If you ask the question: « what led to the abolition of slavery? », the traditional answer is that slavery was abolished with the promulgation of the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833 thanks to the relentless campaigns unleashed by the Anti-Slavery Society from 1787. That militant organisation propped up the “humanitarian sentiments” of the English people and this “humanitarian” narrative was generally peddled by most British historians writing on slavery. The Society’s prominent leaders, William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp, rode across Britain exposing the “evils” of the slave trade and slavery by means of lecture tours, pamphlets and petitions. Such a move came a little more than two hundred years, after the first slave-trading expedition set off from England in 1562 to collect black Africans and forcing them into slave-labour. That expedition was undertaken in defiance of a papal decree that gave the Portuguese the monopoly to trade in slaves from the African continent.
That encroachment on Portuguese turf met with no resistance. England shared in the booty and a little while after emerged as the most dominant European country engaged in slavery to the extent that, it was said, all classes of the English society, from the Monarchy to the government, from the Church to individuals were steeped in the slave traffic to build up their fortunes.
It was the mercantilist structure developed in the wake of the booming Triangular trade when between 1680 and 1786, British ships transported to the West Indies over 2 million Africans that helped fuel the economic growth of Britain and in turn set the base for its modernisation. That mercantilist policy was also like a double-edged sword that was to badly hurt Britain’s economy in the late 1780s and by ricochet impact on the decision whether to abolish slavery or not.
“in the evils of the slave trade”
Why then, all of a sudden, was there a change of attitudes in England, with a display of empathy for the slave population?
Why the Abolitionist in their campaigns had begun chanting the mantra of “a man and a brother” when referring to a slave? Why this repentance and confession in the British Parliament on 2 April, 1792, when the Abolitionist, William Wilberforce, MP for Hull, declared, “We ought all to plead guilty”, of England’s involvement, “in the evils of the slave trade”.
When passing the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833, the British government wanted to redeem its past troubling image for successive generations to remember that though England was involved in the horrors of slavery, one was not to lose sight of the fact that it was the upholder of human rights and dignity. As the historian Seymour Drescher in the 1970s wrote, abolition was “an imperial triumph on behalf of humanity” or as Wilberforce put it abolition was meant “to lift mankind to a higher morale plane”.
Wilberforce’s message is full of resonance in England even in modern times. That was exactly what happened in 2007 when England celebrated the 200 years of the abolition of the Slave Trade which banned ships transporting slaves from Africa. The celebration in 2007 brought in focus how sensible the British people were to the “sufferings no tongue can express” of the slave population and the government’s moral obligation to do away with the slave trade. The moulding of public opinion began when the then Secretary of state for War and Colonies, Edward Smith-Stanley, stated in parliament in the course of the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act (1833) that England was “setting a glorious example” by liberating the slaves, a consideration, he said, that rode roughshod over the “pecuniary interest of planters and merchants”.
Even to this day, Britain proudly announces it ended slavery by “buying freedom for all slaves in the Empire”.
In fact, a tweet from H.M Treasury relayed by “The Guardian” newspaper in January 2018 referred to the compensation of 20m pounds (about 17bn pounds today) that was paid to 46,000 slave owners for the loss of their legal “property”. The British government disbursed 5 million pounds from its treasury and the remainder 15 million pounds were borrowed from the Rothschild Bank to pay for the abolition project. It was not until 2015, says a report in “The Guardian” says that this “longest loan in history” was paid off by the Britain’s past and present day tax-payers.
But in his book “Capitalism and Slavery” published in 1944, and considered as a classic in world historiography, Eric Williams denouncing what he called the “British hypocrisy” debunked the myth surrounding the abolition of slavery.
Williams who earned a Doctorate from Oxford university in 1938 and would become prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago (1961-1981) shocked many of his contemporaries by advancing an audacious theme: that far from the British claim of morality or humanitarian sentiments, it was essentially England’s profits decline in the once lucrative triangular trade and the nascent Industrial Revolution in the 1750s that sounded the death-knell of slavery.
