A Short History of British Involvement in Slavery
British involvement in slavery is over 2,000 years old, but not in what is now the accepted perspective. Cicero noted in about 54 BC that the 'British' enslaved by Julius Caesar 'were too ignorant to fetch fancy prices in the market'. The enslavement of the people of this outpost of the Roman Empire continued for hundreds of years as we know that Pope Gregory spoke with some British slaves in the slave market in Rome in the seventh century AD. Domestic slavery usually called 'serfdom' also existed in Britain: serfs were bought and sold with the estate on which they had to work for a fixed number of days a year without payment; they could only marry with their lord's consent, could not leave the estate and had few legal rights. However, as they could not be easily replaced, they were not as physically abused as enslaved Africans a few centuries later. The institution of serfdom was not abolished in Britain until 1381.
Britons were also enslaved by the Barbary pirates. The cross-Mediterranean trade was subject to piracy and privateering (piracy licensed by ruling monarchs) by many of the coastal seafarers. Some of the British enslaved by the north Africans (the 'Barbary' coast) were used as galley slaves; others fulfilled the usual tasks allotted to slaves; those who converted to Islam had an easier time. The men seized by the British from Barbary vessels were either sold as slaves or executed as pirates.
The enslaved/imprisoned could be ransomed: Queen Elizabeth I, for example, attempted to have the 'Negroes' resident in Britain volunteer to hand themselves over to a trader named Caspar Van Senden. This Lubeck trader had told the Queen that he could sell them as slaves in Spain and Portugal, which would enable her to repay his expenses in ransoming and returning to England some English prisoners held there. It seems that neither free Africans nor the owners of any enslaved Africans in Britain were prepared to obey the Queen's proclamation, as she had to issue it a number of times.
Slave trading from north and east Africa
The enslaving of Africans was of long standing. Arab and then Muslim slave traders had been marching Africans, or sailing them across the Red Sea and then the Indian Ocean, from about the sixth century AD. It is probable that at least as many women as men were taken: the women were used as domestic labour and as concubines in the harems of the rich; men were also domestics, but most were destined for the military. When some were used – and abused – as plantation labour in the area we now call Iraq, they eventually revolted and were not again used for such labour. The Africans were not seen as non-human objects, had rights and could rise in the ranks of the army and the society. In most Arab societies they could also intermarry and the resulting children were not slaves. Slavery in Muslim societies was not racial – the Turks enslaved my Hungarian ancestors while they ruled Hungary from the sixteenth century. There was also an export of east Africans to India and the intermediate islands. The conditions of slavery in India were similar to those in the Muslim world, more akin to serfdom in medieval Europe than to the conditions imposed upon enslaved Africans in the Americas.
Slave trading from west Africa
Why were Europeans enslaving Africans? Because they needed labourers to work for them in this world new to Europe – the Americas. In the process of conquest they had annihilated many of the native peoples; those who survived the Europeans' guns and diseases not unnaturally refused to work in the mines taken over by their conquerors, or on the plantations they created. The Europeans tried two solutions: export prisoners, and export men who indentured themselves to pay off debts. But both groups either succumbed to diseases new to them, or ran away to freedom. So another solution was sought. Africans did not have guns either, so why not enslave and transport them?
Europeans could not send armies to conquer Africans or to kidnap them. They had to make their purchases from the local kings and chiefs. The traders found all conceivable means to foster warfare, as Africans were usually only willing to sell prisoners-of-war. The enticement of European goods – especially guns and ammunition also eventually resulted in kidnapping gangs raiding neighbouring peoples. Those caught or taken prisoner had to be marched to the coast to await purchase. How many were killed during the raids, wars and marches is unknown. Could it be as many as were eventually transported? The number transported is estimated to be between 12 and 20 million. (It must be noted here that the African sellers had no notion of the monstrous forms of slavery that were practiced by Europeans in their colonies.)
Africans, of course, both resisted kidnapping and fought back against those who wanted to capture them in wars. But without guns they had little hope. And the further you lived from the coast, the less likely was it that you had access to guns. The devastation wrought by the constant warfare and kidnappings, and the export for hundreds of years of millions of the most able-bodied and vigorous of the population, naturally had a long-lasting effect – still there today.
