The slave trade and its abolition

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, March 26, 2007

Yesterday marked the 200th anniversary of the legislation that abolished slave trade in the British Empire and marked the beginning of the fight the Royal Navy waged for a long time against other slavers, particularly Arab ones.

There has been a great deal written about the subject, some sensible some completely nonsensical like the calls for Britain to apologize (to whom is not made clear) for being one of just about every country and civilization in owning and trading slaves, though, clearly there was something different about a country that firmly proclaimed that owning and trading slaves was actually wrong. That is what makes this anniversary so right and worthy of celebration.

Tory Historian saw about half of a new exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery (half because closing time approached), called “Between Worlds – Voyagers to Britain 1700-1850”. There will be a return visit and a posting on the basis of that. There are many fascinating portraits and stories in the exhibition.

However, as we are celebrating the end of the slave trade, one particular portrait (and various copies and etchings made from it) needs to be mentioned. It is that of William Ansah Sessarakoo, the son of a wealthy West African slave trader, whose father sent him to Europe in 1749 to be educated.

En route he himself was put into slavery by the treacherous (and, one assumes, European) captain of his ship. Sessarakoo was rescued by the British government, brought to Britain, introduced to George II and generally treated like a prince (which he may or may not have been). He was compared to Oroonoko, the eponymous hero of Aphra Behn’s play.

Oroonoko is a noble prince who is wrongly sold into slavery. To say that a noble man or a rich one should not be sold into slavery is not quite the same as to say that slavery is wrong.

There was a comment to that effect in the visitors’ book, though the author of it clearly misunderstood a great deal. He or she thought that describing somebody as being wrongfully enslaved was very odd as there could be no rightful enslavement. As a matter of fact William Ansah Sessarakoo would not have agreed with that. There is no evidence that he was in any way like John Newton the author of “Amazing Grace”, who had been a slave trader and accepted the wrongness of it, trying to expiate his own guilt.

A comment like that misunderstands and does not acknowledge how astonishing, historically speaking, was the idea that we take for granted: no man or woman has the right to own another man or woman.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. The Act passed 200 years ago did not actually restrict slavery among its colonies in the British Caribbean and the Americas, just as capital punishment is still in place in British Dependencies. British slave traders continued trafficking in slaves throughout the British West Indies and the colonies of Berbice and Demerara-Essequibo. George Stephen wrote that in 1809, slave ships, under foreign flags, had been fitted out in London and Liverpool, in order to import enslaved persons to British colonies, via Spanish and Portuguese settlements.
    It's possible that Britain made more money out of the trade and slavery AFTER 1807 and the 1833 Emancipation Act, which made owning slaves illegal. (The enslaved were freed only in the West Indies and Cape Town; the last Acts abolishing slavery were, as I tell my class learning about the League of Nations, in Sierra Leone as late as 1927 and the Gold Coast in 1928.)

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. What the Communists say!

    Proletarian issue 17 (April 2007)

    Slave trade abolition bicentennial: an exercise in whitewashing

    Two centuries after the slave trade was formally abolished in the British Empire, the true extent of British involvement and reliance on that trade is less widely understood than ever; as are the real reasons for its abolition.

    On 25 March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed, prohibiting slave relations within the British Empire. The bicentennial of this event has been greeted by a great deal of fanfare, with leading politicians queuing up to issue half-hearted ‘apologies’ for Britain’s role in the slave trade. The great insight and moral loftiness of the likes of Tory MP William Wilberforce (the most prominent British parliamentary abolitionist) have been lauded, and the marvel of 21st century ‘free labour’ has been counterposed to the insufferable cruelty of slavery.

    Abolition was not a ‘moral’ issue for the capitalist class

    The question of the abolition of slavery has long been treated in history books as an act of benevolence and dedication by a few white liberal campaigners, driven by their humanitarianism and lofty moral values. This treatment of the subject is not just superficial - it is pernicious.

    It is perfectly true that a significant number of whites campaigned and lobbied for abolition; some of them even contributed to the underground railroad and took part in military raids against slaveowners (John Brown being a notable example). However, the white abolitionists were by no means the main contributing body towards the abolition of slavery. Furthermore, the motivations of the white abolitionist movement – in Britain and America - were not humanitarian: although many individuals within this movement were undoubtedly motivated by a sense of humanity and equality, the movement as a whole reflected changing economic conditions.

