Nigel Biggar

Britain’s slave trade and the problem with ‘decolonisation’

Britain's slave trade and the problem with 'decolonisation'
A meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, 1841 (photo: Getty)
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Colonialism and slavery. There is, of course, a connection between them. Yet the reason for our present interest in the topic assumes something stronger – not merely a connection, but an equation. That is why we are told we have to ‘decolonise’ ourselves. Because until we do, the vicious racism that slavery incarnated will continue to be our own. The assumption, however, is mistaken.

It is true that the British were heavily involved in trading slaves across the Atlantic from Africa to the Caribbean and the southern colonies of North America, mostly between 1660 and 1807. Britain transported around 3 million Africans in conditions that were infamously dreadful, with human cargo packed like sardines below decks. Maybe 450,000 slaves did not survive the voyage. Those that did were mostly put to work on sugar plantations, to toil for their owners for up 12 hours a day, six days a week, without pay, and with no legal redress against maltreatment. Malnourished and prey to disease, they suffered a high rate of mortality. That is why the plantation-owners had to keep on importing fresh supplies.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams famously argued that profits from the slave trade provided a major source of capital for financing Britain’s world-leading industrial revolution. In 2010, however, David Brion Davis, the distinguished historian of slavery and its abolition in the Western world, confidently pronounced that Williams’ thesis ‘has now been wholly discredited by other scholars.’

In the second half of the eighteenth century both the slave trade and the institution of slavery came under mounting public criticism in Britain. A leading catalyst for this was Christian humanitarianism. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, prefaced his Thoughts upon Slavery with a quotation from the Book of Genesis:

‘And the Lord said—What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground’ (Genesis 4.10).

The context is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and the implication is clear: Africans and Englishmen, slaves and masters, are brothers, common children of the same God. Anti-slavery sentiment acquired practical, political focus in 1787 with the founding of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in London. In 1807 the British Parliament legislated to abolish the slave trade. And in 1833 it abolished the institution of slavery through the British Empire.

One controversial feature of the process of abolition was the agreement to compensate slave-owners for their loss of property to the tune of £20 million, paid by the government and funded by metropolitan taxpayers. The reason for this was that the French Revolution and its Terror had made it unthinkable for the state to ride roughshod over the right to property. The payment of compensation to the slave-owners was a necessary political compromise. Besides, since the planters faced ruin without compensation, not to have granted it would have bankrupted the plantations and destroyed much of the prospect of paid employment for newly freed slaves.

In recent times the greatest controversy attending the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself surrounds another of Williams’ theses, namely, that the trade had only been abolished because it was no longer profitable. Against this, Roger Anstey demonstrated in 1975 that, in terms of economic interest, 1806-7 was the worst possible time for Britain to abolish its slave trade, embroiled as it was in a long war with Napoleon. Two years later Seymour Drescher published Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition, which presented a mass of empirical evidence that abolition amounted to an act of suicide for a major part of Britain’s economy.

The strength of abolitionist feeling in Britain was so great that it did not relax after 1807 or 1833. It went on to persuade the British Government to adopt a permanent policy of trying to suppress both the trade and the institution across the globe. One sign of this enduring commitment was the emergence in the Foreign Office of a separate Slave Trade Department to stamp out the trade, which was in fact the Office’s largest department in the 1820s and 1830s. From the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 onward the British used their diplomatic clout to secure support for a general abolition treaty between all the major European powers.

In addition to the velvet glove, they also deployed the hard fist. Up to ten ships of the Royal Navy were stationed off the coast of west Africa to disrupt the export of slaves until 1833. And from 1844 to 1865 the number seldom fell below 20, for several consecutive years stayed at over 30, and twice reached a peak of 36. At its height, the west African station employed 13.1 per cent of the Royal Navy’s total manpower.

Meanwhile, on the African continent itself the British promoted ‘legitimate’ commerce as an alternative to the slave-trade, while bringing persistent diplomatic pressure to bear upon the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which was the main port for the Great Lakes slave trade. Bit by bit the trade in slaves was throttled.

How much did all this cost? David Eltis reckoned that the suppression of the Atlantic slave-trade cost British taxpayers a minimum of £250,000 per annum (equal to about £1 billion today) for half a century. Moreover:

‘In absolute terms the British spent almost as much attempting to suppress the trade in the 47 years, 1816-62, as they received in profits over the same length of time leading up to 1807.’

In addition to the costs of naval suppression, Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape factored in the loss of business caused by abolition and the higher prices paid by British consumers for sugar, since duties were imposed to protect free-grown British sugar from competition by foreign producers who continued to benefit from unpaid slave labour. Overall, they reckoned the economic cost of the anti-slave trade effort to be roughly 1.8 per cent of national income over 60 years from 1808 to 1867. Although the comparisons are not exact, they do illuminate: today the UK spends 0.5 per cent of GDP on international aid and just over 2 per cent on national defence. Kaufmann and Pape concluded that Britain’s effort to suppress the Atlantic slave trade (alone) in 1807-67 was ‘the most expensive example [of costly international moral action] recorded in modern history.’

The problem with the assumption that underlies the call for ‘decolonisation’ is that it requires amnesia about everything since 1787. It requires us to overlook how widely popular in Britain was the cause of abolition from the closing decades of the eighteenth century onward. According to John Stauffer, Harvard historian of anti-slavery in the US:

‘Almost every United States black who travelled in the British Isles acknowledged the comparative dearth of racism there. Frederick Douglass noted after arriving in England in 1845: “I saw in every man a recognition of my manhood, and an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued in [the United States]”.’

Between the slave-trade and slavery of the eighteenth century and the present lies 150 years of imperial penance in the form of costly humanitarian endeavour to liberate slaves around the globe. British colonialism was quite as much about anti-slavery as it was about slavery. The vicious racism of slavers and planters was not its essence, and whatever racism exists in Britain today is not its fruit.

British naval officers stop a slave ship in Zanzibar c. 1870 (photo: Getty)
British naval officers stop a slave ship in Zanzibar c. 1870 (photo: Getty)

A more extensive discussion of this subject by Nigel Biggar is available at Briefings for Britain.

Written byNigel Biggar

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, and director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life, at the University of Oxford, where he runs the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project