Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Today, we’re going to be talking about the history of slavery and the history of abolition. For just a moment, I want to say a few things about the very beginnings of slavery. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know anything about how slavery actually began as a human activity. We know that it is in fact prehistoric. There are fossil records, there are archaeological records, that tell us that at the very beginning of the written history of human beings, in the Sumerian period some 5,000 years ago, that in fact slavery was already an active part of the economy and the social and cultural scene. So how did it begin? We’re not quite sure.
Skip to 0 minutes and 47 seconds But we know it’s been with humans as long as humans have been recording their own history. We know as well that it was extremely important in the economies of past civilizations. Some people say that Rome in its hundreds of years of existence as the largest empire on the planet ran on slavery the way a place like North America runs on oil today. And that’s pretty much the case. It was a slave-based economy, as was the economy of ancient Athens and some of the other Greek states. So we have this situation in which slavery has always been with us. And yet even in those periods in the classical parts of history, there were voices that were raised against slavery.
Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds Yet those voices were never able to achieve an ascendancy. They were never able to do much more than say slavery is not a natural part of being a human being. And it’s probably a bad thing, but we can’t do anything about it because it’s part of human existence. And it’s been around for so long. Now, our key question today is in some ways what was it that changed that notion? What led to a different viewpoint on slavery that meant that people began to actively work against it and bring it to a place where the idea of abolition could become both politically, culturally and then ultimately a powerful idea that led to the end of legal slavery?
Skip to 2 minutes and 19 seconds I’m joined today by Dr. Kate Donnington. She works on the Anti-slavery Usable Past Project at the University of Nottingham. She’s a young imminent historian of both slavery and abolition. Kate, it’s great to have you with us here today. I’d like to hear from you, your specialism area is what was that pivot? What happened in the 17th and 18th century that began to change people’s minds about how slavery was seen, and then how it could be effectively addressed as a rights issue? I think it’s a really interesting period in terms of the development of both trade and colonization in that period. And that I think is key to understanding the development of transatlantic slavery.
Skip to 3 minutes and 4 seconds You had a Europe that was outwardly looking in terms of both its trade, but also in terms of its ideology around civilization and its need to expand. And I think that hand-in-hand with this movement out into the global world came the development of an economic system that was reliant on particular forms of un-free labor. And that began I think as a mixed labor economy. So you had indentured workers, free workers, and enslaved workers.
Skip to 3 minutes and 46 seconds And as it soon became clear that there weren’t going to be enough indentured laborers moving into the colonies, then I think we moved to a position whereby forced labor in the form of race-based African and slave labor became the norm, particularly in prices like the Caribbean, North America, South America, places where Europeans were moving to, but were not necessarily inclined to do the kinds of labor involved inside the production of sugar, rice, staples that were highly labor intensive within the new colonies. So we’ve got this burgeoning and growing empire. It’s based partly on the technologies of new types of sailing ships and new types of agricultural techniques and so forth. It’s expanding geographically.
Skip to 4 minutes and 43 seconds It’s come to the point where it’s beginning to draw on more and more enslaved workers to build up this rich new economy of colonization. What then happens to help people who live at the heart of that empire to see slavery in a different way? Well, I mean, I think arguably not everyone that was living at the heart of the empire necessarily saw slavery in a different way. I think actually, if you look particularly at the development of British abolition, abolitionism developed in metropolitan Britain. It didn’t develop in the colonies.
Skip to 5 minutes and 24 seconds It was something that in many ways was transported into the Caribbean colonies, particularly by religious dissenting groups, the enslaved themselves who were inspired by their own conditions primarily, but also movements within Europe, for example the French Revolution, which then in many ways led to the Haitian revolution. In terms of why it developed in Britain itself, I think there were changes in terms of the development of empire. So there were economic reasons for its development, the rise of the importance of India. There was also important developments in terms of religion and the development of dissenting religious identity.
Skip to 6 minutes and 13 seconds And I think that these things combined to create a more reformist humanitarian culture within Britain itself that then was mobilized around issues like anti-slavery. And that led to the eventual dismantling of the system. But if there was a growing reformist anti-slavery movement, was there pushback then? Were there countervailing movements of pro-slavery? Absolutely. I think pro-slavery hadn’t really developed at all as an ideology. It was simply the status quo prior to the abolition movement. Pro-slavery was very much a kind of reaction to the developments within the anti-slavery movement. And they mobilized a number of different arguments, primarily they made economic arguments about what was in the national interest and the contribution that slavery was making to Britain’s greatness.
Skip to 7 minutes and 19 seconds They also in some instances adopted both religious arguments and almost unbelievably humanitarian arguments in the sense that they were saying that enslaved people would be exposed to British civilization and British religion as well. So you had a number of different arguments mobilized in favor of pro-slavery. This is very interesting because it sounds like a lot of the political arguments that are actually going on in the time that we’re recording this, which have to do with the economy good or bad on each side, the culture either good or bad, is it a human rights issue, good or bad, where everyone is saying their particular angle on it.
Skip to 8 minutes and 1 second I’m fascinated particularly by this idea that religious and philosophical and humanitarian ideas can be brought to bear to say slavery is a good thing. What were some of those arguments about, particularly from a sort of theological point of view? Well, I mean there was slavery during biblical times. And some pro-slavery arguments mobilize some of the teachings in the Bible around the idea of the faithful slave, that God had put you in a particular position, and it was your duty to essentially fulfill that role. So it was considered to be almost a kind of ordained purpose. And the Church of England itself was highly involved in slave ownership.
