On 25 March 1807 the royal assent was given to an Act of Parliament abolishing the slave trade. To commemorate the bicentenary in 2007 many events took place in the UK, including an exhibition in the Special Collections Exhibition Gallery. In this week’s blog post we draw on material from the exhibition to explore some of the key issues surrounding abolition.
The origins of slavery and the case for abolition
Why had there been slavery in the first place? To late eighteenth-century Englishmen, the notion that their own countrymen might be slaves was abhorrent. Slavery had been widespread in the Roman empire, and there had probably been slaves in Anglo-Saxon England. The unfree villeins of medieval England had a status that was in some ways similar; but the idea that humans might be chattels had been put aside after the Black Death, in changed economic circumstances. Slavery was uncommon in northern Europe, but it was not so in southern Europe and Africa. Here it had a different basis and it may be closely linked to the growth in the trade in tropical commodities, especially those of great value — sugar, coffee, chocolate, tobacco, rice and cotton. Some of these crops were grown in Europe in the Middle Ages: for example, the cultivation of sugar moved westwards through the Mediterranean during the medieval period. Slave labour, at least on a small scale, had been used in cultivating these commodities before the European discovery of America. On the Cape Verde Islands (about 300 miles west of Senegal), in the 1460s, a Genoese, Antonio da Noli, failing to attract European settlers to these territories, recently discovered by the Portuguese, established a sugar plantation that was entirely dependent on slave labour. The extension of this enterprise westwards — and the slave economy with it — first by the Spanish and the Portuguese, and then by northern Europeans, was not an inexplicable step.
The slaves of the Mediterranean derived from a long-standing trade in humans as chattels especially within Africa, but also within Ottoman and Asian territories. In the medieval period, slaves had been brought up to the Mediterranean from sub-Saharan Africa; from the sixteenth century, a direct trade was opened up between the West African coast and the Americas. Slavery was usually the result of legal and other penalties, and resulted as well from capture in warfare. It was a trade of many nations and was an established part of many societies. The exception was northern Europe, and it was from here that the challenge to slavery came. If it was reprehensible for there to be slaves in Britain, why should there be slaves in British colonies?
Slavery and the West Indian economy: Jamaica
Between the seventeenth century and Abolition in the region of 12.5 million slaves were traded from Africa. The numbers and pattern can be established with some certainty, especially from financial records. These point to significant differences in the use of slaves. Many worked with tropical goods: some 3.5 million slaves, for example, went to Brazil, whereas as few as 500,000 went taken to North America. The disparity arose partly because of the type of work undertaken: in tropical climates, the slaves were used for hard manual labour, particularly with sugar cane, and they had a low life expectancy — here the slave population could be sustained only by continued import of labour. In North America, on the other hand, where the slaves were primarily used for cotton and tobacco growing, the dynamics of the slave population were similar to the white population, even increasing modestly.
In 1788, there were on Jamaica some 250,000 slaves, who provided heavy labour crucial to the success of the plantation economy. The West India merchants constituted a powerful interest, to which governments might defer. The resolutions of the Jamaican House of Assembly, faced with the prospect of abolition, refuted charges of improper and inhuman treatment of slaves. They noted, however, that the labour force would be reduced; that it was impossible to cultivate the West Indies with white labour; and that the wider economy of Great Britain and its empire was closely bound to the West Indies. Credit, mortgages and annuities required stability. The property and slaves on Jamaica were valued at £39 million: ‘The whole profits and produce of which capital, as also of the various branches of commerce to which it give rise, center in Great Britain, and add to the national wealth; while the navigation, necessary to all its branches, establishes a strength which wealth can neither purchase nor balance.’ Changes in slave ownership would require compensation.
Abolition brought severe economic consequences to the West Indies, where new slaves had been important to maintain the size of the labour force. Prohibition on the importation of slaves into the United States of America, in 1808, however, had a very different impact, as new slaves were not continually required to replenish the work force, which was already self-sustaining.
Despite considerable parliamentary support in 1792 — in that year the Commons resolved that the trade should be gradually abolished, concluding in 1796 — there were significant setbacks. The climate engendered by the outbreak of revolution in France and slave revolts, particularly in St Domingue (Haiti), a French colony, made the early 1790s unpropitious for the cause. There was some anxiety that the anti-slave trade movement was a cloak for sedition and radicalism, and there was a real concern at the destabilising effect that might be brought by abolition. Although these fears were allayed, the political climate at the turn of the century was not one fertile for the aspirations of the abolitionists. It was not until 1804-5 that the balance of interests in Parliament had shifted sufficiently far for Wilberforce to bring an abolition bill successfully through three readings in the Commons; but it proved too late in that parliamentary session for it to be taken through the House of Lords. Pitt was able to promote the cause of abolition in other ways: significantly, at this point, in September 1805, the government made an Order in Council which put an end to the slave trade in the former Dutch Guiana, a precursor of later orders managing the condition of slaves in the West Indian colonies. A procedural measure in mid-1806, designed to enable Parliament to confirm the Order in Council, passed both Houses; and on 10 June 1806 Fox, the leader of the government in the Commons, moved a resolution for the general abolition of the trade, which Lord Grenville (the Prime Minister) also moved in the House of Lords. An Abolition Bill followed in early 1807, receiving the royal assent on 25 March.
