In March, the British state will rightly celebrate the bicentenary of the end of Britain’s part in the slave trade. Yet ordinary citizens, as well as schoolteachers and makers of television programmes who may find themselves caught up in the prolonged bout of self-congratulation imposed by government fiat (with the help of £16m from the Heritage Lottery Fund), will do well to reflect on aspects of this anniversary that are not so praiseworthy.
In the first place, when remembering the parliamentary vote in 1807, we should also recall that the slave trade was, for more than two centuries, the central feature of Britain’s foreign commerce – endorsed, supported and profitably enjoyed by the royal family, and by the families of sundry courtiers, financiers, landowners and merchants.
The personal and public wealth of Britain created by slave labour was a crucial element in the accumulation of capital that made the industrial revolution possible, and the surviving profits have remained a solid element within specific families and within British society generally, cascading down from generation to generation, in John Major’s felicitous phrase. In this context, the demand for reparations is a serious proposition, similar to the claim put forward by the families of Holocaust survivors for the return of property stolen by the Nazis. Black people whose forebears were slaves, victims of that other Holocaust, are simply asking for the stolen fruits of their ancestors’ labour power to be given back to their rightful heirs.
Second, we should remember that the end to the trade came not simply from the useful agitation of Quakers, other Christian dissidents and parliamentary radicals, but also from the work of slaves who engaged in the propaganda of the deed, people who today would be described as “terrorists”. Driving the anti-slave trade agitation was the ever accelerating rate of slave rebellion experienced in the Americas and the Caribbean in the late 18th century, reaching a peak in the years of the French revolution.
It is customary to pay homage to the slave revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue, today’s Haiti, who rebelled in August 1791. They seized power, abolished slavery, and established the first black republic in the Americas. Yet other islands also saw serious uprisings by slaves and Maroons, who – at the time of the French-British wars – seized control with French help of large parts of Dominica, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St Vincent, Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad. Even where their actions were not eventually successful, the rebellions defeated two British armadas sent to destroy them, killing thousands of seamen and soldiers (with assistance from the French and from the twin weapon of malaria and yellow fever). They also deprived the British of income from their sugar plantations for years. Since those in the forefront of these rebellions were slaves recently arrived from Africa, the stark danger of the continuing slave trade to British commercial interests could not have been more graphically revealed.
Third, in considering the British achievement of 1807, we should remember that other countries got there first. Again, it is customary to record the decision of the French convention to abolish slavery itself, on February 4 1794. Yet in the US, in spite of the wording of the constitution adopted in 1787 that endorsed the slave trade (at least for the subsequent 20 years), several states abandoned slavery. While the southern states grew rich on slave labour for another 70 years (until 1863), slavery was abolished in the 1780s in New Jersey and Delaware, and the trade was outlawed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island.
The Danes were also among the first in the field, decreeing an end to the trade to their Caribbean colonies in March 1792 (though it continued until 1803). The British voted much the same way as the Danes at the end of a Commons debate a month later, declaring that “the slave trade ought to be gradually abolished”. The weasel word “gradually” was introduced by an influential imperial politician from Scotland, Henry Dundas, who thereby postponed the trade’s end for 15 years.
This long postponement is a further reason for this year’s anniversary to be celebrated in a minor key, for the continuing trade allowed the evil practices of the Atlantic passage to continue, as well as permitting the British to purchase black people in the slave market to serve in their imperial wars. Black people were imported from the slave market in Goa and from Mozambique to fight a war of conquest in Ceylon, while 13,000 slaves were bought in the Caribbean to help in the suppression of slave rebellions. Black battalions were formed in several islands after 1795, and the soldiers were promised freedom when hostilities ended. Since the promise was often forgotten, the rebellions on one side were followed by mutinies on the other, both leading to a horrendous litany of floggings and executions.
A fourth aspect of the slave trade ban should not be forgotten: the vote of 1807 was not always respected. The British in Asia continued to take advantage of the continuing trade. The governor in Mauritius, conquered in 1810 from the French, sought to befriend the existing French settlers by allowing them to continue importing slaves, some 30,000 between 1811 and 1821.
The vote did not put an end to the international trade by other nations, nor did it terminate slavery. Several countries continued the trade, with half a million slaves arriving in the Americas in the 1820s, more than 60,000 a year. About 3,000 slaves were still being landed annually in Brazil in the 1850s. Slavery itself was not abolished in the British empire until 1838, in the French empire in 1848, and in the US in 1863. Spanish Cuba continued with slavery until 1886, and Brazil until 1888.
One lasting and dubious legacy of 1807 has been the sanctimonious interventionism that has survived in Britain for two centuries, and still motivates contemporary governments. The British navy was given the task of patrolling the Atlantic, to police the continuing international trade from Africa to Brazil, Cuba, and the US. The West Africa Squadron began surveying the coast of Africa, and securing the naval bases that would make easier the task of imperial expansion later in the century, when east Africa was brought into the frame. Parliamentary radicals, however, were always opposed to the policy, arguing cogently in the 1840s that “our unavailing attempts to suppress the traffic worsened the lot of the slaves by making the misery of the Middle Passage worse than ever”. Yet their opposition was ineffective. The naval squadron was not phased out until the 1870s, but by then Britain’s taste for empire had become well established.
The navy’s activities gave the British a taste for international action that has survived long into the post-colonial era. Tony Blair’s speech in Plymouth last week, on Britain as a “war-fighting” nation whose frontiers reach out to Indonesia, last included in the empire between 1811 and 1816, was emblematic of the new enthusiasm for imperial revival, echoed by Gordon Brown’s repeated remarks that the empire gives us nothing to apologise for.
The final tragic aspect of the decision to end the slave trade was its arousal of the false expectation among slaves that their servitude might soon be abolished. It was to be more than 30 years after 1807 before the British finally abandoned slavery in their empire, years that saw major slave rebellions in Jamaica, Dominica, Barbados, Honduras and Guyana. All were savagely repressed. Some participants claimed that the trumpeted news of an end to the trade had led them to believe that slavery itself was over, a mistake that some people still make today.
· Richard Gott, author of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, is writing a book about imperial rebellions.