Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade


The motive forces behind the abolition movement in the British Empire during the nineteenth century have remained at the heart of a series of historiographical debates. One important thing to keep in mind is that slavery did not end with the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Slavery was still recognised as legal within the British Empire until 1834. Slavery remained a mainstay of the US, Cuban and Brazilian economies, and the slave trade moved onto Spanish and Portuguese ships, as well as those of other countries that had yet to abolish the trade. And while Britain ceased to participate in the slave trade, the British textile industry continued to rely on US cotton produced by slave labour until the American Civil War. Both contemporary debates about abolition and later studies of slavery have taken place in the context of changing ideas about the nature of freedom and dependency, and individual rights and liberty. Yet there was, as David Northrup has argued, a ‘significant time lag’ between the emergence of new concepts of ‘freedom’ for white Europeans and the notion that those ideas might apply equally to non-Europeans (David Northrup, ‘Free and Unfree Labour Migration, 1600-1900: An Introduction’. Journal of World History, vol. 14 no. 2 (June 2003), pp. 125-130.).

Context – Morality and Economy

It was often marginalised groups, such as former slaves, and, following the abolition movement, women, who tested and deployed these new ideas as a means of arguing for an extension of these rights to excluded or oppressed groups. The Haitian slave rebellion, the first successful slave rebellion to result in the birth of an independent country, drew on French revolutionary and Enlightenment ideas. Another historiographical landmark, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, published by Trinidadian writer and critic C.L.R. James in 1938, depicts the Haitian revolution as developing in concert with the ideologies and doctrines of the French revolution. Following a series of revolts across the French Caribbean, in 1791 plantation workers in Saint-Domingue, (which would become known as Haiti after independence) rebelled against the planter classes that ruled the island and began to establish their own government. They achieved emancipation in 1794, and after defeating Napoleonic forces eight years later, became an independent nation in 1804.

James, and later historians, argued that the growth of Afro-Caribbean intellectual networks and the application of new conceptions of universal rights and freedom in Haiti was a development as important as the French revolution unfolding in Europe. In the immediate aftermath of the successful revolution, U.S. and European colonial governments feared the possibility that the revolt might spread across the region, and therefore imposed trade sanctions on the new country to isolate it from its neighbours, and indeed the revolution became seen as an inspiration for emancipation movements across the Caribbean. Bayly notes that the new Haitian government and military dealt Napoleon’s armies their first defeat on land, after Napoleon had attempted to reverse a decree liberating slaves across the French Caribbean, and that earlier the Haitian revolution had in fact helped to preserve the French revolution by occupying thousands of British troops elsewhere.

Black Jacobins was a major source of inspiration for Eric Williams, another Trinidadian scholar challenging a Eurocentric account of the Atlantic world in Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944 and developing a thesis put forward in his D.Phil. dissertation. Both James and Williams wrote in the shadow of the Second World War, growing tides of anti-colonial nationalism, often entwined with an economic critique of colonialism, and a growing lack of faith in the world that European colonialism had produced. Although earlier historians had seen the British abolition movement as a moral, humanitarian, and religiously-motivated response to a practice increasingly recognised as an atrocity, Williams, an Oxford-trained historian, and later the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, argued instead that the slave trade ended because it had ceased to be profitable.

British historiography on the slave trade from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century was based around an evangelical narrative of moral awakening and humanitarianism. Thomas Clarkson, an early organiser of anti-slavery movements and the first to provide a historical account of abolition, developed a progressive narrative as early as 1786 that placed ‘Christian altruism’ as the driving force behind the movement. Clarkson’s historiographical tradition was continued by John Seeley in 1883 and Reginald Coupland as late as 1933, whose work continued to present abolition as a humanitarian ‘gift’ from Britain.

In 1771, James Somersett, purchased as a slave by Charles Stewart, a customs officer in Boston, brought a case against his owner for unlawful imprisonment when he was confined on a ship bound for Jamaica to be sold for plantation labour. His advocates argued that while slavery was legal in the British crown colonies in North America, where Somsersett had been purchased by Stewart, slavery was illegal in England as it was not recognised by English common law or Parliament. English contract law, further, did not allow a person to enter into slavery, or for a labour contract to be enforced without the consent of both parties. Therefore, when Stewart brought Somsersett to England, Somsersett ceased to be property. Abolitionist Granville Sharp backed Somersett’s case as an important test case, and was highly profiled in the press. Whereas Reginald Coupland saw the Somsersett trial as the key first step in a legal and humanitarian challenge to slavery, focusing on Sharp, later historians have questioned the impact of the trial. Many at the time were concerned with the precedent that the case might set in undermining the recognition of slaves as property. Yet in the end, it only prevented the forced removal of slaves from England, and contested slavery on technical and legal rather than humanitarian or moral grounds, and later historians have questioned the prominence of the Somsersett trial, arguing that other test-cases, like the Zong trial, were more important in bringing about the end of slavery.