(One of the issues that has not been researched is why so much rum and other hard spirits were sold by the Europeans. Is it possible that Africans, like some native north Americans, have no resistance to such liquor and become very quickly addicted? After all, Africans had their own liquors.)
There was simultaneous slave raiding and slave trading by African Muslims and Arabs, for export to the north and the east. As Muslims were enjoined by the Koran not to enslave each other, Muslim slavery was not based on skin colour, but on religion.
Britain, the 'nefarious trade' and slavery
Britain followed in the footsteps of the Portuguese in voyaging to the west coast of Africa and enslaving Africans. The British participation in what has come to be called the 'nefarious trade' was begun by Sir John Hawkins with the support and investment of Elizabeth I in 1573. By fair means and foul, Britain outwitted its European rivals and became the premier trader in the enslaved from the seventeenth century onward, and retained this position till 1807. Britain supplied enslaved African women, men and children to all European colonies in the Americas.
The 'Slave Coast' came to be dotted with European forts, their massive guns facing out to sea to warn off rival European slave traders. Each 'castle' incorporated prisons or 'barracoons' in which the enslaved women, children and men were kept, awaiting purchase by the traders, who could initially only reach the coast at those times of the year when the winds blew in the right direction. The prisons – without sanitation, with little air, must have been hell-holes in the humid coastal climates. The death rates are not known.
The trade became a very lucrative business. Bristol grew rich on it, then Liverpool. London also dealt in slaves as did some of the smaller British ports. The specialized vessels were built in many British shipyards, but most were constructed in Liverpool. Laden with trade goods (guns and ammunition, rum, metal goods and cloth) they sailed to the 'Slave Coast', exchanged the goods for human beings, packed them into the vessels like sardines and sailed them across the Atlantic. On arrival, those left alive were oiled to make them look healthy and put on the auction block. Again, death rates (during the voyage) are unknown: one estimate, for the 1840s, is 25 per cent.
Plantation and mine-owners bought the Africans – and more died in the process called 'seasoning'. In the British colonies the slaves were treated as non-human: they were 'chattels', to be worked to death as it was cheaper to purchase another slave than to keep one alive. Though seen as non-human, as many of the enslaved women were raped, clearly at one level they were recognized as at least rape-able human beings. There was no opprobrium attached to rape, torture, or to beating your slaves to death. The enslaved in the British colonies had no legal rights as they were not human – they were not permitted to marry and couples and their children were often sold off separately.
Historian Paul Lovejoy has estimated that between 1701 and 1800 about 40 per cent of the approximately more than 6 million enslaved Africans were transported in British vessels. (It must be noted that this figure is believed by some to be a considerable underestimate.) Lovejoy estimated that well over 2 million more were exported between 1811 and 1867 – again, many believe the numbers were much greater.
Abolition of the trade by Britain
Europeans who were Roman Catholics often treated their slaves more humanely than those of the Protestant faith, perhaps especially the members of the Church of England, which owned slaves in the West Indies. (Roman Catholics did not deny Africans their humanity and made attempts at conversion, while British slave-owners forbade church attendance.) The enslavement of Africans was justified in Britain by claiming that they were barbaric savages, without laws or religions, and, according to some 'observers' and academics, without even a language; they would acquire civilization on the plantations.
In the 1770s, some Christians in Britain began to question this interpretation of the Bible. They began a campaign to convert the population to their perspective and to influence Parliament by forming anti-slavery associations. Slavery was declared a sin. According to some interpreters of William Wilberforce, the main abolitionist spokesperson in Parliament, it was this fear of not going to heaven that impelled him to carry on the abolitionist struggle for over 20 years.
Parliamentarians and others who could read, or had the time to attend meetings, were well informed about slavery by the books published by two ex-slaves, Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano; slightly less dramatic and emphatic anti-slavery books were published by Ignatius Sancho and Ukwasaw Groniosaw. Equiano, like Thomas Clarkson (another truly remarkable man), lectured up and down the country, and in Ireland.
The Act making it illegal for Britons to participate in the trade in enslaved Africans was passed by Parliament in March 1807, after some 20 years of campaigning. Precisely why so many people signed petitions and why Parliament voted for the Act is debatable. (20) It is somewhat curious that many of the chief – including Quaker – abolitionists were importers of slave-grown produce.
