Ostensible celebration of the abolition of the slave trade seems almost to have been
obliterated by a collective bout of anguished breast-beating about British
participation in that evil business. Whatever the arguments for or against an apology for
that involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it should not be forgotten that Britain
was not simply in the forefront of measures to stop it, but their sole begetter.
And Britain was not alone in serving that awful trade. Portugal is generally accepted
to have instigated the trade in slaves from West Africa in the 15th century and which
was systematized by Spain to assist natives working in their West Indian possessions.
Portuguese slavers also sailed to their colony of Brazil. English participation, initially
from West Africa to the West Indies (sometimes via English ports), subsequently to
North America, began in the mid-16th century.
Tobacco plantations in Virginia required increasing numbers of unskilled labourers
and English vessels assumed a pre-eminent position in the North Atlantic slave trade.
By the end of the 18th century, cotton had become the major industry in the southern
states of America and had revitalized the need for slave workers.
But if the British, or all the European seafaring nations, "were the greatest culprits
in the [Atlantic] slave trade, they were also the first to recognize their guilt and mend
their ways" (East Africa and its Invaders by Sir Reginald Coupland, OUP 1938). The
1807 Act made participation in the slave trade illegal for any British subject or any
British ship; in 1811 it became a felony punishable by transportation. So rigorously
was this policy pursued that by the end of the Napoleonic wars British slave ships had
virtually ceased to exist, although it would be many years before the slave trade was
Britain now attempted to curb involvement of other nations in the trans-Atlantic trade.
At first this was done by diplomatic pressure and financial bribes by way of
compensation. By these means Portugal agreed, in a treaty of 1815, "to limit the
operations of her slave-traders to a field between the southern half of the African coasts
(the Portuguese were now taking slaves from Mozambique) and her trans-Atlantic
colonies" (op cit). Similarly, a treaty with Spain in 1817 provided for abolition of the
trade in 1820. Unfortunately, such measures were of little effect; it has been calculated
that the volume of the trade in the 1840s exceeded that of the 1700s.
Only Britain, for many years, fulfilled its treaty obligations. Although the Royal
Navy, imbued with a humanitarian determination reflecting the hostility of the whole
nation towards the slave trade, dealt vigorously with British slave smugglers, it was
unable to act against those operating under foreign flags unless a reciprocal right of
search had been agreed; such agreement often took years of negotiation to secure. Such a
right was refused by the United States, enabling many slavers to sail with impunity
under the false colours of the Stars and Stripes.
All the nations bordering the Atlantic, other than Britain, were active in the slave
trade, Napoleonic wars permitting. After 1815, Portugal not only pursued an increasing,
permitted trade with Brazil, but smuggled slavers into Cuba. And although Portugal
conceded a reciprocal right of maritime search in 1817, it was not until 1830 (five years
after Brazil had gained its independence) that Portugal "abolished" the slave trade.
The position of France was rather different. Although the revolutionary National
Convention had abolished slavery in France and its colonies in 1794, traffic in slaves
from Kilwa and Mozambique to He de France (later Mauritius) and Bourbon (later
Reunion) had continued, with French settler planters importing and employing slaves in
defiance of the revolutionary authorities.
Napoleon restored colonial slavery in 1802. Although France was to prohibit the
slave trade in 1818, little was done to enforce the law and reciprocal right of search was
denied the British until 1831; until then, Arab slavers were often able to sail under false
French colours. An 1845 agreement for an increased number of French naval vessels
would, assuredly, prevent a continuing slave trade between the eastern African littoral
and Reunion. Little changed, despite the 1848 Revolution prescribing the emancipation
of slaves; their transport, supposedly as "free labourers", to Reunion and elsewhere
continued, with the connivance of corrupt Portuguese in Mozambique and a compliant
French navy. These difficulties were largely eased by another treaty between Britain
and France in 1861, whereby coolies could be recruited in British India for work in
The Anglo-Spanish treaty of 1835 hastened the end of an already declining traffic by
Spanish interests across the Atlantic. Steps to secure a similar treaty with the
Portuguese were rebuffed, Portugal holding that right of search, and any consequential
action, were sanctioned only if a slaver was intercepted while carrying slaves. An
exasperated Palmerston would not be denied and eventually a treaty was signed in 1842
which found the Portuguese Government "declaring the Slave Trade piracy and
providing for the condemnation of ships equipped for though not actually engaged in
carrying slaves" (op cit).
Even so, massive corruption from governors-general down to the meanest official
meant the continuance of the trade from Mozambique for some years.
Current concentration on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and similar traffic operated
elsewhere: from central Africa to Mozambique (thence to Brazil, Madagascar and French,
Spanish and Portuguese colonies elsewhere); from central Africa to Zanzibar, an entrepot
for the East African trade; from the Sudan and Abyssinia to the Red Sea and Arabia. The
East African slave trade had been operated by Arabs, principally from Oman, for many
centuries, as far south as Mozambique, before the West African trade began.
The Foreign Office and the Admiralty eventually turned their attention from the
Atlantic to the East African trade. A widespread pattern was to emerge, of energetic
British consular staff, supported by HM ships, attempting to suppress the trade with little
practical assistance from other countries, particularly the French and Portuguese.
Not until the end of the 19th century could the East African slave trade be said to have
been abolished - as late as May 1896, four slavers were seized by an RN ship in
Zanzibar waters - and then only because a naval blockade was supplemented by actions
which made slave caravans from the interior uneconomic as well as illegal (a benevolent
aspect of the notorious Scramble for Africa).
In the context of West and East African slavery, one important fact seems to have gone
comparatively unremarked, that Africans were sold into slavery by their own chiefs, or as
captives from the product of internecine warfare, in exchange for barter goods.
The thoughts of Captain Guillain, a naval officer stationed in Zanzibar from 1846 to
1848 to further French interests in the area, and possibly not an anglophile, are noteworthy:
"One must acknowledge an incontestable merit, a manifest greatness, in a people
which, as one whole body, government and governed alike, is passionately bent
on redressing the social crime of slavery, and pours out its money, its ships, and
its sailors and involves itself, day after day, in quarrelling and bloodshed in order
to achieve its noble mission".
Whatever public act of contrition may be demanded from Britain because of its part in
the trans-Atlantic slave trade, its later role in defeating it, together with the East African
slave trade, is surely worthy of some acknowledgement.