The wider historical context of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade

This story originally appeared in Pambazuka News 302, May 3, 2007. The original is at http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/41131

Trade in African slaves underpinned the British economy in the 18th
century: the rich and powerful, the monarchy and the Church. So why
was an enterprise that was so economically important ended so
abruptly in the first decade of the 19th century? Hakim Adi explains…

In March 2007 large-scale commemorative events were organised to mark
the bi-centenary of the parliamentary act to abolish the trans-
Atlantic slave trade.

This unprecedented commemoration of a historical event, in which the
British government itself is playing a leading role, was difficult to
avoid.

There has been a frenzy in the British media. We have seen government
publications (allegedly designed to enlighten the public); meetings
and exhibitions; a debate in parliament; an apology from London’s
mayor; the issuing of postage stamps; a service in Westminster Abbey;
and release of the film Amazing Grace which promotes the well-
established myth that abolition was largely due to the efforts of the
Hull-based MP William Wilberforce.

It would be hoped that owing to the vast amount of information that
is being disseminated, everyone would be now disabused of such
erroneous views; and would be able to place both the so-called
abolition and the centuries of trafficking of human flesh from Africa
in historical perspective. The commemorative events certainly provide
the opportunity for broad and in depth discussion of Britain’s
history and the crimes against humanity committed over many centuries.

But are we any clearer about what went on 1807? More importantly, do
we know why parliament decided to make illegal an enterprise which
had underpinned Britain’s economy throughout the 18th century, when
Britain was the world’s leading slave trading power?

After all, Britain was involved in the trafficking of kidnapped and
enslaved Africans from the mid-16th century, when this enterprise was
pioneered by John Hawkins and Elizabeth Tudor, until the early 1930s,
when legislation was still being passed outlawing slavery in
Britain’s African colonies.

In the 18th century Britain, as the world’s leading slave trading
power, transported about half of all enslaved Africans not only to
its own colonies but also those of other major powers such as France
and Spain. British ships transported at least 3,500,000 Africans
across the Atlantic.

In total, this entire ‘trade’ led to the forced removal of some
15,000,000 Africans, transported to the colonies of the European
powers and the Americas. Many millions more were killed in the
process of enslavement and transportation. Historians now estimate
that Africa’s population actually declined over a period of four
centuries, or remained stagnant until the early 20th century.

In 1713 the British government was militarily victorious against its
rivals in Europe. By the Treaty of Utrecht (the same treaty by which
Britain lays claim to Gibraltar), it gained the lucrative contract to
supply Spain’s American colonies with enslaved Africans.

The government promptly sold the contract for £7.3m to the South Sea
company, whose first governor happened to also be the chancellor of
the exchequer.

Indeed the trafficking of Africans was the business of the rich and
powerful from the outset. The monarchy was a zealous supporter and
beneficiary, as was the Church of England. The slave trade was
Britain’s trade in the 18th century. The British Prime Minister
William Pitt declared that 80 per cent of all British foreign trade
was associated with it. It contributed to the development of banking
and insurance, shipbuilding and several manufacturing industries.
Most of the inhabitants of Manchester were engaged in producing goods
to be exchanged for enslaved Africans. Their trafficking led to the
development of major ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool. Today it
is difficult to find any major stately home, or cultural or financial
institution which is not connected with the profits generated by this
trade and the luxury items associated with it such as sugar, tobacco
and coffee.

It might be wondered therefore why an enterprise that was so
economically important to the rich and powerful in Britain in the
18th century should have been so abruptly ended in the first decade
of the 19th century.

The answer requires the abolition of various myths and disinformation
peddled since that time. One such myth is that abolition was largely
the work of one man – William Wilberforce; and that it was carried
out largely for humanitarian reasons. And there is another myth: that
abolition was the work of an enlightened parliament, finally
acknowledging the barbarism and inhumanity of the kidnapping,
enslavement and trafficking of other human beings.

However, on the contrary, it is a matter of historical fact that the
struggle to end the enslavement and trafficking of Africans was first
initiated and pursued primarily by Africans themselves.

Historians now speak of centuries’ long wars of resistance in the
Caribbean; of the maroons; of day to day large and small-scale
liberation struggles.

But such resistance also took place throughout the American
continent, wherever enslaved Africans were to be found. There were
also significant acts of resistance within Africa itself, and on many
ships engaged in the human trafficking, most famously on the Amistad.

Such acts of resistance also took place in Britain, where enslaved
Africans who liberated themselves were subjects of court cases
contesting the legality of slavery throughout the 18th century.

It was as a result of this self-liberation of Africans that drew some
leading abolitionists, such as Granville Sharp, into the abolitionist
movement in the late 18th century. While the resistance acts of
Africans culminated in the famous legal judgement of 1772 which
declared that it was illegal for self-liberated Africans to be re-
enslaved in Britain and taken out of the country against their will.
Africans in Britain had organised their own liberation. But they were
assisted by the ordinary people of London and other towns and cities.

African resistance to enslavement and kidnapping contributed to
growing public support and opposition to slave trafficking in Britain
and elsewhere.

In Britain, a popular movement opposing the trade began in the 1780s.
It soon became a broad mass movement of enormous proportions,
possibly the biggest. It was certainly one of the first mass
political movements in Britain’s history, although it is conveniently
ignored in most historical accounts.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people eventually took
part in this movement which involved the petitioning of parliament
and the boycotting of slave-produced sugar. This abolitionist
movement coincided with a more general concern with and struggle for
the ‘Rights of Man’. Its more advanced elements consciously promoted
the view that the rights of Africans were indeed part of that
struggle. Therefore what was required was a struggle for and defence
of the rights of all.

Africans themselves played a leading role in this movement as
lecturers, propagandists and activists. The most notable was Olaudah
Equiano, formerly enslaved, whose autobiography became a bestseller.
But we should not forget the writing of others, for example Phyllis
Wheatley, Ottobah Cugoano and James Gronniosaw.

Africans in London, including Equiano and Cugoano, formed their own
organisation, the ‘Sons of Africa’, which campaigned for abolition.
It worked with both the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
and the wider mass abolitionist campaign.

But African resistance in the Caribbean and elsewhere was an even
more important factor in the abolitionist struggle, since it had the
tendency to make slavery both less profitable and more dangerous for
the slave owners.

Uprisings by enslaved Africans threatened not just the profits of
individual owners but the control of entire colonies and the fate of
Europe’s economies.

The most important of these liberation struggles, the revolution in
St Domingue, the largest and most prosperous French colony in the
Caribbean, broke out in 1791 not long after the revolution in France.
Revolutionary St Domingue therefore became the first country to
effectively abolish the enslavement of Africans.

In Britain, the popular mass abolitionist movement coincided with
wider demands for political change, at a time when the vast majority
were denied the vote. It also coincided with crucial economic
changes; the industrial revolution; the emergence of new social
forces with the workers on one side and industrial capitalists on the
other, attempting to consolidate their economic and political
domination of the country. The industrialists were sometimes at odds
with the economic and political power exercised by those who owed
their position to the slave-based economies of the Caribbean.

Mass petitioning of parliament, the only means open to the
disenfranchised, against the trade was often strong in manufacturing
towns such as Manchester, where perhaps a third of the entire
population signed. This was viewed with alarm by the ruling class.

The Prime Minister of the time, William Pitt, recognised that popular
sentiment might be used to persuade parliament to abolish Britain’s
exports of enslaved Africans to its main economic rival, France. It
was Pitt who first encouraged Wilberforce to bring an abolition bill
before parliament. Wilberforce’s bill was first introduced in 1791.
It was defeated, as were several similar bills during the next 15 years.

But during this period several significant changes took place. First,
the French Revolution of 1789. Britain’s declaration of war against
revolutionary France in 1793 allowed the suppression of the political
activity of the people at home, effectively limiting the popular
abolitionist campaign and driving it underground.

The revolutionaries in St Domingue successfully defended their
revolution against the French army then against invasions by both
Spain and Britain. It is worth remembering that this war was pursued
by Pitt and supported by Wilberforce, who clearly did not belief that
Africans should liberate themselves.

In 1804 St Domingue declared its independence and was renamed Haiti.
The revolution in Haiti contributed to, and occurred alongside, other
major insurrections across the Caribbean, in Jamaica, Grenada, St
Vincent and elsewhere, which severely threatened the entire colonial
system.

Even those Africans forcibly recruited into Britain’s West India
regiment in Dominica mutinied. Toussaint L’Ouverture and some of the
other leaders of the Haitian revolution became nationally known
figures in Britain. Abolition came to be viewed by some both as a
means to press home a naval and economic advantage over France and
its allies, and a means to limit the numbers of Africans imported
into British colonies; thereby preventing the likelihood of further
revolutions and maintain the slave system.

It was with these aims in mind that parliament passed the Foreign
Slave Act in 1806, banning the export of enslaved Africans to
Britain’s economic rivals, a measure that effectively ended around 60
per cent of Britain’s trafficking, but which is now hardly
remembered, and certainly not commemorated.

