On the British Slave Trade, Abolitionism, and Amnesia - Encounter Books

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On the British Slave Trade, Abolitionism, and Amnesia

An excerpt from 'Imperial Legacies'
By Jeremy Black | April 17, 2019

In 1800, after nearly three centuries of the transport of African slaves across the Atlantic, there were major slave economies in the Americas, principally in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern part of the United States (formerly British colonies), with the Caribbean and British Guiana (now Guyana) being the British slave societies. Abolitionism, however, became a significant cause in Britain from the mid-1780s, with providentialism playing a key role. Abolitionism led, first, to the ending of the slave trade, notably by Britain in 1807, and then of slavery itself, particularly in the British colonies between 1833 and 1838, in the French colonies in 1848, in the United States in 1865, and in Brazil, the leading slave state, in 1888.

Thanks to Abolitionism, former slave societies changed greatly. Nevertheless, across the world, for most former slaves, there was no sweeping alteration in their lives, and many remained dependent, in some form or other, on either their ex-masters or new masters, and could be treated harshly. In addition, racism remained an issue. Moreover, it was multi- faceted, like in Brazil, Cuba, and Venezuela, where, in what have been termed “pigmentocracies,” those with a darker skin found themselves discriminated against, a situation that is still very much the case. In part, this attitude is a reflection of white racism.

In the British West Indies, many ex-slaves left to seek unsettled land for their own where they followed subsistence agriculture. This hit the productivity and profitability of the sugar estates. Free labor proved more expensive and less reliable than slaves. As the exports of former plantation economies declined, so they were less able to attract investment, afford imports from Britain and elsewhere, and develop social capital. This hit local society hard. The CARICOM action plan in 2014 called for funding from the former slave-trading nations for education and health in the West Indies to eradicate illiteracy and chronic health conditions, an aspect of a generally less-focused pressure for reparations for slavery. Sir Hilary Beckles, a historian from Barbados who chaired the CARICOM Reparations Commission that produced the action plan, argued:

This is about the persistent harm and suffering experienced today by the descendants of slavery and genocide that is the primary cause of development failure in the Caribbean….The African descended population in the Caribbean has the highest incidence in the world of the chronic diseases hypertension and type 2 diabetes, a direct result of the diet, physical and emotional brutality and overall stress associated with slavery, genocide and apartheid. . . . The British in particular left the black and indigenous communities in a general state of illiteracy and 70 per cent of blacks in British colonies were functionally illiterate in the 1960s when nation states began to appear.

Flows of labor in the globalizing, expanding economy of the nineteenth century included not only coerced workers, but also the continued practice of indentured labor, which, earlier, had been plentifully used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to send white workers to North America. In return for their passage, indentured workers accepted hard terms of employment for a number of years. In the British world, after the end of slavery, the main source was India; and the British West Indies, especially Trinidad, British Guiana, South Africa (notably Natal), East Africa, Fiji, Malaya, and other colonies, received plentiful cheap Indian indentured labor. This was largely part of an Indian Ocean world that was an important section of the British Empire, as well as one that both changed and was varied. Similar systems were also employed elsewhere. In Cuba and Peru, indentured Chinese workers were treated harshly and found that, although “free,” they could not buy their way out of their contractual obligations. Chinese workers also moved to Australia and the United States. Critics claimed that indentured labor was another form of the slave trade: there were certainly similarities as well as differences.

Nevertheless, across the world, for most former slaves, there was no sweeping alteration in their lives, and many remained dependent, in some form or other, on either their ex-masters or new masters, and could be treated harshly.

The standard defense of the empire makes much of Britain’s role in ending first the slave trade and then slavery. This is essentially true, although, seeking to keep pace with Britain, Denmark, in the end, anticipated Britain’s move against the slave trade. Moreover, Abolitionism, in practice, drew on international networks of opinion and support. Abolitionist legislation certainly challenged important interests in the empire, both in the colonies and in the metropole, as well as racist attitudes. Slaveholding was a major investment, and there was no sense on the part of slave-owners that Abolitionist pressure would invariably succeed. Indeed, their response to metropolitan pressures was hostile, and there was an often-violent reaction to agitation for change by the black population. The destruction of the newly built mission chapel at Salter’s Hill, Jamaica by white militiamen at the beginning of 1832 was a significant attack intended to shock and intimidate black Christian converts and their allies.

