A Sober Bicentennial

Today - March 25th, 2007 - is the 200th anniversary of the passage of the Act of Parliament that outlawed the Atlantic Slave Trade. Within 18 months of the Battle of Trafalgar, and with 8 years of war still to rage on the European continent, the now undisputed naval superpower declared an intention to see the end of a trade on the high seas that had supported Britain's economy for hundreds of years. And, unlike many such initiatives, the intention was followed more or less adamantly. The Royal Navy appointed itself policeman of the seaways, and with force and treaty over many decades, set to the task of apprehending, boarding, searching, and if necessary prosecuting and hanging suspected slavers. At times, up to one sixth of the world's most powerful navy was devoted to the task of blockading the West African coast, to prevent the continuance of the Slave Trade. To my knowledge, this determined use of military resources in the enforcement of a humanitarian principle is unprecedented before or since.

This hardly makes amends for the evil of slavery in general or the Atlantic Slave Trade in particular, for which a formal apology from Britain and other nations is long overdue. Slavery throughout the British Empire was not abolished until 3 more decades had passed, and some argue that its final abolition owed more to Sam Sharpe's slave rebellion in Jamaica than William Wilberforce's persistence in the House of Commons. That one was decorated and the other hanged makes history's selective accolades even more sorrowful. Other European and American countries persisted in legalised forms of slavery much longer still. In Brazil, slavery was not abolished until the 1880's, and in Russia, the institution of serfdom persisted until 1859, one of a host of important reminders that the history of enslavement of one person by another is complex and insidious, and is not just an issue "black and white". Other countries were ahead of Britain - for example, Denmark abolished slavery and slave trading in 1798.

The situation in North America was much more varied than many people think. Non-Americans are often taught only that the United States came to blows over slavery in paving the way for a late emancipation in 1865, branding the USA as an kicking-and-screaming latecomer in this aspect of human rights. Though slavery is still sometimes described by historians as "America's birth defect", the history of slavery in the settlements that became the United States spans the whole period, and exemplifies some of the best, as well as the worst of the morality of the time. The Pennsylvania Assembly voted to penalise the slave trade with prohibitive taxes during colonial times, but this legislation was outlawed by the Government in London. After Independence, Pennsylvania and Massachussetts outlawed slavery as early as 1780, though even they were pipped at the post by Vermont in 1778. Since Vermont was at the time an independent republic, it retains the honour of being the first sovereign state in modern times to outlaw the practice of slavery. Similar honours are due to West Virginia, formerly part of Virginia, whose secession from the mother state at the outset of the Civil War was in rebellion against slavery.

The United States banned the slave trade on the high seas in the same year as Britain, two hundred years ago, but the fledgling US Navy lacked the means to prosecute the policy. Britain did much to harm the possibility of American cooperation, because of another endemic form of enslavement that the Royal Navy could not do without - the Press Gang. The terror of British ports, the Press Gang's job was to ensure that the Royal Navy had sufficient "recruits". For all its glories, the Royal Navy was an abominable place to serve, and recruitment to the gun decks depended on conscription. In the port cities themselves, this conscription often took the form of capturing merchant sailors who had drunk too much, who waking up on board ship at the pleasure of His Majesty may have had good reason to regret "the draft". On the high seas, the Navy assumed the right to board ships in the hunt for deserters. Given that many, if not most, American sailors at the time had at one time been, at least arguably, British subjects, and were hence prime suspects for "deserters", a clash was inevitable. If I knew the history better I might see other sides to the argument, but in the meantime, my sympathies with respect to the issues that led to the War of 1812 are wholeheartedly American. For decades to come, American ships were naturally suspicious of armed British boarding parties, including those who claimed to be arriving on board ship purely out of humanitarian concern.

Looking back to the issues that were so hotly debated in 1807, I see startling resemblance to political divides today. (Similarity, or "made in our own image" - who knows?) Abolishing slavery would be terribly damaging to commercial and national interests - at a time when the Enemy (at this time, the French) were ready to pounce on our every weakness. (William Wilberforce was actually decorated by the French Revolutionary Government for his efforts, which did his cause in Britain no end of harm.) Things were at least better for the slaves in the Caribbean than in the starving wilds of Africa, so it was humanitarian to transport them. ("If they weren't working in our factories, they'd be even worse off.") Given these typical objections, it is a marvel that the legislation to abolish slave trading passed Parliament, especially in time of War. The idea of the sugar industry being made to do without forced human labour was as prabably as unthinkable as the idea of many modern industries doing without fossil fuels. The idea of Africans deserving basic rights and freedom from exploitation was probably to some as outlandish as the idea that marine ecosystems should be accorded basic rights and freedom from exploitation today. But somehow, against all the odds and the economic practicalities of the situation, change did take hold, and with the simple hindsight of 200 years, we are of the confirmed opinion that anyone who supported the Slave Trade was clearly a self-seeking scoundrel.

