Evaluation England’s role in opposing Slavery (by Stephen Basdeo)

Evaluation England's role in opposing Slavery (by Stephen Basdeo)

Before its abolition in the nineteenth century, slavery was extremely profitable for the British, being an ideal source of labour which was suitable for cultivating the commercial wealth of their colonies (Heuman & Walvin, 2003, p.155). Since its abolition, British efforts in opposing slavery have been a source of national pride. As recently as 2007 there was the bicentennial commemoration of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act when films such as Amazing Grace (2007) were released. In the Victorian era, British historians counted the abolition of the slave trade ‘among the three or four [most] virtuous acts ever recorded in the history of nations’ (Haskell, 1985, p.340). This essay will evaluate the actions which the British took in opposing slavery.

Britain’s opposition to slavery can be said to have spanned the years from 1787 until 1865 (Oldfield, 2011). Prior to the beginning of this period, slavery had effectively become illegal in England itself. This was because Lord Mansfield’s ruling in the 1772 Somerset Case had decreed that slavery in England, ‘was neither allowed nor approved by the law’ (Howell, 1816, p.82). Therefore, by the commencement of this period, some influential members of society had already begun to display a moral aversion to slavery.

The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in 1787. Combined with the efforts of prominent abolitionists such as William Wilberforce (1759-1833), and Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), the abolitionists succeeded in achieving their first victory which was the passage of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. The passage of the Act was chiefly due to the manner in which the abolitionists applied their moral and religious argument to the debate in favour of abolition. For example, Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was a freed slave who wrote a narrative of his life. He diffused throughout his work Biblical quotations which appealed to his readers’ religious beliefs. This tactic was powerful enough to counter existing racial arguments for the continuation of the slave trade (Corley, 2002, p.146). This powerful appeal to the public’s religious sentiments also eventually outweighed the contemporary economic arguments for the continuance of the slave trade (Hilton, 2006, p.120). The passage of the 1807 Bill was achieved despite the fact that Britain would have been more prosperous had it remained as a slave trading nation (Walvin, 1992, p.304). Thus the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act – Britain’s first major anti-slavery measure – was passed primarily for religious and humanitarian reasons.

Whilst the slave trade had been abolished in 1807, slavery as an institution still remained throughout the British Empire. The passage of the 1807 Bill had effectively made anti-slavery sentiment a part of the mind-set of the establishment, both legally and morally. This is because, having won legitimacy from the government in 1807, abolitionism was then appropriated by the aristocracy and wealthy merchant philanthropists (Davis, 1987, p.798). This change of heart was evident even before the close of the Napoleonic Wars. The preface to the 1814 edition of Equiano’s work lists among his subscribers the royal family and members of the aristocracy (Equiano, 1789, p.3). However, as much as this appropriation of morals may have been due to a genuine change of heart, there were other reasons for it. The appropriation of something radical with high moral sentiments by the establishment would deflect the domestic working classes’ attention away from their own working conditions (Davis, 1978, pp.798 & 800). Thus the appropriation of anti-slavery sentiment by the ruling classes was a way of cementing the existing power structures.

Additionally, the emerging industrial capitalist class supported abolition and emancipation as it complemented their ideological views regarding labour. In 1776 Adam Smith (1723-1790) had published his work entitled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. This book stipulated that labour should be free and should be a marketable commodity (Davis, 1987, p.808). Ultimately, the newly emerging capitalist section of society in the early nineteenth-century came to the realisation that using free labour was more desirable than using slave labour (Hague, 2007, p.130).

Furthermore, in 1832 the Reform Act was passed which had reconstituted the parliamentary make-up of the United Kingdom. The Whig government of Earl Grey (1754-1845) which came into power in 1832 succeeded in passing the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. It was passed with a majority of support in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords with even the Tory opposition failing to rally behind the slave owning West Indian planters’ lobby (Walvin, 1992, p.307). This is a further indication that abolitionism had become a part of the establishment mind-set. Yet the 1833 Abolition Bill had left the British government financially poorer. The Act provided compensation to slave owning planters for the loss of their “property”. The British government was to pay a total of twenty million pounds to slave owners and black slaves were to be apprenticed for a total of four years between 1834 and 1838 before finally being set at liberty (Woodward, 1938, p.372). Yet the 1833 Bill was passed despite the fact that slavery and the plantations were still operating profitably even in the 1820s (Walvin, 1992, pp.303-304). It is, therefore, somewhat difficult to believe that the government would have expended such a vast quantity of money if the motives behind the abolition of slavery were not chiefly humanitarian. This is in spite of emerging ideas surrounding capitalism and the free movement of labour.