Slave emancipation by Britain
A few Britons – including the British Africans – were not content with abolition and campaigned for the emancipation of slaves. This was another long struggle. Among the most forceful were the women abolitionists, who, being denied a voice by the men, formed their own organisations and went door-knocking, asking people to stop using slave-grown products such as sugar and tobacco. The most outspoken was probably Elizabeth Heyrick who believed in immediate emancipation, as opposed to the men who supported gradual freedom.
This battle was won when Parliament passed the Emancipation Act in 1833; as the struggle was led by men, it was for gradual emancipation. But protests, often violent in the West Indies, resulted in freedom in 1838. The slave-owners were granted £20 million (about £1 billion today) compensation; all the freed received was the opportunity to labour for the paltry wages that had now to be offered.
This Act only freed the enslaved in the West Indies, Cape Town, Mauritius and Canada. Slavery continued in the rest of the British Empire. Even the importation of slaves into a British colony continued – into Mauritius, obtained from the French after the Napoleonic Wars, where importation was not stopped until about 1820.
Emancipation in Britain
Africans have lived in Britain since they arrived as troops within the Roman armies. How many came here in more modern times, i.e., since the fifteenth century, has not been researched. They begin to appear in parish records of births and deaths from the sixteenth century. Again, what proportion was free and how many were slaves is not yet known. The famous decision by Chief Justice Lord Mansfield in 1772 in the case of James Somerset, taken to court by activist Granville Sharp, merely stated that Africans could not be exported from the UK to the West Indies as slaves. There was no consistency in the many court judgments on the legality of slavery in Great Britain.
The efficacy of the Acts
As there was almost nothing done to ensure that the Acts were obeyed, slave traders continued their activities, as did the shipbuilders. Information about this was sent to Parliament by the abolitionists, some of the captains in the Anti-Slavery Squadrons and British consular officials in slave-worked Cuba and Brazil. Investigations were held, more Acts were passed, but all to no avail, as no means of enforcement was put in place in Britain. All the government did was to set up the Anti-Slavery Squadron – at first comprised of old, semi-derelict naval vessels, unfit for the coastal conditions. To enable them to stop slavers of other nationalities, Britain entered into treaties with other slaving countries. But these were also ignored. The slave trade continued, unabated.
Britain not only continued to build slaving vessels, but it financed the trade, insured it, crewed some of it and probably even created the many national flags carried by the vessels to avoid condemnation. Britain also manufactured about 80 per cent of the goods traded for slaves on the Coast.
The Squadron did capture some slaving vessels. These were taken to the courts set up in Sierra Leone (and even more ineffectually in the Americas). If the ship was condemned, the Africans on board were freed and settled in Freetown, a British colony. The ship's crew were given prize money. When Freetown grew too crowded, some of these 'Liberated Africans' were dispatched to the Caribbean as 'apprentices'; others were induced to enter the military. Their fate in the Caribbean and in the Seychelles, and whether any were sent to Cuba or Brazil, has not yet been fully researched.
It was no more difficult to evade the Acts making it illegal for Britons to hold slaves than it was to circumvent the Abolition Act. In India where, according to Sir Bartle Frere (who sat on the Viceroy's Council), there were about 9 million slaves in 1841, slavery was not outlawed till 1868. In other British colonies emancipation was not granted until almost 100 years after the 1833 Emancipation Act: Malaya in 1915; Burma in 1926; Sierra Leone in 1927. The final slave emancipation colonial ordinance I have found is in the Gold Coast archives, and is dated 1928. Britons owned slave-worked mines and plantations and invested in countries which were dependent on slave labour until the 1880s when slavery was finally abolished in the Americas.
In fact, the role of slavery in Britain's wealth did not diminish. Vast amounts of slave-grown tobacco were imported from the southern states in the USA, and then from Cuba and Brazil. When the amount of sugar now grown by free labour in the Caribbean colonies did not satisfy British consumers, slave-grown sugar was imported. Despite campaigns pointing out that this would increase the trade in slaves, the import duty on free-grown and slave-grown sugar was equalised in 1848. Much of the imported sugar was exported, earning Britain even more money.