The conservatives, then and now, had a literary heavy-hitter on their side: the Bible. The Good Book is clear in its support of slavery. It is carefully regulated in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. You have to set male Israelite slaves free after 6 years (not their families, and foreigners are fair game forever); you have to sacrifice in the temple if you rape one of your female slaves who turns out to be married or engaged (no penance required if the female slave is single); you shouldn't beat your slave to death (you can beat them, but if they can't walk again after 2 days then that's too hard). Even the New Testament, in its explicit statements about slavery, is largely supportive - St Paul exhorts slaves to serve their masters as we all serve Christ, and requests that his friend Philemon give him the slave Onesimus who has been a useful and devoted servant to Paul. Granted, Paul also made a few explicit statements that, under the Kingdom of Christ, there would be no distinction between free and bonded, Jew and Gentile - but that would be then, this is now.

But, as is well known, William WiIlberforce, the British Abolitionists, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, were deeply Christian in their motivations as well. They argued that the Love of God trumped all laws that sanctioned oppression - even Biblical laws; that the early laws given to the Hebrews may have been appropriate only in less civilised times; and that our understanding of right and wrong should be advancing, not fixed in tribal documents. For some Christians, "If parts of the Bible say slavery is right, then slavery is right." For others, "If parts of the Bible say slavery is right, then parts of the Bible are wrong."

There have been similar debates in the history of the Church, and it is being repeated today over the issue of homosexuality (the only substantial difference is that those who claim that the Bible is "incontrovertible" have picked different “incontrovertible” verses). The other side of the debate within the Church is also still with us - less vocal in the USA, but more than alive and well in Europe. They are the people who are involved in Trade Justice, Drop the Debt, and the Make Poverty History campaign. They include my parents and their friends, and I sill have a child's pride in what my wonderful parents do. They go to political events, they make banners and march in the streets, they bring the enthusiasm for justice back to their home town, they put on a host of events, they given people tea and coffee and cake and pamphlets, they host the Korean War Veterans, the Tank Regiment, and the Stop-the-War protesters under the same roof. They make people confront and talk about things that none of us really want to hear about.

Yes, we should make amends for slavery and other evils, but speeches and written words won't cut it without action. Unfair trading agreements, unfair prices for raw materials and labour, the Third World debt - these are the modern legacy of the slavery and the causes of slavery, and they must be thrown out.

We don't need to cast our eyes abroad to see the evil consequences of slavery. The evils of slavery are on our shores, and apparently are growing. An estimated 4000 women were trafficked to the UK in 2006, tempted by "family friends" or "boyfriends" to be trapped into sex slavery. Slavery has moved from the legal to the illegal sphere, but it persists. An estimated 10 million people were slaves in 1807: an estimated 27 million people are slaves today. In the meantime, the House of Commons has voted 8 billions pounds (over 15 millions dollars) to update our fleet of Trident nuclear submarines. It is hard to see how nuclear submarines can protect us against modern threats, let alone what role they have to play in pursuing the suppression of the Slave Trade to its determined end. As a diminished nation, perhaps the best Britain can hope for in the 21st century is that, if we are attacked by a handful of terrorists, we can destroy the cities they came from.

On this bicentennial, should I be proud or ashamed of Britain, the country where I was brought up, or of America, the country I seem to have adopted? I don't know, I don't think sentiments of pride or shame really hurt or help either way. But there are some lessons I'm willing to draw from this.

We have a natural tendency to make excuses for the way we harm to our fellow humans, and we have developed a huge machine that enables us to hide from these harmful realities.

Religion motivates the best humanity has to offer, and sanctions the worst.

Laws are only the beginning. Committing the will, the resources, and the persistence over decades to see them through is what counts.

Bringing about change for the better involves long uphill struggles to change opinions, win hearts and minds, make sacrifices, compromise, take it a bit at a time, three steps forward and two steps back. But great changes are possible, they have been wrought before.

Within 200 years, the moral imperatives of an apparently complex situation will be distilled down to blinding simplicity.

The only way we can ever hope to make the future better than the past is to act in the present.


Sources: There were a number of very useful sources for this essay, written and word-of-mouth, along with many dates half-known and half-remembered. Please write to me if you want corroboration of any of the facts and figures I have cited, and I will retract any that turn out to be wrong and qualify and that turn out to be misleading.

Some useful and interesting articles are available at the following websites:

BBC panelists

Biblical quotes and some analysis


Wikipedia article on abolitionism

Some Naval History

Royal Naval Museum

Dominic Widdows, March 2007.