March marks the 200th anniversary of the act of parliament that officially ended direct British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. The act of 1807 made it illegal for a British ship to transport captive Africans across the Atlantic for sale into slavery.
The passing of the act is officially celebrated as an act of enlightenment. Pride of place in these commemorations goes to William Wilberforce MP. But while he was responsible for pushing abolition through parliament, the role of campaigning fell to far more radical figures.
It was a mass movement of ordinary people in Britain and the rebellions of slaves themselves that ended slavery.
The accepted story of abolition celebrates the “British values” of justice and fair play. Yet Britain played the pivotal role in the international trade in human beings.
British ships dominated the market for slaves in the Americas and supplied African captives to Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish colonies, as well as to the parts of the world controlled by the British Empire.
The slaves were captured by raiding parties, imprisoned at coastal forts and forced to endure a horrific voyage as human freight. At its height British ships carried some 40,000 chained men, women and children across the Atlantic each year – as many as all other countries combined.
The “standard space per slave” laid down by the Royal Africa Company was five foot long, 11 inches wide and 23 inches high – for a voyage lasting nine or ten months. Around one in six of the slaves died on the journey. Those who survived were sold at auction into a life of brutal labour on plantations.
A ship’s doctor who testified for the anti-slavery movement described conditions where “those who are emaciated have their skin, even their flesh, entirely rubbed off, by the motion of the ship… so as to render the bones in those parts quite bare.
“The deck, that is, the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceed from them in consequence of the flux [dysentery], that it resembled a slaughter house.”
As a warning to others, those who would not eat or who physically rebelled, faced a variety of tortures designed to kill them slowly. Slaves were frequently whipped “until they could let out not even a whimper” and then left tied to the deck through the sun and rain for days on end.
There were even cases of entire shiploads of slaves being thrown overboard to their death so that the ship’s owners could claim them as a “loss” against their insurance policies.
To the enormous riches generated by the “African trade”, as it was known, were added those made on the plantations, where slaves produced cotton, sugar, tobacco and rum.
Exhausted slaves, who spent dawn until dusk in the fields cutting sugar cane as the sun beat down, would continue their work into the night at the mills that processed the sugar. Children as young as seven were given a small hoe with which to join the labour of the adults.
Yet a manual for planters could recall, “How pleasing, how gratifying… it is to see a swarm of healthy, active, cheerful, pliant… negro boys and girls going to and returning from the puerile work field.”
Slaves who chose to reject the benevolence of their masters by running away could expect the lash, and, at times, the iron collar and a straitjacket. Eventually most owners took to branding their slaves with a red-hot iron that carried the mark of their owner.
Women slaves endured a further burden. They were treated as objects for the sexual gratification of their masters and frequently raped. Many killed themselves, and their unborn babies, rather than give birth to the offspring of their oppressors.
Estimates on the number of Africans who lost their lives due to slavery vary between ten and 30 million. While the trade was “legal”, ship owners kept a careful record of their cargo.
After 1807 when the trade went underground, such records were much more closely guarded. Most historians agree that between 1532 and 1850 at least 20 million Africans were transported.
The slave economy’s profits created a new wealthy elite. The trade also paid for impressive projects such as the cathedral-like library of All Souls College in Oxford, the grandiose Royal Crescent in Bath and the enormous West India docks in London.
In 1773 the Heywood brothers founded a bank in Liverpool to fund slave expeditions and deposit their profits. Today the firm is part of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Barclay brothers were involved in the slave trade from 1756.
Many of those in Britain aware of the horrors being inflicted by the slave trade justified it with the notion that Africans were not human beings, but a form of animal. Just as cattle had no rights, Africans were merely another form of property.
A combination of the developing anti-slavery movement in Britain, the French Revolution of 1789 – which propagated the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity – and slave rebellions, particularly the uprisings in Saint Domingue and Jamaica, brought an end to slavery.
There were also developments in the way that capitalism worked that meant a section of the ruling class, those who believed in exploitation of “free labour”, joined the movement against slavery.
But it was the emerging working class movement in Britain that provided the main force behind abolition. The passion with which workers took up the cause startled their bosses.
Henry Redhead Yorke chaired a huge public meeting in Sheffield, which demanded political rights for workers and freedom for slaves.
He told the meeting, “Let the African, the Asiatic, the European, burst asunder their chains, and raise a pious war against tyranny. Should tyrants… refuse to expiate their crimes… let the people roll on them in a tempest of fury, and compel them to expire in agonies!”
Slave rebellions were to smash the illusion, propagated by slave owning absentee landlords in London, of docile Africans basking happily in the sun on plantations.
But they also posed a threat to the European economies that now depended on the plantations for a huge slice of their nation’s wealth.
The British slave trade was caught between the hammer at home and the anvil on the plantations.
It received a massive blow with the 1807 vote. But it would take the rebellion of Jamaica in 1831 to finally break its hold.