The Abolition Of The Slave Trade In Africa in Nineteenth Century – S. Daget
The Western impetus for abolition
Throughout the eighteenth century, as they polished up their definition of the universal human right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, anthropologists, philosophers and theologians came up against the case of the African and his condition in the world. Their thinking led them to modify the ideas commonly accepted until then about the African black and the American slave, and they transformed the brute beast of burden into a moral and social being. Their slogan, ‘The Negro is a man’, implicitly impugned the generally held view about the propriety, legality and usefulness of selling black Africans. Their humanitarian arguments led to a demand for abolition, since the balance sheet of the trade consisted, as they saw it, entirely of debits.
It bled the states that encouraged and subsidized it; it killed tens of thousands of whites and hundreds of thousands of blacks; and it took people who were both producers and consumers away from their lands and reduced them to slavery in America, i.e. to ciphers. It prevented the diversification of trade on the African coast. It perpetuated barbarism in the black continent – this being the view of the only Westerners credited with knowing about Africa, the slave-traders.
While denouncing the scourge, abolitionists did not seek or expect to convert black traders or white pro-slavers straightaway. They put forward a programme for the regeneration of Africa through Christianity, civilization, and normal trade, and proposed rational stages for its implementation: public opinion in the Christian world to be changed, the so-called ‘civilized’ governments to be persuaded to adopt official positions, and the Atlantic trade to be legally abolished.
In France in the eighteenth century the Grande Encyclopédie and the works of the Abbé Raynal, with revisions by Diderot, taught bourgeois revolutionaries a disgust for slavery. This current of lofty secular thought supported from a distance the ideals of the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of Friends of the Blacks), which was rumored to be in the pay of the British.
There, revolutionaries were sensitive neither to the realities of the slave trade nor to the need for popular support for their new ideology. In Britain, on the other hand, ordinary folk were educated in philanthropy through theological exposition based on a vigorous evangelical revival. The American Quakers, having themselves forsworn dealing in slaves, had already persuaded British Quakers to join the British movement for abolition. At the same time political circles were subjected to indoctrination. T
he Clapham Sect was the spearhead of this two-pronged attack, and spoke up for it year after year in the House of Commons through the mouth of William Wilberforce. The fight against the array of obstacles set up by slave-owners and traders lasted twenty years, but on 25 March 1807 Britain abolished the trade. This was the second official abolition, following that of Denmark in 1802. In 1808 the USA gave general effect to the Quakers’ individual decisions. This movement by governments to adopt the humanitarian cause was championed by Britain, whose slave-traders had shipped some 1 600 000 Africans to its American colonies during the previous century.
The hagiography that portrays humanitarian revolution as opening ‘one of the noblest pages in English history’ received a severe blow in 1944 from an analysis written from the standpoint of historical materialism. According to Eric Williams, abolition represented primarily the working out of the economic imperatives of Britain as a budding industrial country. It is true that this seminal approach did not entirely deny the role played by moral philosophy and an idealistic and triumphant humanitarianism.
Nonetheless, it drew attention to certain serious contradictions between the theories and the realities. Among the most prominent leaders of the abolitionist movement there were many bankers (the same was true of the French Société des Amis des Noirs), which showed that the capitalist class had much to gain from having the trade abolished.
The theories of the abolitionists at the time proved powerless against the reality of the very strong current of trade to flourishing slave plantations in Cuba and Brazil. Nor were the so-called humanitarian forces capable of controlling the effects of the standardization of import duties on sugar, which ultimately led, as was to be expected at a time when the mechanization of plantations was still far from complete, to an increase in the demand for black manpower. Perhaps the chief merit of Williams’s stimulating thesis was to provoke further research, as the economic debate still continues.
Thus, Seymour Drescher has set about demonstrating that abolition was ‘econocide’, and Roger Anstey argued that British philanthropy was rooted in faith and benevolence. There is perhaps less disagreement among historians as to the political factors involved in abolition.
