Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 16 Slave Trades and Abolition

Slave Trades in Africa

Domestic slavery and servitude

- this had existed long before the arrival of whites; there was a widespread practice that captives taken in war or in raids would be slaves. There was a shading in status from subordinate clientage to slavery. Most forms of domestic slavery were not as harsh as the chattel slavery that developed in the Americas.

- e.g., over a couple of generations, most slaves or their children tended to become ‘free’ and to merge into the commoner population; many of the women in fact became concubines or even had a status of minor wives.

- over a generation or so, their status might be described as ‘unfree’; i.e., they could not go or do anything they pleased, yet they could not be sold or disposed of at the will of the dominant groups or ‘owners’.

- during the campaign to abolish the external slave trades, internal slavery, in fact, was sometimes stimulated; the promotion of ‘legitimate’ trade created large new demands for labour to produce the new commodities (palm kernels and oil, later peanuts and cocoa beans, cloves etc.) which expanded the internal markets for slaves in Africa. This was very true in Dahomey.

- as long as African societies remained independent, this aspect of slavery continued. Initially, colonial regimes often wanted to avoid trouble and just accepted the status quo. In the 20th C under pressure of anti-slavery groups (often working through the League of Nations or the UN), colonial governments were working to phase out slavery and ‘unfree’ servitude.

External Slave Trades

1. Trans-Saharan Trade

- this trade had existed since time immemorial; by comparison with the larger numbers of the transatlantic trade in the 18th and early 19th Cs, the annual numbers were quite small; however, it was continuous.

- women for the harems of the Islamic middle east were prominent in this trade for centuries.

- although greatly over-shadowed by the transatlantic trade, the trans-Saharan trade never dried up; in the 19th C when strong efforts were being directed to eliminating the transatlantic and east African trades, the trans-Saharan trade may have picked up and reached a high point in the late 19th and early 20th C.

- in the 20th C as anti-slavery sentiments have been intense, the trade has become more clandestine and has been almost exclusively in women and children.

- both the League and the UN have had special permanent commissions to try to stamp it out; nevertheless, even today, occasionally some element of this trade is exposed.

2. Transatlantic Trade

- West Africa was the largest source of slaves for this trade, but other sources were the mouth of the Congo River and northern Angola; some slaves were also shipped from Mozambique and the Indian Ocean.

- this was the trade best known in Europe and the 1st target of the anti-slavery movement.

- it was also the 1st to be abolished; the slave trade was abolished for British subjects in 1807, but the transatlantic trade was only finally shut off in the 1860s and 70s. (The US Civil War and abolition of slavery in the US was a major factor, although slavery was not abolished in Brazil— one of the last countries to do so—until later.

3. East Africa—Indian Ocean Trade

- this trade too had existed for a long time since Arab involvement had begun in East Africa; however, the trade to the Islamic middle east had not been large before the 19th.

- while slaves had been taken from the coast during the period of European involvement (16th-18th C), it had never been too large; much of it went to Indian Ocean islands which Europeans had seized for establishing plantations (sugar, etc.).

- ironically, it was in the 19th C that this trade began a rapid expansion and was extremely brutal. The establishment of clove plantations on Zanzibar and Pemba (as well as other Indian Ocean islands) greatly expanded the demand for slaves.

- Omani Arabs pushed much more forcefully into eastern and central Africa and began to penetrate into the interior.

- in East Africa with no navigable rivers and animal transport largely impossible because of disease, human porterage was the only possibility; thus, only very high value commodities could be considered for trade. Ivory and slaves were the primary products and the slaves could help carry the ivory from the interior to the coast; the two were complementary.

- the trade began to push far into the interior using either African middlemen or Swahili Arabs.

- this trade was producing widespread disruption and devastation in east and central Africa in the middle of the 19th C.

- David Livingstone and others began to expose this trade before public opinion in Britain and Europe after 1850.

- the desire to suppress this trade became a very important justification for interference and intrusion into Africa after 1870.

- Leopold’s protestations about suppressing the slave trade were an important factor (especially convincing the Americans) in helping him to win acceptance of and recognition for his Congo Free State at the Berlin Conference of 1884.

- this is ironic in view of the slavery and de facto slavery that were practiced on a wide scale in Leopold’s Congo Free State.

Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery

- the debate about why the slave trade and slavery itself were abolished is about 50 years old but is still going on.

Humanitarian interpretation

- this approach focuses upon the growing moral rejection of slavery and the horrors of the slave trade itself.

- partly, this rejection stemmed from secular humanism of the Enlightenment which argued that all people in spite of differences, nevertheless, had a great deal in common—the idea that “All men are brothers.”

- even more important was the thrust of religious movements known as the ‘Evangelical Movement’. We shall see more of the impact of Evangelicalism in the missionary movement which began in Protestantism in the late 18th C.

- both the abolition movement and missions were based upon the same postmillennialist impulse—the obligation to carry the gospel to everyone in the world and to work for the perfecting of society as a means to achieve the millennium (1000 years of peace and goodness in the world). We shall discuss the eschatological views and their impacts in connection with missions.

