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Liberating Africans and the abolition of the slave trade – Richard Anderson interview

When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, what happened to the people liberated from slave ships? Dr Richard Anderson explains.
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CHRISTINE WHYTE: Hi, Dr. Richard Anderson from the University of Aberdeen. Thank you so much for coming to talk to us today about liberated Africans and what happens after the slave trade was abolished by the British Parliament. And so the first question I wanted to ask you was what happens when a slave ship was intercepted by the anti-slave trade patrol?
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RICHARD ANDERSON: Vessels captured by the Royal Navy were captured along the African coast or at sea in the Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean, often after a quite violent skirmish. British policy was that the vessel and those on board could not be taken to the nearest port on the African mainland out of fear that those onboard might face violence or re-enslavement. They were instead taken to, often, a British colony, a site of a British vice admiralty court, later locations of multilateral courts in places like Havana or Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
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What this meant is that those who were on board these vessels, those who were enslaved and held below decks, often faced voyages of weeks or even months from the point of interception until they were able to reach one of these ports and one of these courts, not least because it wasn’t always obvious in the middle of the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean where the nearest port would be. So the vessels were escorted to places like Freetown, and the majority of vessels went there, more than any other location, because of its location on the West African coast. The vessels themselves then underwent a process of adjudication.
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During this process, which could itself last several weeks, the enslaved Africans onboard were forced to remain onboard and below decks, because this was considered, in the eyes of the law, as a property issue. If the vessel was considered to be a good prize, in the language of the time, those on board were allowed to disembark, in what was known as the Liberated African Yard, a walled compound on the shore of Freetown. And after a voyage of weeks, if not, months they then passed through the gate, which still stands on Freetown’s waterfront, inscribed with the words “Freed from slavery by British valour and philanthropy.”
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CHRISTINE WHYTE: So after this long and arduous journey, what would happen to them? What would daily life be like after they passed through that gate and they entered into Freetown and into the liberated African settlement?
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RICHARD ANDERSON: There was a lot of factors dictating what life looked like after liberation. One was the age at which you arrived in the colony. The 19th century slave trade was, to an unprecedented degree, a trade in children. So a lot of liberated African policy meant dealing with the resettlement of children. So the answer very much was apprenticeship, that is that those who were onboard slave ships and deemed to be children were apprenticed to Freetown’s settler population. So in some ways this was somewhere between apprenticeship in the UK as a historic institution and from the apprenticeship we would later see in the British Caribbean, post-emancipation. It was also shaped by gender.
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Men were placed into various forms of forced labour for a period before being settled in Freetown or in surrounding villages. Women were often married with little volition on their part immediately after their arrival.
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And there’s different policies over time. Early on, abolitionist measures take place in the context of the Napoleonic wars, and so enlistment is something that is faced especially by adult males who are then sent to serve in the Caribbean. So age, gender, date of arrival really shape what liberation is like, but it’s very much a constrained form of liberation.
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CHRISTINE WHYTE: Thank you. And if people wanted to find out more about the lives of people liberated from the slave trade, where would be the best places to look?
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RICHARD ANDERSON: Well, in some ways, liberated Africans are among the best documented victims of the slave trade over four centuries, so there are a range of colonial and missionary archives within the United Kingdom, the British National Archives, archives of the Church Missionary Society at the University of Birmingham, the Methodist Missionary Society at SOAS. And so in some respects, the level of documentation is quite unique for survivors of the Middle Passage. Of course, these are often mediated sources by former officials, missionaries. Some of the richest sources we have are firsthand accounts, narratives that were produced especially for missionary societies. Of course these are documents that have a certain audience in mind. So in some ways you’re incredibly rich, but also limited.
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You can also think then about looking beyond archives. We’re now 200 years beyond the passage of the Abolition Act, but in places like Sierra Leone, places like Jamaica, Tortuga, Trinidad, many people who are the descendants of liberated Africans retain that type of diasporic consciousness. So there’s the possibility of looking at non-archival sources in terms of the linguistic impact, cultural impact, religious impact, culinary impact, for example.

The legal abolition of slavery in the British Empire was a long, staggered and interrupted process. Because the slave trade and slavery was so integral to the British economy, the idea of abolishing it took a long time to take hold in British politics. As we saw earlier, the Haitian Revolution had a considerable impact on public opinion, and on the abolitionist campaign in Britain. By the 1790s, legislators were split between different factions. Some wholly opposed to abolition, others keen to delay its implementation, while the minority were driving for abolition.

The abolitionist minority chose to make a series of political compromises. The most significant of these was to abolish the slave trade, long before abolishing the practice of slavery in the British Empire. The Bill to Abolish the Slave Trade passed in 1807, and enforcement began in March 1808 with the capture of two ships by a British patrol. Those two ships were the start of almost a century of anti-slave trade activity by the British Navy. The enslaved captives on-board were taken and forcibly resettled close to where the slave traders were tried. Most were sent to the Colony of Sierra Leone in West Africa, but others to St Helena, the Caribbean, Kenya, India and the Seychelles. In these British settlements, vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual communities developed. However, the people remained largely under the control of the British colonial authorities.

Dr Richard Anderson is a Lecturer in the History of Slavery at Aberdeen University and has done extensive research on the lives of the Liberated Africans in Sierra Leone.

Selected Publications

Want to know more?

In 2019-2020, the Museum of London Docklands hosted an exhibition about the Liberated Africans of Sierra Leone, known as the Krio. Co-curators, Melissa Bennett and Iyamide Thomas discuss the exhibition in this podcast: Displaying Black British History: The Krios of Sierra Leone.

Liberated Africans: This website retraces the lives of over 250,000 people emancipated under global campaigns to abolish slavery, as well as thousands of officials, captains, crews, and guardians of a special class of people known as “Liberated Africans.”

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History of Slavery in the British Caribbean

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