Socialist Worker

British companies continued to profit after abolition of slave trade

by Marika Sherwood, author of After Abolition
Issue No. 2043

Within days of the 1807 anti-slavery act coming into force, British slave traders were already deploying a number of ruses to circumvent it.

Ships were built in Britain and, if the builders felt they could evade the eyes of the law, they were fitted out for carrying slaves. Often it proved more convenient for the vessels to sail with the goods to be traded for slaves, and receive their “special fittings” en route.

Well aware of all that was going on, the abolitionists took action. In August 1810 Thomas Clarkson told the Liverpool abolitionist William Roscoe that he was working on the wording of a bill for the next session of parliament on “all the known evasions…”

Pressure from the African Institution and the Anti-Slavery Society resulted in more acts being passed.

Even when coupled with the somewhat ineffective Anti-Slavery Squadron of Royal Navy ships sent to the West African coast, the export of enslaved Africans barely diminished.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 promised freedom to the enslaved in the Caribbean, Canada, Cape Town and Mauritius.

Initially it was thought that freedom would only come at the end of a long period of “apprenticeship” but further rebellions reduced this, and freedom was granted from 1838.

Parliament passed more acts and called almost annual commissions to investigate the charges brought by the Anti-Slavery Society.

Those who benefited included the banks, insurance companies, shipbuilders, sail and later engine makers, and the manufacturers of goods exchanged for men, women and children in Africa.

Slave-owners in the Southern US states, Cuba and Brazil, and the owners of slave-worked plantations and mines, all continued to make large profits from this illegal trade.

Britain even reduced the import duties that imposed penalties on slave grown sugar in the 1840s.

That led to an increase in the exportation of the enslaved from Africa to Cuba and Brazil, as slave grown sugar became much more competitive.

It was cotton that led to the phenomenal economic growth of Lancashire and the north west of England, particularly Liverpool and Manchester.

Some 80 percent of it came from the Americas, where it was grown and packed by slaves.

Compared with the campaign against slave grown sugar, this complicity appears to have worried very few people.

Were there just too many people working directly and indirectly in the import, export, and manufacturing of cotton?

Were those making their millions from it just too influential?

Prior to the 1807 act Liverpool had pleaded that it would collapse without the open trade in enslaved Africans.

In fact it grew, and much of its growth was still based on the “nefarious trade” – which would only start to diminish in the 1860s.

The trade finally stopped when the enslaved in Cuba and Brazil were emancipated in the 1880s, by which time up to 20 million Africans may have lost their lives as a result.

The declaration to “the negro population of Jamaica” from the British government in 1834 spells out a new form of bondage.

“You will, on the first of August next, no longer be slaves, but from that day you will be apprenticed to your former owners for a few years, in order to fit you all for freedom... Should you runaway you will be brought back by the Maroons and Police, and have to remain in apprenticeship longer than those who behave well.”

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