Proposals for collective abolition, put forward by Britain in 1787 and again in 1807, came to nothing. In 1810 Portugal made some vague promises in return for the entry of its goods to the British market. With the ending of the Napoleonic Wars a world was crumbling in ruins. The peace of 1815 opened the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic to maritime trade; and to the transport of slaves. At the Congress of Vienna, British diplomacy sought an explicit condemnation of the trade, but all it obtained was an empty, procrastinatory declaration, reaffirmed at Verona.
From 1841, this pretence of official abolitionist morality gave the British Foreign Office and the Admiralty all the authority they needed for their combined strategies in regard to the international slave trade. This was a radical three-point plan of action: domestic legislation making it illegal for nationals of the country concerned to engage in the traffic; bilateral treaties giving navies the reciprocal right to search and seize at sea merchant vessels of either contracting nation caught in the illegal trade; and collaboration through mixed commissions, empowered to adjudicate on captured slave ships and set free the slaves found on board. The same provisions were also applicable in the Indian Ocean, especially between Mauritius and Bourbon (the island now known as Réunion).
This plan appealed to a section of the public with liberal-philanthropic leanings. Moreover, not every national economy could afford to ignore British customers or British goods. And for governments in difficulties requiring London’s support, an abolitionist gesture was as good as genuine co-operation. On the other hand, the English plan was bound to attract opposition from interests likely to be damaged by forcible suppression. States opposed it in the name of their national sovereignty, for the right of search and joint commissions presupposed a partial surrender of that sovereignty.
They saw abolition as an aspect of the wicked machinations of the British in their bid for world hegemony, backed by the absolute superiority of the Royal Navy. They opposed it on the grounds of the damage that would be done to navies, colonies and national trading interests. Portugal, Spain, the USA and France used and distributed cotton, sugar, coffee and tobacco produced on slave plantations dependent on the import of Africans into Brazil, Cuba, the Southern States of the USA and the West Indies. Shipping agents were directly concerned: they also attracted investment, and provided employment for small local sectors of the economy that made a profit out of the trade.
Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, which still practiced slavery in some of their smaller colonies, subscribed to reciprocal suppression. In return for substantial indemnities, Spain and Portugal agreed to it in 1817. But Portugal reserved to herself the right to trade legally south of the Equator, and this only came to an end in 1842 under the threat of severe military sanctions from Britain. Spain strengthened her anti-slavery legislation and her agreements with London, but Cuba continued the trade until 1866, the year of the third abolition law in Spain.
The Cortes, the Council of State and the Treasury all gave way before the threat of secession by the island’s planters. A conditional promise by the British of de jure recognition for Brazil induced the new empire to conclude the 1826 suppression treaty; but even so the Brazilian trade increased until 1850. It stopped in the following year; but this was not simply because the Royal Navy violated Brazil’s territorial waters to clear them of slave ships. Coffee depended on the British market, the fazendeiros were bankrupting themselves to pay their debts to the slave-dealers, and the white inhabitants were worried about an increase in the black population.
Politically stronger states reacted differently to British pressure. France, eager for prestige, maintained its freedom of action by a pretense at legislation and by naval suppression patrols which remained innocuous in home waters for as long as they did on the coast. Between 1815 and 1830 the French illicit trade fitted out 729 slaving expeditions for the west and east coasts of Africa. But when it became clear that such operations no longer benefited French ports either financially or socially, the government signed a reciprocal search agreement.
Another reason was that the monarchy that emerged after the 1830 revolution felt it desirable to gain Britain’s goodwill. This volte-face by the French resulted in several small countries acceding to the 1831-3 agreements. Britain took the opportunity to renew its attempts to internationalize the issue, and extended its naval suppression to cover the whole of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. An ‘equipment’ clause in the treaties allowed the seizure of ships obviously equipped for the slave traffic, even though not carrying human cargoes. But the slave ships of the USA remained exempt. For forty years American diplomacy managed to evade any serious commitment.