- the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery and the slave trade were incompatible with both the rational, reasonable society of the secular humanist and with the Kingdom of God of postmillennialist Christians.

- one of the great icons of the abolitionist crusade was the medallion showing an African in chains with the inscription, “Am I not a man and a brother?”

- the argument is that, armed with this growing moral outrage, the abolitionist crusade mobilised public opinion until parliament was forced to act even though powerful economic interests opposed and delayed abolition for a long time. In fact, the abolitionists succeeded in having slavery declared invalid in Britain itself in the 1770s.(the famous Somerset court decision).

- the joint campaign against slavery began in the 1770s, seemed close to success in the 1790s, and then the French revolution and wars caused a reactionary backlash against all change.

- subsequently, the abolitionists changed tactics and decided to seek abolition of the slave trade first:

- abolition of the slave trade was achieved because of turmoil in the British parliament in 1807; after 1815, Britain pressured other governments not only to abolish the trade for their subjects, but also to allow the Royal Navy to enforce prohibition.

- partly, the pressure to stop other nations from continuing the slave trade was pushed by plantation owners in British colonies because they would be at a competitive disadvantage if their rivals continued to import slaves.

- the West African Squadron spent most of its time in the earlier 19th C trying to prevent and catch slave runners; there was considerable cost as mortality rates in the Squadron (at least until the 1860s and 1870s) were high.

- by the 1820s, the abolition movement began to revive and launched a massive protest and political pressure campaign to abolish slavery itself (this was the first mass mobilisation political campaign in Britain).

- the abolition movement also became involved in the campaign for political reform because it became clear that economic interest groups which were opposed to abolition (West Indian planter and slave trade groups) were entrenched in parliament; parliament would have to be reformed first.

- the Reform Act of 1832 greatly reduced the power of groups opposed to abolition.

- abolition of slavery in the British Empire was declared in a law of 1833 (actually, the end of slavery was not scheduled for another 10 years as there was to be a gradual transition to ‘apprenticeship’ before total freedom); this transition system did not work and a new act ended slavery immediately in 1838). There was compensation for slave owners, but the total amount (£20 million) was below the market value of the slaves; not only was the compensation partial but it also had to be collected in London. The compensation was low partly because the price of slaves had risen sharply after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and partly because the transition period was supposed to allow the slave owners to recoup part of their investment from the work of the ex-slave ‘apprentices’.

- this humanitarian interpretation emphasizes that public opinion was so revolted by slavery and the slave trade that it forced abolition even at significant economic costs.

Marxist interpretation—Eric Williams

- Williams argued that the real forces underlying the abolition were economic; that the impetus which brought the change was the growing power of industrial capitalism.

- in theoretical terms, he argued that the real struggle was between mercantile capitalism and industrial capitalism for dominance. Industrial capitalism needed to undermine the power of mercantile capitalism, and the slave trade and slavery were mercantile capitalism’s weak link. Industrial capitalism wanted to end mercantilism and implement free trade instead. However, mercantile capitalism had too much power in parliament and until that power was reduced, no progress could be made in implementing free trade.

- thus, the attack on the slave trade and on slavery was designed to weaken some of the mercantile capitalist groups economically and, by promoting the reform of parliament, weaken them politically as well.

- thus, the abolition crusade was both used and to a substantial extent, created by industrial capitalism as part of this bigger campaign to displace and replace mercantile capitalism in domination of Britain. Williams never claimed ‘created’, but he does argue that the crusade would never have been a significant force or gotten anywhere unless industrial capitalism had supported and funded it. (This last is questionable because the abolition crusade raised much of its funds as a result of its own efforts from the public and through the churches.)

- the Marxist argument goes too far and tends to be reductionist; can all motivation be reduced to economic ones? But that is what the Marxist argument does.

- Williams’ thesis has also been subjected to intense examination—he tried to use trade statistics to prove his arguments.

- most historians who examine the statistics say that they do not and can not prove Williams’ thesis—they don’t prove him wrong either because they are not good enough to prove the issue either way.

- on the other hand, was the abolition movement a creature of industrial capitalist interests?

- most were not—the vast mass of support came from the lower middle class and upper working class (the same group that were also the main supporters of missions).

- this group was becoming convinced by Adam Smith’s arguments about free trade and free markets, but they were not industrial capitalists.

- the reform of parliament cannot, as Williams does, be reduced to a huge campaign created and managed by ‘industrial capitalism’ as part of its grand design to destroy mercantilism and implement free trade. The campaign to reform parliament was supported by a number of different groups:

- Williams provided a new way of looking at the phenomena surrounding abolition, reform of parliament, the push for free trade, etc.

- certainly, he provided a needed corrective of the older interpretation which argued that abolition was an unparalleled act of unselfish altruism and generosity by Britain.

- we can probably accept some of both interpretations: individual human motivation is very frequently, perhaps usually, mixed; collective motivation may also very validly be seen in this context too.

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