Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The abolitionist movement

Above is a portait of the former slave Olaudah Equiano.

By the American Revolution, about one-fifth of the people of the mainland colonies were of African ancestry. About 250,000 Africans were brought to the mainland colonies before 1775, but the total black population numbered 567,000 on the eve of independence.The slave trade had changed its nature from its small beginnings. It was now a great European enterprise and the leading participants were the British. The great slave trading ports were Liverpool and Bristol (Bordeaux was the French equivalent).

But by the 1770s attitudes to the trade began to change, partly in the context of the Enlightenment-sponsored debate about political and social rights, which exposed all forms of social organization to scrutiny and criticism. The Mansfield judgement of 1772 was interpreted (possibly wrongly) as stating that slavery could not exist on English soil, so that every slave who set foot in England was automatically freed. The last public sale of a black slave appears to have been in Liverpool in 1779.

The abolitionist movement began with the Quakers but spread beyond them, particularly to Evangelical Christians, who argued that the slave trade was a national sin that would be punished by God. The trade could only be abolished by Act of Parliament and the abolitionist campaign was designed to secure a necessary majority in both Houses of Parliament. In 1787 the London Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded. In 1788 the first motion to regulate the trade came before the British House of Commons, accompanied by a rash of anti-slave trade pamphlets and poems. In May 1789 William Wilberforce (left) made his first abolitionist speech. Abolitionist literature spread the message and petitions were sent to Parliament. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography exposed the horrors of being a slave.

An abolitionist movement also developed in France among some Enlightenment philosophes. The philosophe Montesquieu, in spite of coming from the slaving port of Bordeaux, condemned the slave trade unequivocally. In his Histoire philosophique et politique des Indes, published in Amsterdam in 1770, the Abbé Raynal and his collaborators argued that slavery was contrary to nature and therefore universally wrong (Thomas, 481-2). The Société des Amis des Noirs was founded in 1787. In 1791 the freed slave Toussaint l’Ouverture (left) led the slave revolt on the sugar-rich colony of Saint-Domingue (the former Hispaniola, present day Haiti). In February 1794 the Convention abolished slavery (though not the slave trade) though it was reinstated by Napoleon in 1802 (Thomas, 546), who also sent an army to reconquer Saint-Domingue. (Toussaint died in prison in Switzerland in 1803.)

The French Revolution set back the cause of abolition, but the trade was abolished in Britain in 1807. When the war was over Wilberforce and his friends worked strenuously to ensure that it should be abolished in post-Napoleonic France. The commitment to abolition was forced on a reluctant France, and the French condemned Britain’s abolitionist arguments as a mere cover for its abolitionist interests. When it came, the French commitment to abolition was vaguely worded and came to nothing.

When Britain ended the slave trade, no-one knew what the results would be. Wilberforce hoped that slavery would be transformed by ‘amelioration’. He also worked to secure registration bills to prevent slaves being shipped illegally into the Caribbean. The institution of West Indian slavery was shaken by slave revolts in Barbados (1816), Demarara (1823) and Jamaica (1831-2).

In 1823 British abolitionists launched a campaign for the abolition of slavery itself, with women at the forefront of the demands for immediate rather than gradual freedom. At the same time the plantocracy’s power base was eroded by the reform of Parliament in 1832.
In 1833 slavery was abolished in the British Empire, to come into effect on 1 August 1834, leaving the southern states in the USA the only parts of the English-speaking world to continue with slavery (though later in the nineteenth century they were to use the semi-slavery of Indian bonded labour).

After freeing its 750,000 slaves, Britain embarked on a global crusade. In 1848, with the foundation of the Second Republic, the French finally abolished it. Spain abolished the slave trade in 1867 and Cuba in 1869 (though in practice many Cubans remained slaves). Portugal was the last European country to abolish slavery (1858). Brazil only abolished it in the 1880s (Thomas, 788-9). These late emancipations were a tribute to the British West Africa squadron, whose captains had freed about 160,000 slaves over sixty years.