Skip to 8 minutes and 49 seconds If you look at the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, they owned enslaved people on the Codrington estate in Barbados. So it wasn’t really the case that necessarily established religion was against slavery. It was very much a radical opinion held in the main state by religious dissenters. Oh, I see. So what was it that then brought us to this tipping point, this tipping point where the campaign, the abolitionist campaign, can ultimately lead to the making illegal of the slave trade? Well, I think the slave trade in some ways was a softer target for the abolitionists to go for.
Skip to 9 minutes and 37 seconds I think the reason why they chose the slave trade and not slavery itself was because attacking slavery involved to some degree an attack on property. So they started incrementally, and they built up over time. The slave trade I think was very easy to represent as an extremely inhumane institution. But it wasn’t any easy road. There were many times when Wilberforce and the parliamentary campaign came close to getting rid of the slave trade. But then for, in some instances, external reasons, the outbreak of the French Revolution for example, particularly the outbreak of the Haitian revolution in which the British public and political system were faced with the reality of emancipation taken by enslaved people could potentially look like.
Skip to 10 minutes and 33 seconds So these things combined, I think, along with the development of British culture and ideas about sensibility, anti-French ideas about tyranny, to result in the 1807 Act. But that was only half of the story. I think the dismantling of slavery itself came about I think in part because of a realization that slavery would not reform itself. I think you also have to take into account economic reasons. If you look, for example, at the decline of the economy in places like Jamaica and the rise of importance of the economy of places like India, then you begin to see some of the economic arguments.
Skip to 11 minutes and 21 seconds Also arguably, the large number of enslaved revolutions, resistance, rebellion that occurred in the period between 1807 and 1833, for example, the 1831 Jamaican Christmas uprising, then I think you begin to understand that economics, politics, and culture are coalescing to make the system untenable. And then even when legal slavery comes to an end, it’s not always just paradise on earth obviously. New types of problems occur. What were the problems that followed on from British emancipation? Well, British emancipation, I think, occurred over a period of time. I think it’s wrong to say that slavery necessarily ended in 1833. That’s when the act was passed. But in 1834, that’s when freedom was supposed to arrive in the Caribbean.
Skip to 12 minutes and 17 seconds But rather than immediate freedom, there was a period up until 1838 in which enslaved people were forced to continue to labor for free. And that period was known as apprenticeship. And during that period, in many ways, people argued that enslaved people raised revenue that contributed to the price of their own emancipation. Even with the ending of apprenticeship, it didn’t bring about an equal society. In fact, famously the British government paid 20 million pounds worth of compensation to the slave owners. But in terms of redress for people who had been enslaved, that was no redistribution of land, no redistribution of wealth. The power in the political system and the judiciary remained in the hands of the white British colonists.
Skip to 13 minutes and 14 seconds And there was also an introduction of new un-free labor regimes when newly emancipated people refused to labor on the plantations. Their labor was in some instances replaced with that of indentured laborers from both India and also from China. So new forms of unfreedom replaced slavery. And racial inequality continued to persist arguably all the way up to the development of an independence movement. And even today in the Caribbean, forms of colorism persist.
Skip to 13 minutes and 53 seconds Kate, what I’ve really understood from your really excellent explanation of what happened with British emancipation, especially in the Caribbean, is how similar that is to exactly what goes on today as all the countries in the world that have now made slavery illegal also fail in so many different ways to meet the needs of the people who have come out of slavery. When you talk about power structures and legal systems and cultural system still being in the hands of slave holders, you have to say that’s true actually today in West Africa. It’s true in the Indian subcontinent. In a sense, this story is being repeated over and over.
Skip to 14 minutes and 34 seconds It’s a very interesting past that we really need to think through, that there must be lessons to help us understand how we might better avoid precisely the mistakes and the inhumanities and the injustices that were perpetrated at the end of slavery as well as during slavery. So thank you very much for that, Kate. I appreciate that so much.
Skip to 14 minutes and 57 seconds I think as we move forward in the course, we’re going to be looking at precisely those questions of how we’re going to apply the lessons of the past to how we might better improve the process of liberation, not just to liberation, but to reintegration, rehabilitation, and all the things that would mean that someone coming out of slavery today would then be able to achieve a life of full citizenship, productivity, and psychological and emotional worth.
A Brief History of Slavery
Dr. Katie Donington of the University of Nottingham is an expert on historical slavery and slave-ownership.
In this film, Katie and Kevin Bales debate the seamless history of slavery. While this history is punctuated by events such as the abolition of legal slavery, slavery itself has never come to an end. Different cultures and societies, across different epochs, have imposed the same core elements of violent control and economic exploitation, and slavery has continuously evolved into many forms.
Kevin and Katie discuss the long pre-history for contemporary forms of slavery - the historical journey that brought us to the point of 46 million people enslaved around the world. They focus in particular on slavery in the former British colonies, slave rebellions in the 19th century, the process of emancipation, and the imposition of new forms of unfreedom to replace legal slavery.
After watching the film, please explore The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which comprises more than 35,000 individual slaving expeditions between 1514 and 1866. You can search for information about a specific voyage, a small group of voyages, or a large subset of the data set, such as all voyages under the Portuguese flag. There is a choice between a smaller “basic” set of 25 variables and a larger “general” set of 64 variables. Each set groups variables into the same eight categories. The interface of the query section is designed to be as intuitive as possible, but many of the FAQs are about how to use its features.
You can also explore this recent animated interactive that visualises more than 20,000 voyages cataloged in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.
Tell us in the comments what you find. Did you focus on one specific country that participated in the slave trade? If so, tell us about numbers of enslaved people transported during different time periods. Did you identify a particularly noteworthy voyage? Did you see any changes around 1808, when the slave trade was abolished in the United States and Great Britain? If so, what was the impact of that deadline in the lead-up to 1808, and then what was the actual change to the slave trade afterwards?