In 1820 the trade was legally equated with piracy; in 1842 came the compromise of’ checking the flag’, which protected the Americans from British suppressive action; and 80-gun suppression squadrons served to safeguard national pride whilst at the same time remaining mere formalities. In the 1840s the Southern planters called for the legal reopening of the trade, and meanwhile took to breeding slaves for the home market on special ranches. During the Civil War the Lincoln administration committed itself to the right of search, which had been in abeyance since 1820. The American trade then stopped.
Thus for half a century the proliferation and accumulation of documents testify mainly to the emptiness of the undertakings entered into. Throughout all this avalanche of words, Africa and the Africans were hardly ever mentioned, just as though they did not exist. Shipping agents benefited from the illicit trade, making bigger profits than during the period of legally protected trade, while the slave plantations stockpiled manpower.
The planters resisted abolition for different reasons. Impervious to the doctrines put about by abolitionist bodies, they considered only racial stereotypes and assumptions: abolition would not help ‘the brutish race of slaves to improve its lot’. The social prestige attaching to the ownership of slaves and the demographic habits brought about by the absence of white immigration helped to prolong the system.
Above all, the planters’ opposition was reinforced by the contradiction between the growing demand in the West for the products of slave labor and the prohibition on the import of the labor regarded as essential for increasing the supply of these products. Exports of Brazilian coffee grew tenfold between 1817 and 1835, and tripled again by 1850. Exports of Cuban sugar quadrupled between 1830 and 1864. In 1846 Britain’s free-trade measures, by standardizing import duties on sugar for the British market, seemingly subsidized the produce of the slave estates. Historians differ as to the effects of this innovation in producing a recrudescence of the slave trade.
But in Cuba, where the trade was on the decline, imports of new slaves in the decade 1851-60 were 67 per cent higher than in 1821-30. During the five years that the standardization of import duties continued in Britain, imports of slaves into Brazil increased by 84 per cent compared with the previous five years, 1841-5. It paid the American plantation owner to import fresh manpower so long as its purchase price was below $600 a head. This remained true until 1860.
The process of suppression
It was not only on the West African coast that warships operated. At the London conference in 1816, French proposals for measures to be taken against the so-called ‘Barbary’ slave-traders were rejected as an attempt to divert attention from the need for urgency in taking repressive military action in the Atlantic. But in 1823 France enacted an order prohibiting her ships from transporting slaves across the Mediterranean. This step was taken in a political context of little relevance to the slave-trade issue in itself: the war with Spain, the liberation of the Greeks, support for Muhammad ‘Alfs Egypt – in short, as part of an attempt to gain supremacy over the whole of the landlocked Mediterranean, which was under way even before France decided on direct intervention in Algeria.
For the time being, Britain seemed to have lost the lead. However, the activities of the warships produced no visible results. Military efforts at suppression were more effective in some parts of the Indian Ocean, especially between Mauritius, Madagascar and Réunion where British ships succeeded in capturing French slave ships. It also seems that some British ships from Mauritius had mounted slaving expeditions to Madagascar where Tamatave was under the control of the chieftain Jean-René.
In the event of the ‘international’ seizure of a ship, the matter was settled by returning the ship after confiscating the African slaves on board. When a national vessel made the seizure, the slave ship was brought to court for adjudication, but that does not mean that the slaves on board were freed. Usually, they simply disappeared – that is to say, they were dispersed on the plantations — for the customs authorities had long turned a blind eye to such activities.
The French captured a number of their own slave ships in American waters, and brought them to court at Guadeloupe and Martinique. On instructions from Paris, which was obsessed with the idea of colonizing Guyana, the confiscated slaves were escorted to Cayenne. When suppression was called for under bilateral treaties, it was the slave ships and not the slave-traders on whom sentence was pronounced by the Mixed Commissions. The effectiveness of the commissions on the American side of the Atlantic depended on the attitude prevailing in the slave plantations.
