England’s involvement in the slave trade goes back to a time, when the Romans invaded our country, and ruled this land of ours. Romans under the command of Julius Ceasar found the early English man lacked a good brain, thus reducing their prices when sold as slaves at markets.
Cicero noted 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 was even licensed by ruling monarchs) by many of the coastal seafarers. Some of the British enslaved by the north Africans 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 Coast 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.
Slave Trading: North and East Africa
It was a known fact that Arabs then Muslim slave traders had been marching Africans, or sailing them across the Red Sea and then the Indian Ocean, from around 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. 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 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: 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. Many were killed during the raids, wars and marches. The number transported is said estimated to be between 12 and 20 million.
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. 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.
There was simultaneous slave raiding and 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: 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 or foul, Britain outwitted its European rivals and became the premier trader in the enslaved from the seventeenth century onwards, 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 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 specialised 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.
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 recognised as at least rapeable 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.
It has been estimated that between 1701 and 1800 more than six million enslaved Africans were transported in British vessels.
Abolition of Slave Trade by the British:
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 slaveowners 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 civilisation 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 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 who 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. 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 compensation; all the freed received was the opportunity to labour for the paltry wages that had now been 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. They began to appear in parish records of births and deaths from the sixteenth century. Again, what proportion were free and how many were slaves is unknown. 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 judgements 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. 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.
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, 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, 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… temporary enslavement. Britain was among those who signed the League of Nations’ Forced Labour Convention, but, as one author noted, ‘most of the colonising 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 fo the private profit of others.’
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.
- 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.