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Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery

In this video Dr Kate Donington discusses Britain's involvement in transatlantic slavery.
Now is it true– because we’re going to do a bit of myth-busting here. Is it true that Britain wasn’t– wasn’t, take note– involved in slavery for very long? One of the things we have to get clear when we’re talking about transatlantic slavery as a system is that it involves the transatlantic slave trade, which was the kidnap and the transport of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the North American colonies in the case of Britain, and also, the British Caribbean, and transatlantic slavery, which was the practise of enslavement in the Caribbean itself. And these are two distinct parts of an interlinked system. So the first British slave-trading voyage was in the 1500s. So it’s in the 1560s.
That was a very, very small-scale intervention. But Britain’s interest in and profiteering from the slave trade intensified in the 17th century, and thus, linked the expansion of its colonial possessions. So it’s linked to the expansion of empire in the Caribbean and in North America, so the Atlantic World. So it was very intensively involved with slave trading. And between 1640 and 1807, it was one of the most prolific slave-trading powers in Europe. But British involvement in the slave trade was brought to an end in 1807 with the passing of the Slave Trade Abolition Act. However, the institution of slavery itself in the British Caribbean continued on until 1833, when the Abolition Act was passed.
And then it was enacted in 1834, which brought slavery formally to an end. When it came to abolition of slavery, which it did eventually, was Britain one of the first nations to get involved in this? In actual fact, it wasn’t a European nation at all that was the first to abolish either the slave trade or slavery itself. It was, in fact, Haiti. So Haiti was originally called Saint-Domingue. And it was a French slave colony. But in August of 1791, enslaved people rose up. They were led by Toussaint Louverture, and they overthrew the colonial authorities there. They burnt down a lot of the plantations. They resisted re-enslavement when French troops were sent to quell the rebellion.
And essentially, they abolished the practise of both the slave trade and slavery themselves. So there must have been lots of people who were opposing abolition. So why were they opposing it? So you have a financial interest in terms of people who were against the abolition of slavery because they’d invested large amounts of money in it. You, of course, have the planters themselves who were, for very obvious reasons, reluctant to let go of what they saw as their property. You also had affiliate industries. So you had things like the insurance industry. You had gunmakers and chain-makers in Birmingham. You had the nascent cotton industry, the factory industry up in Northern England, which relied on cotton produced by enslaved labourers.
So there are all these different ways in which people are financially reliant on the continuation of slavery. Also, importantly, within the military too. So if we think about the role of the Admiralty in defending slavery. And a number of admirals spoke out in defence of slavery and gave evidence to Parliament, saying that this was a really important trade. It was described as the nursery for seamen because it provided a training ground for British naval officers, and also, ordinary sailors. So transatlantic slavery’s tentacles snaked into so many different, very powerful areas of society. And they were able to mobilise their allies to speak up for slavery. And they were very, very powerful allies.
I mean, for example, the members of the royal family spoke up in the House of Lords for the slave owners. It was a very effective campaign. They were able to hold off– After the abolition of the slave trade, they were able to hold off the abolition of slavery for another 30 years, nearly.

In this video Kevin Ncube and Lynne Hume interview Dr. Kate Donington, Senior Lecturer at the Open University.

While watching the video think about the following questions. Add your thoughts into the comments area.

  • What is the difference between transatlantic slavery and the transatlantic slave trade?
  • Name two British industries that were affiliated to slavery and the slave trade.
  • Which country was the first to abolish either of these forms of slavery?
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