History of Slavery

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 knowledge, thus reducing their prices when sold as slaves at markets.

The enslavement of people during the Roman Occupation of Britain continued for many hundreds of years, some British slaves ended up being sold in Rome’s slave market during the seventh century AD.  

Domestic slavery – usually called ‘serfdom’ – 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, yet they suffered little from physical abuse.

Britons were also enslaved by the Barbary pirates. Some of the British enslaved by the north Africans were used as galley slaves, other sold off into life of slavery. 

Britain and the Slave Trade

Britain followed in the footsteps of the Portuguese in voyaging to the west coast of Africa and enslaving Africans. The British participation was started by Sir John Hawkins with financial investment by Queen Elizabeth I in 1573.  Britain became a major trader in slavery from the seventeenth century onwards, and retained this position till 1807.

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.  Ships laden with trade goods (guns and ammunition, rum, metal goods and cloth) 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 lucky to have survived alive were put on the auction block.

Plantation and mine-owners bought the Africans. In the British Colonies slaves were treated as non-humans: they wore ‘chattels’, and were worked to death, as it was cheaper to purchase another slave than to keep one alive. 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.

Roman Catholics often treated their slaves more humanely than those of the Protestant faith.  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; Equiano and Thomas Clarkson 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. It is somewhat curious that many of the chief – including Quaker – were importers of slave-grown produce.

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 the opportunity to labour, to work less than living wages.

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 around 1820.

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.  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.

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, 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 over 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. 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.

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.

Support for slavery was 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.

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