These histories celebrated English progress, and justified later imperial expansion as based primarily in Liberal ideals of benevolence and morality: the fight against slavery, as Christopher Brown argues, gave Britain ‘moral capital’ to draw upon in the expansion of empire. By suggesting instead that abolition was driven primarily by economics, Williams undermined this body of argument by moving the argument away from ideology toward socio-economic interest. Williams argued that Caribbean plantations had suffered economic decline with the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain, and that the shift away from slave production was thus driven by the bottom line rather than humanitarianism. Although historians now dispute his economic analysis, he precipitated a fundamental shift in the historiography. Barbara Solow and Stanley Engerman wrote that Williams “defined the study of Caribbean history, and its writing [William’s Capitalism and Slavery] affected the course of Caribbean history... Scholars may disagree on his ideas, but they remain the starting point of discussion.”

Although Williams’ book was influential in Caribbean and U.S. historiography, it was not published in Britain until 1964, and so there was a time lag between its publication and the first major challenges from British historians. Seymour Drescher’s 1977 Econocide was the most significant challenge to the ‘Williams Thesis’, followed by Capitalism and Antislavery and The Mighty Experiment. In Econocide, Drescher argued that abolition was a form of ‘economic suicide’ as the plantation slavery system had continued to return enormous profits for British investors. But he did not entirely return to Clarkson’s evangelical argument. Instead, he focused on the emergence of new kinds of political association that made use of new forms of mass mobilisation to put pressure on the slave system. In this, he actually reinforces a part of the Williams Thesis. Both argue that rising groups associated with new industries rather than landed wealth had an interest in depicting the plantation slavery order as corrupt and immoral as a means of consolidating their own social and economic position. Drescher argued that industrialisation, therefore, was more important in the social changes that it brought about than in its immediate challenge to the Caribbean plantation economy.

Other historians have opened the ‘public sphere’ organising against slavery to include black Atlantic writers, like Olaudah Equiano, and individuals whose activism, narratives and intellectual contributions provided the evidence and test cases that underpinned the antislavery movement. Pressure from below in the form of slave rebellions that founded themselves on ideologies of freedom and humanitarianism, like that in Haiti, continued to challenge the plantation system. João Pedro Marques, in Who Abolished Slavery?, argued that slave revolts and not abolition movements drove emancipation: ‘revolts were always ways of fighting slavery; and ... the decision to end the system of slavery in most Western nations was for the most part the outcome of such revolts.’ The bloody Demerara slave rebellion of 1823, in which hundreds of slaves were killed and a British parson, John Smith, sentenced to death for his role in supporting the slaves, provided a major impetus to those in Britain seeking total abolition of slavery and not just the ending of the trade. Jack Gladstone, who led one of the Demerara rebellions, also became a prominent figure in the abolition movement after his deportation. These examples suggest that we cannot limit our understanding of abolition to British popular movements, but have to take into account growing pressure from across the Atlantic world, and especially from slaves and former slaves.

European observers and slave traders in the nineteenth century blamed African society for ‘inventing’ and perpetuating the system of Atlantic chattel slavery. Putting an end to slavery in Africa was cited as a major reason for the formal colonisation of Africa by Joseph Chamberlain at the Berlin Conference in 1884-85. In a speech on “The True Conception of Empire” given in 1897, Chamberlain declared that “You cannot destroy the practices of barbarism, of slavery, of superstition, which for centuries have desolated the interior of Africa, without the use of force.” Yet the practice of slavery as it evolved from the early modern period was very much, as we have seen in the former module, a collaborative effort, involving traders, governments, armies and navies across the Atlantic world. While some coastal African kingdoms and traders profited from the trade, others opposed it, and none today would argue, as Chamberlain did, that Atlantic slavery was an ‘African’ invention, or that its abolition was a purely British humanitarian movement.

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