There is no doubt that for many in parliament and outside, the demand
for abolition was based largely on economic motives. Prime Minister
Pitt, and others had been concerned about competition from St
Domingue and other Caribbean colonies even before 1791. They had
unsuccessfully sought agreement from both France and Holland to
prohibit the trafficking of Africans.

Others were more concerned about what they saw as the subsidies given
to slave owners and sugar producers in the Caribbean; and government
support for economies and a trade that was declining in importance by
the end of the 18th century, not least because there was over-
production of sugar.

Others in Britain became more interested in developing direct trade
links with India, Brazil and other Spanish American colonies. The
trafficking of Africans to Britain’s colonies was no longer so
important and was seen as by some as being an impediment to important
trading links elsewhere.

These economic motives for abolition have long been associated with
the names of Eric Williams and C.L.R. James. Many attempts have been
made to discredit them. In fact very similar views were expressed by
British historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most
importantly economic justifications for an end to ‘the trade’ were
strongly advanced in the period preceding the Abolition Act.

What is significant is that this explanation for abolition is hardly
ever discussed. It has been largely absent from many of the
commemorative events so far and even from the government’s own
publication which, it is claimed, is designed to educate the public.

Simply stated, this explanation means that the parliamentary act was
passed not for humanitarian reasons but because it was in the
interests of the rich and their representatives in parliament to do
so. And it should be added that it was the actions of people, and
most importantly of the enslaved themselves, in the Caribbean,
Britain and elsewhere that made enslavement and trafficking
increasing inefficient, unprofitable and dangerous.

In 1807 therefore, parliament was persuaded to pass the Abolition
Act; partly on the basis of such economic concerns, partly on the
basis that limiting the importation of enslaved Africans would likely
limit future revolutions and preserve slavery throughout the
Caribbean colonies. Partly it seems, because it was seen as a way of
diverting attention away from an unpopular war against France and its
allies, and persuading the people that such a war was being fought in
the interests of abolition.

Of course after the 1806 act it is arguable that most of ‘the trade’
had ended already. Even some of the major established Caribbean
planters were in favour of abolition since this worked against the
interests of their commercial rivals, both foreigners and those who
had acquired newly captured territory in the Caribbean from Britain’s
enemies. They reasoned that this might be especially advantageous if
abolition could be forced upon other countries as a consequence of
Britain’s military and naval supremacy. Other representatives of the
rising bourgeoisie supported the measure as a means to limit the
economic and political power of those who had hitherto retarded the
development of industrial capitalism and ‘free trade’.

The 1807 Act was subsequently used as the representatives of the rich
envisaged, not least as a means by which the Royal Naval might
interfere in international shipping across the atlantic.

Yet it did not end British citizens’ involvement in the trafficking
of Africans nor slavery itself. Following other major insurrections
in the Caribbean and similar economic and political considerations,
slavery itself was only later made illegal in 1834. But it continued
in some areas of the British empire for another century. The
trafficking of Africans in general increased during the 19th century.
Many British slavers sailed under foreign flags of convenience.

The 1807 Act did not end Britain’s dependence on slave produced goods
such as cotton, the mainstay of the industrial revolution. Even that
so-called ‘legitimate commerce’ subsequently developed with Africa,
such as the extraction of palm oil, was largely produced with slave
labour. The act increased rather than diminished Britain’s
interference in Africa which culminated in the so-called ‘scramble’
for Africa at the end of the 19th century: the invasion of the
continent and imposition of colonial rule.

It is sobering to reflect that Britain’s first colony in Africa was
Sierra Leone. This was the region from where the first enslaved
Africans had been kidnapped in the 16th century. It was established
allegedly as a haven for liberated Africans in 1807, and has now been
under Britain’s domination for the last 200 years Much of this time,
it has been occupied by British troops, while its shores are still
patrolled by the Royal Navy.

Today the government is demanding that even its basic utilities, such
as water, should be privatised for the benefit of British
multinationals. Centuries of interference by British governments have
produced a country that manages to be one of the world’s poorest –
and at the same time the world’s leading producer of diamonds.

The trafficking of Africans over many centuries was one of the
greatest crimes against humanity. The current commemorative events,
which are organised for a variety of purposes, at least provide the
opportunity for widespread discussion.

What is vital is that the myths are shattered and disinformation
combated. We must ensure that appropriate and adequate reparations
are made for slavery, colonialism and all crimes against humanity.
People themselves must draw the appropriate lessons from history, one
of the most important being that it is people that make and change
history; and that therefore, we are our own liberators.

* Hakim Adi is reader in the history of Africa and the African
diaspora at Middlesex University, London, UK.