After 1807, there was continued pressure for further measures against slavery. Parliament increased the severity of penalties for British involvement in the slave trade: in 1811, a bill introduced by Brougham made it a felony, for which the punishment was transportation; and, from 1824, it was a capital offence. Other measures involved slave registration, to curb interisland traffic in the West Indies, starting with the creation of a registry for Trinidad in 1812, and culminating in an Act of 1819 which established a central registry in London. Bilateral agreements were concluded with other powers, European, American and African, in order to bring the trade to a halt. This was a long process and little progress was made until after the defeat of Napoleon. Typical was the Treaty of Ghent, 24 December 1814, between Great Britain and the United States, which declared:
Whereas the traffic in slaves is irreconcileable with the principles of humanity and justice, and whereas both His Majesty and the United States are desirous of continuing their efforts to promote its entire abolition, it is hereby agreed that both the contracting parties shall use their best endeavours to accomplish so desirable an object.
Not all countries believed that British altruism was a credible explanation for what was happening. Some alleged that motivation centred on British concern at the numbers of slaves, which, given unrest and rebellion, might have placed her colonial empire in jeopardy. That notwithstanding, work to suppress the trade continued in the international congresses that followed the Napoleonic wars. Thomas Clarkson was present to apply pressure at both the Congress of Paris in 1814 and the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, and the theme was revisited at Verona in 1822.
The process of abolition: the 1820s
The formation in 1823 of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Improvement of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions, popularly known as the Anti-Slavery Society, assured continued public interest in the cause in Britain. Its establishment defined two contrasting approaches: ‘gradualism’, the Anti-Slavery Society’s aspiration, seeking an on-going amelioration of the position of the slaves, a stance criticised by those who believed this was in the interest of the plantation owners in the colonies; and ‘immediatism’, favoured by those who wanted an immediate end to slavery — a position which drew together the younger and more radical supporters of the cause, especially from the early 1830s.
Through the 1820s, the British government put in place practical measures to assist slaves, to address the questions of compensation of slave-owners. Progress could also be made through administrative measures; Orders in Council could direct local governors, where they had authority, to advance reform in colonies; elsewhere colonial legislatures might be encouraged to adopt measures that ameliorated the position of the slaves. The government of the first Duke of Wellington, 1828-30, made a number of direct contributions to this end. The Royal Navy might also be employed more effectively to enforce the ban on the slave trade.
Abolition: 1830 to 1865, and beyond
The Jamaican House of Assembly and the West Indian planters overplayed their hand in failing to embrace the Orders in Council. In 1833 the British Parliament passed legislation to emancipate the slaves of the British West Indies, and the Jamaica House of Assembly adopted the Act with considerable ill grace, rather than lose its share of the £20 million compensation that had been provided for slave owners. The institution of slavery was thereby abolished in the British West Indies, with compensation for slave owners — but not for slaves. Apprenticeship systems effectively delayed economic changes in the plantation systems. Further pressure, particularly from Daniel O’Connell and Joseph Sturge, brought apprenticeship to an end in 1838.
Slavery had not been abolished outside the British empire. Anti-slavery societies, the British government, the Royal Navy, enforcing anti-slavery conventions, and the governments of other Western powers continued to work for general abolition into the second half of the nineteenth century. Cases of British subjects in slavery continued to cause widespread outrage, a litmus test of the commitment of government to abolition of slavery wherever it occurred. A guide for naval officers set out for them the legal framework that was created for abolition, listing some twenty-seven groups of treaties, conventions, engagements and declarations from 1817 to 1842, with European and American states, and African kingdoms and chiefdoms. Putting this into operation was complex. By about 1865, however, very substantial progress had been made; the trade to South America was largely stopped. If the British government had been able to make progress by compensating its slave owners, however, the United States faced a much larger problem; and without a central government that was able to resolve the issue, the ordeal of civil war almost destroyed the country. The Atlantic trade abolished, the British government turned from the 1870s onwards to the trade from the east coast of Africa. The European powers came together in Brussels in 1889-90 and their conference produced a general act suppressing the trade, not only at sea, but also within Africa.
In 2007 the United Nations designated the 25 March the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, offering an opportunity to honour and remember those who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system. The International Day also aims to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice today. Other international observances include the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on 23 August and the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December.
Material on the slave trade can be found in two of the archive collections nineteenth-century politicians held at Southampton: that of the first Duke of Wellington (MS 61) and of third Viscount Palmerston (MS 62). The most notable printed collection is the Oates collection of over 220 books and pamphlets on the West Indies and the abolition of slavery, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. The 1820s and 1830s are particularly well represented as are works of prominent abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce.