Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds I’m here today with Dr. Mary Wills from the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull. And we’re going to be talking about the complicated history of British anti-slavery. So Mary, slavery was a common and unremarkable part of British society for 200 years prior to the abolition movement. Many people were involved in the slavery business, from ordinary men and women, through to the elites within society. So what was it that happened in the 1780s that caused the British abolition movement to take hold? Abolitionism was a prominent part of the political and popular debates in the UK from 1780s and throughout the 19th century.
Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds Its history is inseparable from the rise of religious nonconformism, and from the age of revolutions that swept through North America, France, and Haiti. Before 1807, the main thrust of abolitionists’ efforts was targeted against the slave trade, rather than slavery itself. The cruelty and the high mortality of the slave trade made its abolition both desirable and politically attainable. Prominent abolitionists, such as William Wilberforce, or Thomas Clarkson, are relatively well known. But the movement towards abolition also had a broad base of public support. Abolitionist tactics included things such as distributing pamphlets, petitioning parliament, collecting evidence against the slave trade. Women played a key role, as did black activists, such as Olaudah Equiano.
Skip to 1 minute and 42 seconds But the abolitionists were faced with a fierce opposition from what was known as the West India Interest, which was a group of elite planters and merchants who had vested interests in the maintenance of the slave economy. They used similar tactics to those of the abolitionists, and were able to delay the progression of the Slave Trade Abolition Act. But it wasn’t just lobbying culture that stopped the progression. There were other historical contexts that we need to consider. Could you tell us a bit more about that? Popular momentum also faulted in response to the war against France in the 1790s, and also the implications of the Haitian revolution. There were fears that there would be similar losses of British colonies.
Skip to 2 minutes and 23 seconds The Abolition Act was finally passed in 1807, which declared slave trading illegal for British subjects. The Royal Navy was tasked with upholding these new laws, and so began a new chapter in British abolitionism. Importantly, there was no international agreement to end the slave trade. Demand for enslaved peoples continue, particularly in the plantations of Cuba and Brazil. The Royal Navy therefore fronted a 60 year campaign to suppress the slave trades of other nations, and in particular France, Portugal, and Spain. This was a British state response, which combined diplomacy and coercion. Bilateral treaties were signed with other nations, which authorized the Royal Navy to capture slave ships and release the enslaved Africans found on board.
Skip to 3 minutes and 13 seconds These re-captive Africans were transported to reside in the British colony of Sierra Leone. Treaties were also pursued with African rulers in an attempt to stop the supply of enslaved African people. British abolitionism became increasingly interventionist as Naval tactics changed to so-called gunboat diplomacy. This led to the blockade of the West African coast to stop slave ships from leaving the coast, and the destruction of slave barracoons, or holding pens. British were accused of using humanitarian means to achieve strategic advantage. So whether Naval suppression actually had any real impact on ending the Atlantic slave trade is debatable.
Skip to 3 minutes and 55 seconds The 200,000 enslaved Africans released by the Royal Navy from slave ships represent a relatively small share of the estimated 3.2 million slaves embarked from West African coast between 1808 and 1863. But 1807 wasn’t the end of the story. Following the abolition of the slave trade, there followed the campaign to end slavery itself was an institution. So the abolitionists were wary of taking aim at slavery because it would mean that they could possibly be portrayed as attacking property. Instead, they chose to use tactics which involve forcing the planters to improve conditions on the plantations themselves. They introduced legislation which led to the registering of all enslaved people in the colonies.
Skip to 4 minutes and 46 seconds And they hoped that this would enable them to monitor birth and death rates on the plantations. These kinds of legislations didn’t really impact on the daily lives of enslaved people though, and they continued to suffer. They also continued to resist their enslavement through everyday acts of insubordination, but also through armed and violent uprisings. These took place throughout the Caribbean during the periods. These kinds of actions led the British government to the position in which they believed slavery, as an institution, was no longer a sustainable project. So they began negotiations to bring about the end of slavery. These negotiations were speeded up when another rebellion broke out in 1831 in Jamaica.
Skip to 5 minutes and 34 seconds In 1833, the government finally passed the Abolition Act, which ended slavery. As part of the measures to end slavery in the Caribbean, Mauritus, and the Cape of Good Hope, they agreed to pay the slave owners 20 million pounds worth of compensation. In fact, actually the enslaved ended up contributing towards the price of their own emancipation through a further period of unfree labor under the system of apprenticeship, which only finally came to an end in 1838. So what did this mean for notions of freedom in the post emancipation Caribbean? I think notions of freedom, within the context of continued colonialism in the Caribbean, were more highly curtailed.
Skip to 6 minutes and 15 seconds The Abolition Act didn’t bring about a change, in terms of land ownership, and the planters continued to dominate the political system and the judiciary. In terms of labor on the plantations itself, slavery was replaced with other forms of unfree labor, including indentured labors from both China and from India. In terms of what it meant for Britain then, how do you see the British as re-situating themselves from being a former slaving nation to what has been termed as the abolition nation? Yes, well, across the Atlantic, British anti-slavery became increasingly bound to a more interventionist approach in the African interior to eradicate slave trading at source.
Skip to 7 minutes and 1 second Furthermore, the line between suppressing the slave trade and Britain’s own colonial ambitions often blurred, leading to pressure on African states to sign anti-slavery treaties or face action if they refused. So I think it’s fair to say that the history of British anti-slavery is tangled up with the history of British empire. And it’s these complex entanglements that impact on the ways in which we can think about and take action, in terms of humanitarianism within the context of post colonial societies. We’d love to hear more about what you think about some of the questions that we said raised within the debates and discussions today.
Antislavery and Empire
Dr. Mary Wills and Dr. Katie Donington focus their research on British slavery and antislavery, including the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade.
In this film, shot at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation in Hull, they discuss British antislavery of 18th and 19th centuries. Slavery was an accepted part of British society for over two hundred years prior to its abolition in 1833. Slave-produced commodities such as sugar, cotton, tobacco and coffee were an important part of colonial trade. The wealth they generated meant that the system of slavery was perceived as being in the national interest. Mary and Katie discuss why and how Britain transformed itself from being the world’s leading slave trading nation into a country that prided itself on its history of abolition.
After watching the film, please visit the digital resource Visualizing Emancipation, which takes a different national case study: the United States. It organises documentary evidence about when, where, and how slavery fell apart during the American Civil War. We see how emancipation occurred unevenly across the South, beginning before the first major battles and ending after the end of the Confederacy. It shows the complex interactions between federal policies, armies in the field, and the actions of enslaved men and women on countless farms and city blocks. Visualizing Emancipation maps a messy story, in which patterns partially visible today remained hidden to many involved. It presents a history of emancipation where brutality is sometimes easier to see than generosity and where the costs of war and freedom fell disproportionately on the most vulnerable in the South. The war that brought freedom to millions brought unmatched destruction and disruption. If emancipation was a process, it must have seemed a chaotic, directionless one to many caught up in it. Visualizing Emancipation shows a war in which alliances between enslaved people and union soldiers were uneasy and often tested, but which yielded, somehow, the end of slavery.
Tell us in the comments what you think about these two different histories of slavery’s end - Britain and the United States. What do these two national histories of Emancipation tell us about the nature of emancipation more broadly?