Understanding this, there were some Europeans, particularly in Britain, who were concerned from either an intellectual vantage point or spiritual one that at the root of this economic boon was inhumane and certainly anti-Christian; a practice of capturing human beings who were treated like sub-humans if not like animals outright. As some Europeans conveniently strove to counter this growing “Enlightenment” with the position that the Africans who were being sold were “heathens” who needed to submit to their new lot to gain access to the Christian Heaven, many other Europeans understood the sophistry in such written words and hypocrisy emanating from the lips of such profiteers and those who by their tacit approval, acquiesced to this sinister practice.

One Protestant sect in particular, the Quakers, was adamantly opposed to slavery. Their advocacy had a profound effect on William Wilberforce, a man who upon becoming an Evangelical Christian in his early 20’s, soon became one of the leading voices against the slave trade in Britain’s Parliament. The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in 1787–the same year that Britain’s former American colonies enacted its Constitution that left slavery intact and soon counted American slaves as 3/5th of a human being for Census purposes. Still, while many historians will argue that said US Constitution was the single greatest event of 1787, some, including me, counter that very document was later improved due to the seeds that were sown by the founding of the anti-slavery committee in Britain. On October 28, 1787, barely a month after the slavery supporting US Constitution was formally ratified, Lord Wilberforce wrote in his diary “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”

The cause for abolition in Britain would not come easy as over the next 20 years, Wilberforce, the Quakers and Evangelical Christians in Britain not only sought to educate the populace about the immorality of slavery, but also sought to use moral suasion over existing members of Parliament as well as newly designated members. By 1807, there was enough of a majority of abolitionists within that body to pass the “Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade,” which passed on March 25th of that year and was granted Royal decree, or ratification, shortly thereafter.

The impact of Britain’s Slave Trade Act was immediately felt in the form of penalties that were assessed that charged any ship carrying slaves imported from Africa almost 100 pounds per African. As the British Navy was the indisputable world leader, its ships that patrolled the African coasts and the Caribbean Sea exacted stiff tolls on those so caught, although there certainly were slave traders, similar to pirates, who were more than willing to continue their acts well into the late 1850’s, when the active importation of slaves finally waned in Brazil in South America, a nation noted for being a hot-bed for new slave imports. Indeed, between 1808, when the Act went into effect and 1860, some historians estimate that the British Navy seized some 1,600 ships and freed approximately 150,000 Africans in the process. The law also sought to compel African leaders to end their practice of selling Africans to slave traders, who the British government had deemed as “pirates,” and by 1833, 50 African leaders had signed pledges to end such trade.

While the British Abolition Act certainly was critical in fighting slavery, the practice of slavery itself was not eradicated in British territory until 1833. Further, as the Act essentially stymied the free flow of fresh new Africans to the Americas, as the same neither completely eliminated importations or held sway over the practice of slavery itself, the moral suasion of the Quaker led abolition movement, while completely commendable, was only one step in the gradual end of slavery. Step two–bloodshed–was the final determining factor. This bloodshed would exist in two prime areas; first, slave resistance in the form of rebellions, which will be analyzed in tomorrow’s lesson, and the US Civil War, which is to come in an essay later this month.