It was, however, not the only face of empire. Slavery was abolished while the Salter’s Hill mission was reestablished in 1834. In addition, the West Indian colonies did not defy the empire to protect slavery, becoming, as it were, a pre-figurement of the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, in the shape of a series of secessionist South Carolinians.

Critics have attacked the British stance over Abolition, emphasizing self-interest, a view that needs to note the strength of the colonial connection in Parliament. Connected to that, the compensation paid to slave-owners attracts sharp criticism, because it appears to endorse the legitimacy of slave ownership as well as offending moral views. Separately, although reforming ideas played the key role in metropolitan support for Abolitionism, there was also the role of black agency, ranging from revolution in Haiti, a French colony but one that appeared to offer a fiery warning to other colonial powers, to the example of the British free-slave colony of Sierra Leone, in challenging racist assumptions.

Self-interest and ideology were related in the subsequent implementation of British policy. As a key instance of the fusion of materialist and idealist drives, trade and Abolitionism were linked, as slave economies (notably the Spanish colony of Cuba) were a threat to the economic viability of the British West Indies once slavery and the slave trade had officially ended in the latter. In pushing Abolitionism, Britain came up against most of the powers of the world, whether other European oceanic empires, notably Spain, newly independent New World states, especially Brazil, or non-Western countries. Moreover, the casualty rates, largely to disease, suffered in British navy operations against slavers, were high, as were the financial costs.

Drawing on the energies of governmental and social opposition to slavery, senior British ministers were committed opponents to slavery and the slave trade. In 1862, Henry, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, then prime minister, responding to a deputation pressing for action to end the “barbarous practices” of King Gelele of Dahomey, who was not interested in ending the trade, replied that he, and the Foreign Secretary and next prime minister, John, 1st Earl Russell, were “quite as desirous of putting the slave trade down as any of them can be.” Palmerston’s language made clear his grasp of the cruelty involved and his emotional commitment: “Half the evil has been done by the time the slaves are captured in the American waters. The razzia [devastating raid] has been made in Africa, the village has been burnt, the old people and infants have been murdered, the young and the middle aged have been torn from their homes and sent to sea.” This was an accurate account of conflict within Africa, which, to a degree that is not welcome to all today, was an origin, as well as means, of slavery and the slave trade. Russell noted three years later: “I hate slavery and the slave trade beyond measure.”

In public debate today, the emphasis to be placed on ideology or self-interest as motives for Abolitionism can be linked to political preferences. This is most clearly seen with the often-misleading focus on self-interest in order to argue for hypocrisy on the part of those propounding the moral character of Abolitionism. As a result of such linkages, there is scant reason to anticipate an end to such debate.

In public debate today, the emphasis to be placed on ideology or self-interest as motives for Abolitionism can be linked to political preferences.

Because slavery and the slave trade were closely linked to racism, as well as to economic advantage, it is appropriate to ask what happened to racism after Abolitionism. The cultural values of empire were certainly positioned within a context of racial and religious assumptions, and related hierarchical and often pejorative assumptions, all of which affected attitudes to imperial subjects, albeit without necessarily determining them. A whole host of norms and values were involved, as in attempts to incorporate existing hierarchies, interests and rituals within a patron-client relationship. This was particularly apparent in India, Malaya, and northern Nigeria.

Moreover, the extent to which the empire was a monarchy made it easier to fit other rulers into the system as subordinate. This was true of those who retained independence or a degree of autonomy, for example rulers in southern Africa, the Middle East, India, the Himalayas, Malaysia, and northern Borneo. The emphasis on an Anglicized hierarchy led to a stress on status, not race. Status proved an intermediary and expression of imperial rule and cooperation. Alongside this process, which, in a reference to the idea of orientalism, has been referred to as “ornamentalism,” the British search for support was a multi-layered one. It extended to the co-option or creation of professional and administrative groups able to meet local as well as imperial needs.