Having now abolished slavery within their own Empire, the British subsequently became ‘seized with the altruism of their own abolition’ and concentrated on opposing slavery internationally (Walvin, 1992, p.309). By the 1870s, the Royal Navy had freed over 150,000 slaves from foreign slaving vessels, the expense of these actions amounting to approximately £40,000,000 (Ibid). Moreover, as Britain was the pre-eminent global power throughout much of the nineteenth-century, the British applied diplomatic pressure on other nations to abolish slavery. Approximately £700,000 was given to both the Spanish and the Portuguese governments in return for a promise to abolish their own slave trades (Woodward, 1938, p.370). The United Kingdom’s boast to other nations about their own role in opposing slavery, and ‘their determination to eradicate slavery wherever they saw it…smacked of British arrogance and crude power’ with the French being especially annoyed with the British (Walvin, 1992, p.310). It is unreasonable to think that the British would go to so much expense and effort in opposing slavery internationally, potentially damaging relations with other powers, if there were not a strong humanitarian principle behind their motives. The British narrative of their role in opposing slavery, therefore, was not without justification.

Yet the British version of events, which stressed the humanitarian motives behind slavery’s abolition, was challenged in 1944 with the publication of a book by Eric Williams (1911-1981) entitled Capitalism and Slavery. Williams was both an historian and a politician. He served as the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago between 1956 and 1981. Having been the leader of the left-wing People’s National Movement, there is a discernible influence of Marxist historiography within his work. Williams claimed that his work was an economic study of how slavery financed the industrial revolution, and how in turn industrial capitalism destroyed slavery (Williams, 1944, p.178). In effect, slavery had become unprofitable and unnecessary due to changes in the means of production.  Significantly, Williams work draws on Marxist historiography which states that society progresses in stages due to changes in the means of production. In theory, an emerging industrial society would have no need of either slavery or serfdom as a feudal society would have done. The role of human agency in Marxist historiography can sometimes be downplayed.  In fact, Williams was dismissive of the efforts of the abolitionists. The role of William Wilberforce he described as being ‘grossly exaggerated’ and he termed the abolition movement as ‘one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time’ (Williams, 1944, p.178). Thus Williams’ main thesis, briefly summarised, was that the British had only abolished slavery because it had become unprofitable.

Williams thought that abolition became possible for the British once British capitalism had moved beyond the obstructive mercantilist economic system which was in place throughout the British Empire in the eighteenth-century. It took the American Revolution, and the loss of Britain’s profitable slave-owning colonies, to facilitate this (Williams, 1944, p.210). Darity agreed with Williams on this point, stating that the American Revolution gave the United Kingdom a valuable lesson in the benefits of free trade (Darity, 1997, p.803). It is true, as has been noted above, that new ideas regarding free trade did have the effect of driving the abolition movement forward among the wealthy merchant classes (Walvin, 1992, p.304). Yet to pin a whole argument upon gradual economic changes in modes of production seems to be an unfair assessment of Britain’s role in opposing slavery. After all, ‘few historians would maintain today that abolitionists were hypocrites who consciously exploited humanitarian sentiments for ulterior aims’ (Davis, 1987, p.810).

Thus far a study of Williams’ work has seen the British narrative of their part in opposing slavery ascribed to economic changes. Any other way of studying the history of slavery was, according to Williams, ‘meaningless’ (Williams, 1944, p.210). Williams went on to give a further reason for Britain’s granting of emancipation in 1833. It was a fear of violent rebellion, or revolution, among the black slaves. Indeed, black slaves had only to look to their counterparts in Saint-Domingue and their actions which resulted in the Haitian Revolution of 1791. Slaves in British Guiana and Jamaica were particularly restless with revolts occurring in those regions in 1808 and 1832 respectively. The 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act, therefore, was seen by Williams as a pre-emptive act by the British government which granted freedom ‘from above’ before the slaves violently grasped it ‘from below’ (Williams, 1944, p.208). Essentially, then, capitalist self-interest and a fear of violent rebellion were responsible in Williams’ view for the granting of emancipation with the efforts of Wilberforce and his contemporaries side-lined.