Cotton manufacturing consumed and enriched Lancashire, including the port of Liverpool. Over 80 per cent of the cotton imported was slave-grown. It is probable that about 20 per cent of the British labour force was one way or another involved in the importation and manufacturing and then the export of cotton cloth. Bankers, manufacturers, shippers, traders, weavers, printers, dyers, shipbuilders and many others earned a living or made a fortune from cotton. There were very few protests about the importation of slave-grown cotton, compared with the protests about sugar. Clearly, it was more important economically to the wealth of the UK.
Britain, partly due to its new-found wealth, also needed some African products: this 'legitimate' trade, producing coffee, cocoa, gold, some minerals and palm oil (for greasing new machines and washing dirty people – think of 'Palmolive' soap), was usually supported by various forms of domestic slavery or serfdom. Naturally the European export firms wanted the cheapest possible product! Once colonial administrations were established, labour was needed to construct roads to improve the transport of these products – this was almost invariably what was euphemistically called 'contract' or 'forced' labour, i.e., temporary enslavement. Britain was among those who signed the League of Nations' Forced Labour Convention, but, as one author noted, 'most of the colonizing Powers have been more or less guided [by the Convention]... and have at least taken note of that body's resolution that natives must not be driven to work for the private profit of others' (my emphasis).
Support for slavery was also demonstrated during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Some Britons ignored the declared neutrality of the UK and raised millions of pounds to support the pro-slavery Confederates. Many ships, both merchant and war, were built for them with total impunity, despite the official neutrality, which made supporting either side illegal.
The after-effects of the slave trade
a) The creation of new societies in the Americas.
b) The emigration of Caribbeans of African descent, as there were no real means of economic survival, to the south American mainland, to build the Panama Canal, to the USA, to Britain.
c) The devastation of villages/towns/peoples in Africa through the European fostered wars.
d) The destruction of much indigenous manufacturing in Africa.
e) The displacement of many Africans in west and east Africa during the period of the trade in slaves within Africa and around the world.
f) The division of Africa between the European powers at the Berlin Conference in 1885, ignoring previous historical boundaries, language groups, kingdoms – the after-affects are there today, as are those of (c) and (e).
g) The spread of racist ideology to justify the enslavement of Africans. In slightly diluted forms this is with us today, perhaps most perniciously in the total absence of African history from our school curricula.
Africason is a die-hard believer in Africa.
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G.M. Trevelyan, History of England (1912), 26.
I have not been able to discover whether the 'droit de seigneur' existed in Britain: in some European countries the lord of the manor had the right to spend the first night with a newly married serf bride.
See, e.g., William D. Phillips, Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade (Manchester, 1985); Daniel J. Vitkus, Piracy, Slavery and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England (New York, 2001); Robert Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters:
White Slavery in the Mediterranean (New York, 2003).
Miranda Kaufman, '"The speedy transportation of blackamoores": Caspar Van Senden's search for
Africans and profit in Elizabethan England', BASA Newsletter, 45 (Apr. 2006), 10-114. Back to (4)
See, e.g., Ronald Segal, Islam's Black Slaves (London, 2003); Humphrey J. Fisher, Slavery in the
History of Muslim Black Africa (London, 2001); Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, 'Trading on a thalassic network: African migrations across the Indian Ocean', International Journal of Social Science, 188 (June 2006).
On Turkish enslavement of Africans, see Albertine Jwaideh and J.W. Cox, 'The Black slaves of
Turkish Arabia during the nineteenth century' (paper delivered at African History Seminar, School of
Oriental and Advanced Studies, 18 May 1988).
The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean, ed. Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya and Richard Rathbone (Trenton, N.J., 2003).
See, e.g., Edward Reynolds, Stand the Storm: a History of the Atlantic Slave Trade (London, 1985);
Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (London, 1997).
Some African polities were centralised kingdoms, some were vast empires, while others lived in more democratic societies under chiefs and elders.
From 1796 to 1806 Britain exported 1,615,309 guns to west Africa; many were sub-standard (Forced
Migration, ed. J.E. Inikori (London, 1982), 133).