Yet, there was also a strongly racist dimension. Thus, in Africa, where slavery continued, as did much British effort to end it, much British investment was linked to the imposition of a white settler and company control that had a clear racial dimension. In Kenya, both the African and the Indian population suffered discrimination, while white settlers greatly extended their control over the land, especially the most readily cultivated life. The continuation in peacetime of the pass system introduced for Africans during World War I was both indicative of attitudes and a cause of hostility. In addition, the treatment of workers in tea production in South Asia was harsh, a subject that has attracted considerable attention.

Racism and slavery are issues in the present day. Often tendentious accounts of past circumstances, however, can be diversions from the present situation, although that is certainly not how they are intended. To take the slave trade, a focus on the situation in the eighteenth-century deals with one that is long past. The hard work of confronting large- scale trafficking today, as well as continuing slavery in Africa, notably in Mauritania and Sudan, can be overlooked in favor of the easy target of Western misbehavior in the past.

Because slavery and the slave trade were closely linked to racism, as well as to economic advantage, it is appropriate to ask what happened to racism after Abolitionism.

Slavery, the slave trade, and racism are scarcely alone. It has been repeatedly argued, on behalf of postcolonial states and by Western historians critical of Western imperialism, that ethnic and sectarian divisions and rivalries essentially derived from colonialism, notably from politics of “divide and rule.” However, as with slavery, there is much evidence that such divisions and rivalries preceded Western colonialism and were not dependent on it. Moreover, they could be bitter and long-standing, as in India and Africa. Such an assessment provides a basis for a rethinking of slavery, as part of the impact of Western imperialism, but also of much else.

The role of slavery, past and present, in non-Western cultures, notably, but not only, African and Islamic ones, while present in the scholarly literature, is scarcely prominent in discussion outside it. This is misleading. As in between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, war and debt have proved prime sources of slaves in recent decades and continue to do so. Thus, the bitter and frequent warfare in southern Sudan from the 1960s to the 2010s led to the enslavement of captured men and women. This process was encouraged by the role of ethnic hatred in conflicts there and elsewhere, for example, in western Sudan. Across Africa, rebel groups captured women for sex slaves. In 2014, Abubakar Shekau, the head of the extremely violent Nigerian Islamic militant group Boko Haram, announced in a video: “I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market by Allah. There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women.” The movement also kidnapped men and children for enforced service, including as soldiers. In Iraq, the Islamic State followed both processes, and on a large scale.

These processes are specific to the present and throw much attention on the past. They also underline the questionable nature of the public treatment of the discussion. Instead of “imperial amnesia,” there is an obsession with one highly important episode of slavery, to the detriment of other episodes and types, which are also very important, a focus that affects the treatment of both British and American history. “Atlantic slavery,” the term for European and European American enslavement practices and slave societies in the Atlantic world, was one of the more prominent instances of a type of enslavement and slavery also seen across much of the world, notably within Africa and throughout the Islamic world. At the same time, Atlantic slavery was largely capitalist in nature, in that most of the slave traders and owners were private individuals or concerns, although there were exceptions, for example slaves in Royal Navy dockyards in the West Indies.

In contrast, “public slavery,” slavery under the state, was important from Antiquity on, as in state mines and galleys under Rome, and also slave soldiers, such as in the Mamluk, Ottoman, and Safavid empires. This strand can be seen to the present, with the use of millions as slave labor under Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and the extent to which entire societies are enslaved in totalitarian regimes, as with North Korea today.

Thus, in Africa, where slavery continued, as did much British effort to end it, much British investment was linked to the imposition of a white settler and company control that had a clear racial dimension.

The willingness of those concerned with slavery to discuss, still more address, public slavery today is generally limited. That is the amnesia. It is an aspect of the preference for the total victory of moral condemnation (which is easiest when directed at the past), rather than trying to produce a more livable future; or, phrased differently, theatrical emotion instead of strategic thinking.

Author Thumbnail

Jeremy Black is Established Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is, or has been, on a number of editorial boards, including the Journal of Military History, the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, and History Today, and was editor of Archives.


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