One hundred and eighty-six years ago the House of Commons finally agreed to abolish slavery in the West Indies. The decision was a long time coming, and many since have wondered what it meant.
The first Europeans to trade enslaved Africans were the Portuguese in the 1440s. English involvement dates back to the Elizabethan adventurer John Hawkins but began in earnest with the Guinea Company, licensed by Charles I and then the Royal African Company of Charles II in 1672. ‘It being absolutely necessary that such a trade so beneficial to the Kingdom should be carried on to the greatest advantage,’ Board of Trade wrote to colonial governors in 1708, ‘the well supplying of plantations and colonies with sufficient numbers of negroes at reasonable prices, is, in our opinion, the chief point to be considered.’
From the 1640s to the abolition of the slave trade by Parliament in 1806, 2.8 million enslaved Africans were carried on British ships, around 2.5 million of them sold in the Caribbean islands (and around 25,000 in North America). The ships sailed from London and Liverpool with cargoes of nails and linen to trade for captives with Dahomey chiefs, at forts kept up by the Company. In the second, or ‘middle passage’ of the triangular trade as many as fourteen in every hundred died. They were sold to plantation owners, and the ships brought back sugar to feed England and Europe’s growing sweet tooth.
At its height in 1806 there were 775,000 enslaved Africans in the British West Indies, around half of them in Jamaica, where they were put to work on English-owned plantations, raising sugar cane, mostly.
Most people understood that the slave trade was an ugly and oppressive business, but that did not stop them. Moral outrage against it grew slowly first among Quakers, then later in the Church of England and the non-conformist churches in the second half of the eighteenth century.
The American Quaker Anthony Benezet’s pamphlet, Caution and Warning to Great Britain (1767), set out the argument and was followed by John Wesley’s cautious, but condemnatory Thoughts on Slavery in 1767. A Cambridge student John Clarkson took up the cause in 1785 in an essay entitled Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their wills? Clarkson was a driven man and went around the country gathering stories from slavers to show how bad the trade was. He found the plan for putting slaves in a ship’s hold which, when copied, shocked many. Poets like Southey, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and Coleridge supported Clarkson. Petitions gathered by the anti-slavery campaigners bore millions of signatures.
The way that the story of abolition has often been told, though, puts all agency in the English moral force campaigners. The truth is that slaves themselves played an important part in the abolition campaign.
In the West Indies runaway slaves – called ‘Maroons’ – made towns in the hills and interior. Jamaican Maroons Queen Nanny and Cudjoe fought a war against the British army and settlers. It ended with a treaty in 1731 with Britain granting the freedom of the Maroon villages. Maroon freedom carried on even after a second ‘Maroon war’ in 1795 ended with 568 being sent to Sierra Leone in Africa. In the summer of 1760 a Coramantin, Tacky, launched an uprising in St Mary’s Parish in Jamaica.
The revolts of the enslaved concentrated minds in Britain. Dr Johnson astonished the friends of Church and King at Oxford, by proposing a toast, ‘A speedy revolt of the slaves in Jamaica, and success to them.’
The most successful slave revolt was the Haitian revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, taking advantage of the French Revolution to make a black Republic in the Caribbean. Lord Henry Brougham understood its importance, saying ‘It was the universal and very natural opinion in the neighbouring islands that the existence of a negro commonwealth in those parts, must be fatal to all the other slave colonies.’
A fear of radicalism in the wake of the French Revolution dampened the movement against the slave trade, but the lawyer James Stephen persuaded Pitt that he could use abolition as a weapon against the French. By making the trade illegal, Britain could claim the right to search ships on the Atlantic. Anti-slave trade diplomacy sold the cause to the Admiralty and the Government.
The abolition of the trade, it was thought, would lead to the end of slavery. But in the 1830s there were still 665,000 enslaved Africans on British-owned plantations. Falling sugar prices, though, had reversed the fortunes of the once-wealthy proprietors.
At Christmas in 1831, Sam Sharpe led a great strike of slaves known as the Baptist War. Sentenced to death he said, ‘I would rather die among yonder gallows, than live in slavery.’
Most of the plantations were heavily mortgaged and unprofitable. Not only did they appeal to the Government for financial help, the Planters – half-jokingly – challenged their anti-slavery critics to buy the slaves their freedom.
Back then it did not seem that strange an idea, though it is shocking looking back today. Under the terms of the 1833 Act £20 million was raised by the treasury to compensate the slave-owners for their loss.
The records of the compensation made to each slave-owner were written down and can today be studied online at the Legacy of Slavery website begun by Catherine Hall and Nicholas Draper at UCL.
The money paid out did not stay in the West Indies. Planters – or more often their creditors – glad to see their assets liquid mostly re-invested them in Britain. The West Indies which had given up so much wealth under slavery, were condemned to decades of poverty after abolition. The emancipated squatted the old plantations or moved inland to make free villages.
It is right to celebrate the many in Britain who fought against slavery, but it came late and often at a harsh price for the emancipated.