Davis stated that it was difficult to find a middle ground between the British narrative of events and Williams’ viewpoint (Davis, 1987, p.810). As Haskell stated, ‘to argue that abolition had nothing to do with economics… [is] to put it mildly, a little odd’ (Haskell, 1985, p.340). It is apparent that capitalism and free trade were making slavery and the slave trade redundant in the nineteenth-century. This is because Africans began to be seen as consumers for British goods rather than mere sources of labour. Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) recognised this. He stated that while the work of the abolitionists should indeed be praised, abolition itself should also have been seen as a treaty for the encouragement of commerce with Africa (cited in Walvin, 1992, p.309).

However, it is not wholly unjustified to view Britain’s role both in the abolition of slavery and their subsequent opposition to it as a humanitarian triumph. Hague reiterated nineteenth-century contemporaries’ views that in 1807 Parliament’s conscience was awakened and passed abolition in a ‘fit of heroism’ (Hague, 2007, p.353). Perhaps Britain’s record in opposing slavery is best evaluated alongside that of other nations. France abolished slavery in 1848. The United States, a country which cherishes the notion of liberty, ‘reluctantly’ granted emancipation to its slaves in 1865 (Pakenham, 1991, p.18). Turkey followed much later, abolishing slavery in 1890. It is clear, then, that Britain led the world in opposing slavery by setting an example for other nations to follow. Not that British opposition to slavery ended in the nineteenth century either. The afore-mentioned Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade still exists today as Anti-Slavery International. Additionally, as recently as 2010 the UK government passed the Slavery and Servitude Act, continuing the criminalisation of those who keep slaves, with seven people currently being prosecuted under this Act (BBC, 2012). Thus it is clear that over the course of two centuries Britain has led the world in opposing slavery.

In conclusion, the main reason for Britain’s opposition to slavery was humanitarianism. This is in view of the expense and effort which both the abolitionists and the British government went to in opposing slavery, first within their Empire, and then subsequently on an international scale. A possible response to Williams’ argument might be that the only connection between capitalism and the abolition of slavery is a coincidence of timing (Walvin, 1992, p.313). Finally, when compared to the record of other nations in opposing slavery, Britain’s record should be applauded.


BBC (2012). ‘Green Acres site man “forced to work as slave”’. [Internet] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-17811846 [Accessed: 23/04/2012]

Corley, I (2002). ‘The Subject of Abolitionist Rhetoric: Freedom and Trauma in “The Life of Olaudah Equiano”’. Modern Language Studies 32(2) pp.139-156

Darity, W. (1997) ‘Eric Williams and Slavery: A West Indian Viewpoint?’ Callaloo 20(4) pp.800-816

Davis, D.B. (1987). ‘Reflections on Abolitionism and Ideological Hegemony’. American Historical Review 92(2) pp.797-812

Equiano, O. (1789). The Life of Olaudah Equiano. New York: Dover

Hague, W. (2007). William Wilberforce. London: Harper Collins

Haskell, T.L. (1985). ‘Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part One’. American Historical Review 90(2) pp.339-361

Hilton, B. (2006). The New Oxford History of England: A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? Oxford: Oxford University Press

Howell (1816). State Trials Volume 20. Columns 1-6 pp.79-82

Heuman, G. & Walvin, J. eds. (2003). The Slavery Reader. New York: Routledge

Oldfield, J. (2011). ‘British Anti – Slavery’. [Internet Resource: Accessed 1st April 2012] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/empire_seapower/antislavery_01.shtml

Pakenham, T. (1991). The Scramble for Africa. London: Abacus

Walvin, J. (1992). Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery. London: Harper Collins

Williams, E. (1944). Capitalism and Slavery. Virginia: William Byrd Press

Woodward, L. (1938). The Oxford History of England: The Age of Reform 1815-1870. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Article originally published at http://stephenbasdeo.wordpress.com/2013/06/30/evaluating-englands-role-in-opposing-slavery/


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