In Cuba, out of 714 slave ships captured between 1819 and 1845, the Hispano-British Commission condemned only 45. When bounties for ships seized were awarded to the sailors of the Spanish local squadron, fifty vessels were arrested during the last ten years of the trade. The results achieved by the commissions in Surinam and Brazil were no better. Only one out of every five slave-trading vessels was captured in American waters, despite the fact that around 1840 nearly seventy warships of different nationalities were assigned to suppression duties there.
On the West African coast the numbers were smaller. The Dutch, Portuguese and American naval squadrons operated spasmodically; the American squadron was often under the command of Southerners, and it was based on Cape Verde, a long way from the centre of the traffic. Such were the conditions at the time of the founding of Liberia and, so far as the fleeting appearance of cruisers was concerned, they remained so until 1842. The treaty with the British stipulated the presence of four or five warships, but that remained purely theoretical. Between 1839 and 1859 tw0 American slave ships were seized with their cargoes. In i860 there were seven arrests, the slaves from which helped to populate Liberia.
Two naval squadrons – those of Britain and France – were in continuous operation. France set up its squadron in 1818, and it remained independent until 1831. Based on Gorée, which had ceased since 1823-4 t0 be a distribution centre for the slave trade, between three and seven warships would set out to search for slave ships, but they took no suppressive action for the first four years of operation. This was because there was uncertainty as to the government’s real intentions. London accused the French of deserting their principles and their duty. French abolitionists accused the Navy Ministry of collusion with slave-owning interests. In 1825 the Ministry reacted by offering a bounty of 100 francs a head for confiscated slaves.
Some thirty slave ships were seized at sea and taken to court, bringing the number of those on which sentence was passed to the hundred mark. In theory this should have saved some thousands of Africans from slavery in the Americas but, in the event, when they were not shipped to Cayenne, Senegal took them as ‘enlisted’ laborers for public works in the colony. The agreements of 1831-3 were bedeviled by national pride and rivalry between the parties.
The French Navy tried to increase the number of its anti-slave-trade cruisers comparable to that of the Royal Navy. By 1838 the number of French ships had risen from three to six, and in 1843-4 there were fourteen on each side. In 1845, as an indirect consequence of Anglo-American agreement, the Anglo-French treaties were amended and the number of ships assigned to suppression duties was fixed at twenty-six for each party. From then on, counting the five men-of-war of the American squadron and the six Portuguese ships off the Congo, a real naval task force seemed to be mobilized against the trade. In 1849 France waived certain obligations that it was unable to fulfill. For seven years the Second Empire promoted the ‘free enlistment’ of African manpower. This was a slave trade in disguise, such as some British and Dutch men practiced on their own account. The French naval squadron had done no suppression to speak of; but it had shown the French flag along the coast, which was perhaps its main object.
The British Admiralty shouldered the job of humanitarian policing, but without enthusiasm. Its material resources increased from three warships to twenty-six; but they were ill-adapted for this specialized task. They drew too much water to sail up the rivers, and had to put off long-boats, which were vulnerable to attack from the slave-trading stations and boats lying in wait for them. They were so slow that they were outstripped at sea by the light brigs, and later by the Americans’ clippers.
For want of steamships, the colonial administration of Sierra Leone started by buying a few of the condemned ships, assigning them to suppression duties on account of their sea-going qualities. The squadron was based and victualled in the Sierra Leone and at the Gold Coast forts, and its leave station was Ascension Island. Offers to Spain to buy Fernando Po, in order the better to carry out suppression in the Bight of Biafra, came to nothing. seamen, either from sickness or in the course of their duties: there were some murderous fights between cruisers and slave ships.
The slave ships took shrewd advantage of the confusion that prevailed in the international field so far as suppression was concerned. On the coast their intelligence about the movements of cruisers was good, and they managed to evade them perhaps four times out of five. They behaved like pirates, flying false flags and using forged ships’ papers bought in the West Indies. Notwithstanding the law, they often escaped punishment. Once the suppression treaties were strengthened they threw off their disguise: French papers were no protection after 1831, nor Portuguese after 1842. But the maintenance of American sovereignty effectively protected slave trading under the US flag until 1862.