There is ongoing debate about numbers. See, e.g., Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Madison, Wis., 1969); J.E. Inikori, 'Measuring the Atlantic slave trade: an assessment of Curtin and
Anstey', Journal of African History, 17 (1976), 197-223; Paul E. Lovejoy, 'The volume of the
Atlantic slave trade: a synthesis', Journal of African History, 23 (1982), 473-501; David Eltis et al.,
The Transatlantic Slave Trade 1527–1867: a Database on CD-ROM (1999).
See, e.g., Sylviane A. Diouf, Fighting the Slave Trade (Oxford, 2003).
See, e.g., Ann O'Hear, Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and their Successors (Rochester, N.Y., 1997).
Fisher, Slavery in the History of Muslim Black Africa.
For a graphic account, see Nick Hazlewood, The Queen's Slave Trader (London, 2005).
See Melinda Elder, The Slave Trade and the Economic Development of 18th Century Lancaster (Halifax, 1992); James Rawley, London, Metropolis of the Slave Trade (Columbia, Mo., 2003); Nigel
Tattersfield, The Forgotten Trade (London, 1998).
Lovejoy, 'Volume of the Atlantic slave trade', 483, 497.
There are many books on the abolitionists: see, e.g., Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial
Slavery (London, 1988); The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, ed. David Eltis and James
Walvin (Madison, Wis., 1981); Suzanne Miers, Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade (London, 1975). The effect of the 'abolition' was first challenged in the much disputed work of Eric Williams,
Capitalism and Slavery (1944; London, 1964).
Vincent Caretta, Olaudah Equiano, 'The Interesting Narrative' and Other Writings (London, 1995);
The Letters of Ignatius Sancho, ed. P. Edwards and Polly Rewt (Edinburgh, 1994); Reyahn King et al., Ignatius Sancho (London, 1997); Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson: a Biography (London, 1989). Unchained Voices, ed. Vincent Caretta (Lexington, Ky., 1996) contains Ukwasaw
Gronniosaw's 1772 publication, and excerpts from Ottobah Cugoano's Thoughts and Sentiments of the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce in Human Beings (1787).
See, e.g., J.R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery (London, 1998).
For information on this, see Marika Sherwood, After Abolition (London, 2007).
See Claire Midgley, Women Against Slavery (London, 1992).
See, e.g., Richard B. Allen, 'Licentious and unbridled proceedings: the illegal slave trade to Mauritius and the Seychelles during the early nineteenth century', Journal of African History, 42.1 (2001);
Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, 'Indian Ocean cultures; African migration and identity', Ziff Journal: Monsoons and Migration, 2 (2005).
See Marika Sherwood, 'Black people in Tudor England', History Today (Oct. 2003). Back to (24)
On Black peoples in Britain, the most comprehensive book is Peter Fryer, Staying Power (London, 1985).
See, e.g., D. Eltis, 'The British contribution to the nineteenth-century transatlantic slave trade',
Economic History Review, 32 (1979), 211-27; Sherwood,After Abolition. Back to (26)
B. Benedict, 'Slavery and indenture in Mauritius and Seychelles', in James L. Watson, Asian and African Systems of Slavery (Oxford, 1980).
Sir Bartle Frere is quoted in Lionel Caplan, 'Power and status in south Asian society', in Watson, Asian and African Systems of Slavery.
For details, see Sherwood, After Abolition and Marika Sherwood, 'Manchester, Liverpool and slavery', North West Labour History Journal, 32 (Sept. 2007). See also Williams, Capitalism and
Slavery; David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Oxford, 1987); J.E. Inikori, 'Slavery and the development of industrial capitalism in England', Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 17 (1987), 771-93.
The quotation is from Eric A. Walker, Colonies (Cambridge, 1944), 98. On forced labour in Africa and a fine denunciation of Lord Lugard, see Toyin Falola, 'Slavery and pawnship in the Yoruba economy in the nineteenth Century', in Unfree Labour in the Development of the Atlantic World, ed.
Paul E. Lovejoy and Nicholas Rogers (London, 1994); Sherwood, After Abolition, 127-41.
On, e.g., weaving, see Adiele Afigbo, Weaving Tradition in Ibgo-land (Lagos, 1985); Colleen E. Kriger, Cloth in West African History (Lanham, 2006).
See, e.g., Inikori, Forced Migration.
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