According to Williams, the American Revolution in 1776 marked a turning point in Britain’s economic history. America’s thirteen state colonies detached from England to form the USA were no longer under the tutelage of the commercial regime that bound England’s colonies in a mercantilist system. The US felt free to open new commercial ventures with Britain’s rivals in the West Indies and soon became an important producer and exporter of cotton goods competing with England.
As such there was a decrease in the number of imported slaves, more so with the introduction of machineries, manufacturing of goods became less labour intensive. In the process, the Atlantic slave trade which was considered the backbone of imperial economy suffered a setback from which it would never recover.
The matter became more complicated for England as a crisis of overproduction of sugar loomed large. Rival colonies like St. Domingue (now Haiti), Brazil and Cuba were flooding the European markets with cheaper and better-quality sugar than the British West Indian colonies which remained stagnant. At one point, the competition between England and France grew so fierce that it was recorded six thousand tons of sugar remained stocked in the London warehouse desperately waiting for buyers. The unpalatable situation England was pushed into was attributed to the mercantilist policy which once served its purpose but now with competition proved detrimental.
The lack of interest of the British West Indies in sugar productions was also a factor to reckon with as exemplified by the uncertainty prevailing in Jamaica. Between 1799 and 1807, sixty-five sugar plantations were abandoned; thirty-two were sold for debts. In 1807, legal suits were pending against 115 others. Thus, it seemed that England was losing its competitiveness to their European rivals as its trade deficit revolved around two and half million pounds annually.
Cold shivers down the
spine of British rulers
It was rather a gloomy scene that unfolded before the British government, for not only did American independence put a strain on England’s economy but another factor that was of great concern to Britain was how to cope with the frequent revolts from enslavement that broke out in the Caribbean colonies. The bloody coup staged by a black coachman, Toussaint l’Ouverture, in the French colony of St. Domingue struck fear in Europe. The outbreak of the French Revolution next door, meant as an encouragement to a possible slaves’ uprising in colonies, sent cold shivers down the spine of British rulers.
That was a decisive time and a challenge for William Pitt the Younger, who became prime minister of Britain in 1783 at the age of 24. The economy was in the doldrums. The situation urgently needed a fix. Pitt after an unsuccessful attempt to capture St Domingue from the French grasp was wise enough to shift the centre of gravity of British interest to the Asian continent where India teeming with an abundant supply of cheap labour was harnessed to the task of reviving the moribund economy of the British mpire.
Pitt might have heeded the advice of the Economist and author of the “Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith, who found out that slave labour was “inefficient” and “costly” and that “sugar could be produced more cheaply by paid non-slave workers in India”. It was no wonder then that Pitt lost interest in slavery and became very enthusiastic about abolishing slavery which, it was said, was part of a global strategy to knock out from the world’s stage his European rivals. That was why he began to rub shoulders with Wilberforce, his “friend and ally in parliament”, encouraging the latter to promote the cause of abolition despite the fact that some 80 MPs had ties to Caribbean slavery.
By abandoning the West Indies, Pitt wanted to cripple the economy of its closest rivals, France and the US, which, too, were reliant on slave labour supplied by British traders. The implementation of the Abolition of Slave Trade Act in 1807, dealt a severe blow not only to Britain but affected the trade of other European powers as well but Britain had a fall back plan on India.
Britain’s slave economy was already on the wane in the 1770s when slave traders and plantations owners in the West Indies realised their time was up.
According to Williams, profits obtained from slavery “fertilised” the Industrial Revolution and made slavery irrelevant. Technological developments and new processes in productions were introduced as substitutes for slave labour.
Despite countless number of books and articles written on the history of slavery by Scholars, interpretations of the abolition segment in 1833 remain varied and passionately debatable.
-Eric Eustace Williams: Capital and Slavery
-Roger Anstay: The historical debate on the abolition of the British slave trade
-Kenan Malik: The Guardian (11.2.2018)
-William Pitt the Younger, Biography
-Adam Hochchild: Bury the Chains