The reaction to these subterfuges was an increase in violence. Cruiser captains and local governors of Western settlements spontaneously resorted to a particular type of armed action. They mounted overland punitive expeditions, especially where African political power seemed to be unorganized.
In Liberia the Governor, the Reverend Jehudi Ashmun, moved against the trading stations at Cape Mount. Near Sierra Leone, in 1825, a campaign by Governor Turner cleared the islands and the peninsula for a time; and above all it brought a long strip of the coast under permanent British tutelage. These were commando operations, and they were repeated against the Gallinas and then at Sherbro and Rio Pongos. South of the Equator, slave ships in the ‘Portuguese’ waters off Cabinda and Ambriz were systematically shelled. The expeditions were rounded off by setting fire to the barracoons and the African brokers’ villages, which were very quickly rebuilt a short distance away. The impounded slaves were freed and sent to Sierra Leone, the Gambia or Mauritius, for the sake of the bounties. Some of them settled down. Many joined the black colonial forces. Others were offered employment as freely enlisted workers in the West Indies.
On the ground that they had eradicated the evil ‘by the roots’, in France and Britain these operations were regarded as decisive. They introduced two new techniques: the signing of ‘treaties’ with local rulers on the coast, who undertook to put down the slave trade in the territories under their control (these treaties were in some cases imposed and their terms dictated rather than negotiated); and, secondly, suppression by means of a standing blockade of the main export centres, which was the beginning of a policy of diplomacy by armed intervention. The decade 1841-50 was crucial for the west coast of Africa, which until then remained the home base of the slave trade.
It was also an important decade for the trans-Saharan slave trade. In spite of the efforts of the abolitionist Consul Warrington, Britain was largely indifferent to the trade towards North Africa. In theory, all the participants in the trade, with the exception of Morocco, were under the control of the Turks of Constantinople. In practice, however, the provinces had long considered the suzerainty of the Kâramânlï to be of little consequence and tended to act independently.
The French military conquest of the Regency of Algiers in 1830 turned into colonization from 1842 onward, and the white settlers had little desire to employ slave labor. Caught between French and British pressures, the neighboring Regency of Tunis abolished the trade between 1840 and 1842.
Further east, the Regency of Tripoli had more obstacles to overcome because it had to obtain the consent of chieftains in the hinterland, some of whom were powerful middlemen in the trade in slaves from Borno or Sokoto. In 1842, Shaykh ‘Abd alDjalil, who dominated the Fezzân from his stronghold at Murzuk, did agree to the abolition of the trade, but he was murdered. Turkey had reestablished direct rule over Tripoli and Cyrenaica in 1835 and it was thenceforth clear that the effective abolition of the trade depended on the Turkish attitude towards it.
The Sultan of Constantinople banned the trade in 1857, but it was not really interrupted anywhere, not even in Egypt, in spite of the growing Western influence. In 1870, the German traveller Georg Schweinfurth, who had arrived from ‘the heart of Africa’, wondered what kind of assistance abolition of the trade was likely to receive from the Khedive.
Morocco was a case apart. It was the only country in the Maghrib regarded by the Europeans as a power to be reckoned with, and diplomatic initiatives and humanitarian coaxings were unavailing there until 1887. At a time when the Atlantic slave trade was beginning to show signs of waning, the trans-Saharan trade could still rely on secure routes for the export and distribution of slaves. They ran, on one hand, to Morocco, which was importing from 3500 to 4000 black Africans a year in the middle of the nineteenth century and 500 a year as late as the 1880s, and, on the other, to the Red Sea and the Middle East, which we shall consider in more detail later. The West had no means of suppressing the trans-Saharan slave trade, which was entirely in the hands of Africans, because it did not extend beyond the boundaries of Africa.
Abolitionists argued that without buyers of slaves there would be no sellers. Supporters of slavery reversed the order of the terms, arguing that without a supply of slaves from Africa there would be no demand for them in the West: their consciences were clear, in the light of the tacit complicity of Africa itself.


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