    The simple agricultural labour of the slave was increasingly being rendered inefficient by the introduction of large-scale industrial machines. It just wasn’t feasible for these machines to be operated on the basis of slave labour – the operation of such machinery requires a certain level of education and training that is not consistent with the shackles of slavery. As Tristram Hunt wrote recently: “Profits from the bloody trade secured the imperial hegemony of Georgian England. It was only brought to an end in 1807 because of the move from a colonial sugar trade to industrial capitalism. There was nothing noble about abolition …” (‘Easy on the euphoria’,, 25 March 2006)

    An ‘added bonus’ of treating abolition as an act of kindness by ‘good’ people is that it leads very naturally to treating slavery as an act of meanness by ‘bad’ people, thereby allowing us to ignore the important fact that capitalism will stop at nothing in the pursuit of profit. The industrial revolution, the great cities of Britain, the rapid development of western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – all these were built on the slave trade, on the intensive and inhuman exploitation of African slave labour. Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean were considered to be “the fundamental prop and support” of the British Empire. (Eric Williams, Capital and Slavery, cited in WEB DuBois, The World and Africa)

    In the poetic words of Karl Marx:

    “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, etc …

    “With the development of capitalist production during the manufacturing period, the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience. The nations bragged cynically of every infamy that served them as a means to capitalistic accumulation …

    “If money, according to Augier, ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek’, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” ( Capital Vol 1)

    Slave revolts

    Aside from the economic question, one of the principal driving factors in bringing down slavery in the Americas was the increasingly well-organised and militant revolts by the slaves, who far outnumbered the white population in the southern states and in the Caribbean. As is (at the time of writing) noted on the Wikipedia entry for the Atlantic slave trade, “Virtually every major reform pertaining to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery took place in the immediate aftermath of a major armed rebellion and/or victory by enslaved or formerly enslaved Africans.”

    These revolts were a highly significant factor in rendering slavery untenable. But the history of slave revolt is largely ignored, or at least features only as a footnote, in bourgeois accounts of abolition. Bourgeois academics have settled on a version of history that emphasises the benevolence of white colonialists, ignores the economic basis upon which political acts rest, and downplays any thirst of the oppressed for freedom. Perhaps one day Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson and David Trimble will be remembered in secondary schools as the bearers of Irish freedom!

    It is criminal that the version of history taught to schoolchildren does not include, for example, the heroic uprising of the African slaves along with the Seminole American natives, in which hundreds of slaves fled their plantations to join the rebel forces in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). In this revolt, the largest slave rebellion in US history, more than 20 sugar plantations in Florida were destroyed. (See

    The names of slave leaders like Nat Turner, Samuel Sharpe and Zumbi are rarely heard when the press talks about slavery. Nobody mentions Haiti, where the slaves overthrew the colonisers and set up their own independent state. Such memories are clearly too painful for the ruling class (and potentially too inspiring for the oppressed masses of the world). As WEB DuBois put it in his excellent book The World and Africa, “The slave revolts were the beginnings of the revolutionary struggle for the uplift of the labouring masses in the modern world. They have been minimised in extent because of the propaganda in favour of slavery and the feeling that the knowledge of slave revolt would hurt the system.”

    The legacy of slavery lives on

    Britain, the US, Belgium, France and other imperialist countries continue to treat Africa simply as a source of profit. Two hundred years ago, they stole human beings and took them across the Atlantic Ocean to work them in the sugar plantations; today, they are happy to exploit Africans on African soil. The colonial and neo-colonial history of Africa, most of which occurs after Britain suddenly discovered the importance of freedom and thus abolished slavery, is a story of relentless exploitation, subjugation, oppression and repression. Still today imperialism does not hesitate to murder, rape and steal in the interests of getting control of Africa’s mineral resources, labour and markets. What are we to make of Tony Blair’s ‘apology’ for Britain’s role in the slave trade when his government and the British ruling class he represents are doing everything they can to keep Africa in neo-colonial chains?

    What’s more, the ideological legacy of slavery, ie, the idea of the superiority of the white ‘race’, is still perpetuated today, albeit in far more sophisticated fashion than it was two hundred years ago. This racism is still used to divide working people and to provide a subconscious justification for the actions of the imperialist states in the third world.

    Finally, we should point out that, while formal slavery relations are these days very unusual, the actual conditions under which the poorer sections of the world’s population labour are not all that different to conditions of slavery. Labourers in Asia, Africa and South America are very often literally worked to death by the multinationals that employ them. They are nominally ‘free’, but in reality they have no means of survival other than submitting themselves to the ruthless exploitation of the corporations.

    It’s up to us to finish the job started by the likes of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Frederick Douglass.

    No to slavery and no to wage slavery! Forward to communism!

  5. What a joy it is to read that Communist stuff. And there I was thinking that they have finally recognized that nobody in the whole wide world wants their ideas. Ah well, nostalgia in't what it used to be.

    By the way, no mention of the extensive network of slave labour camps under Communism or the fact that collective farm peasants (i.e. all of them) had no right to leave those farms and no internal passports without which they could go nowhere.

  6. Keith Evetts Says:
  7. On the matter of Haitian independence, that too was not free of ignoble sentiment. The author of the Haitian Declaration of Independence, Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre, said that the declaration "should be written with the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for a desk, his blood for ink and a bayonet for a pen."
    ref Heinle & Heinle, "Written in Blood" and Duke University

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