Turning International Opinion (1807 - 1838)
For the enslaved the period of 1807 to 1834 was one of the most difficult. It had been believed by many campaigners that an end to the trade would mean that the existing enslaved would be treated better as there was no longer an endless supply of new Africans being brought in.
Credit: Title page of the Wrongs of Africa, by Miss MB Tuckey. This is a book of anti-slavery poems published in Glasgow in 1838 (Glasgow City Libraries).
Chapter 7: Turning International Opinion (1807 - 1838)
The Royal Navy and Policing Abolition
The 1807 Abolition Act made the slave trade illegal for British ships and subjects. However it did not outlaw slavery itself. The Royal Navy was given the task of patrolling the coast of West Africa. This 'West Africa Squadron' was based at Sierra Leone. It stopped British ships to see if they carried enslaved Africans. If caught, ships could be confiscated and their masters fined.
The Africans were returned to Africa and released, usually in Sierra Leone, not necessarily their place of birth. The decision by Britain to end its involvement in the slave trade did not mean it ended completely. Other countries continued slaving and Britain attempted to stop this trade by policing the seas, applying military and diplomatic pressure and by giving bribes.
For Africans the end of the slave trade in the British Empire did not mean the end of trade with Europeans. Just as before the trade in humans had started, goods suitable for the European market were produced, in particular palm oil. There were a number of valuable trading goods with West Africans such as spices, woods and woven clothes. Palm oil was the most profitable and could be used in consumer goods such as soaps and as a lubricant in machinery during the Industrial Revolution.
Slavery Continues But Unrest Spreads
For the enslaved the period of 1807 to 1834 was one of the most difficult. It had been believed by many campaigners that an end to the trade would mean that the existing enslaved would be treated better as there was no longer an endless supply of new Africans being brought in. However, that was not the reality; instead, harsher restrictions than ever were introduced to ensure that slave numbers did not fall. The opportunities to buy freedom became non-existent and the female slaves were subject to yet more sexual demands from the plantation owners with the intent of breeding new slaves.
As a result more rebellions and uprisings took place amongst the slaves. The Christianisation of the enslaved that had occurred towards the end of the 18th century meant that they demanded to be treated equally with other Christians. Furthermore, many of those missionaries who had converted the enslaved had also taught them to read and write, thus they were able to read about the campaigns that were happening back in Britain. This encouraged the enslaved to mount their own resistance.
The organised Jamaican uprising of December 1831 led by Samuel Sharpe, an informally educated and highly religious enslaved man, was a severe blow to the authorities and the pro-slavery lobby. Sharpe organised a passive strike that turned violent and the island militia was mobilized. 500 of the enslaved were killed either during the reprisals or afterwards as a result of trial. Samuel Sharpe was hanged in May 1832 for leading the strike. The uprising resulted in two Parliamentary inquiries and helped bring forward the end of slavery.
After 1807 many of those who had campaigned for the end to the trade, such as Zachary Macauley, turned their attention and their initiative to ending slavery completely in the British Empire. Many more organisations were set up. The petition campaign started again, with Scotland alone sending nearly 1,000 petitions to Parliament in the early 1830s. However, key to achieving their aims was the Parliamentary Reform Act 1832, which meant that different people were now elected to Parliament and the franchise itself was extended to include some of the middle classes who had long campaigned against the trade and slavery. The Anti-Slavery campaign culminated in 1834 with the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. Initially a system of 'apprenticeship' that continued to restrict personal freedom was introduced. Complete freedom for all enslaved peoples was finally granted in 1838. The enslaved people were free, but no consideration was given to compensating them for the years that they had been denied their freedom.
On the other hand, to achieve abolition, preferential British sugar tariffs were introduced to allow plantation owners to survive into the 1840s. £20 million was also paid in compensation to slave plantation owners in the West Indies - over 40% of the national budget, the equivalent of $2.2 billion today (around £1.12 billion).
(Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (London, 2005), 347)
Credit: Chasing a Slaving Dhow near Zanzibar, 1876-77 (w/c on paper) by Ross-Lewin, Rev. Robert (fl.1877) © Private Collection / © Michael Graham-Stewart / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright