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The 200th-year Anniversary of the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (1807-2007)
By Prof Geoff Palmer

The Beginning 
One of the worst examples of “Man’s inhumanity to Man” is the practice of slavery. Many countries have been involved in slavery. Britain’s involvement began in the 1560s. For the next 250 years Britain’s activity in the transport and enslavement of African people increased to unimaginable proportions until the transport of Africans from Africa (see map) to the New World – The Atlantic Slave Trade – was abolished in 1807.
 Map: Africa 17th CenturyIn 1838 British slavery in the West Indies (map down) was abolished, ending a period of economic exploitation that benefited Britain but damaged the lives of the slaves. The economic and social consequences of this terrible slavery are still with us today, with regard to the derived wealth of slavers and the derived poverty of slaves.

The year 2007 marks two hundred years after the abolition of the British Slave Trade in which Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish people were involved. The year 2007 is therefore a year for reflective celebration of the triumph of good over evil.

Map: West Indies and AmericasBetween 1650 and 1807, it has been estimated that about 10 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic into slavery (photographs 3a, 3b). In Britain, the “business” of slavery started with ships leaving British ports (e.g. Liverpool and Bristol) for Africa. Africans were bought from Africans or acquired and then transported to the West Indies and the Americas. The economic benefits that came from the trade, transport and enslavement of African people returned to Britain. This terrible “business” was called the Triangular Trade (map). The Trans-Atlantic movement of slaves was called The Middle Passage. About 10 million African people survived the voyage across the Atlantic in various states of degradation before being sold into slavery. However, about 10 million African people died during transportation…making New World Slavery the most profitable evil the world has known. Slave Ship

In the early 1800s, Britain was the most powerful slave owner in the West Indies, defending its slavery against the French and Spanish with the most powerful navy in the world. It took a disgracefully long time and much ambivalence from politicians, the Church, Writers and ordinary people, who to various degrees benefited from the Slave Trade and slavery, before the British Slave Trade and slavery were abolished.

The initial justification for the enslavement of African people centred around the lie that these people were sub-human and that British slavery was “legal”…  The proposed differences in rank between human beings are man made and have no basis in biology. And, the inhumanity of slavery is against the laws of God and common decency and cannot be made legal by man. British slavery is part of British history and must be taught in our institutions. If this is done well, the racism that has come out of slavery will diminish and our race relations will improve.

Development of the Slave Trade
The planting of crops such as sugar cane, coffee, cotton, tobacco and spices in the British West Indies required people who were judged to be able to withstand the harshness of plantation life (photograph 4). Africans were regarded as suitable and this assumption was accepted without question. To facilitate Britain's entry into the Slave Trade Charles II, in 1660, sanctioned the Royal Adventurers Charter which was to last for 1000 years - taking us to the year 2660. Such is the optimism of unbridled power and greed.
Slave in a ship

This Charter only lasted until 1672 but re-emerged as The Royal African Company which transported 100,000 slaves within 17 years of its inception. Shareholders in this most profitable evil included poets, politicians and parsons. By 1750, it was becoming clear that the Slave Trade was a truly evil practice:  indeed, the renowned politician Hugh Walpole remarked: We have been sitting this fortnight on the Africa Company, we, the British Senate, the temple of liberty, bulwark of Protestant Christianity, have this fortnight been pondering methods to make more effectual the horrid traffic of selling negroes…it chills one's blood.

Non-conformist Christians such as the Quakers, Methodists and Baptists, preached that the Slave Trade should be abolished. In addition, others such as Henry Brougham, while being rich from slavery, was uncomfortable about the Slave Trade:  Let us be satisfied with our gains and, being rich let us try and become righteous…not by giving up a single sugar cane of what we have acquired but by continuing in our present state of overflowing opulence and preventing further importation of slaves… By 1807 it had become clear to the House of Lords that, the idea of abolishing the slave trade is connected with the levelling system and the rights of man…

Although William Wilberforce (Member of Parliament) did play an important part in the abolition of the Slave Trade, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson were prominent anti-Slave Trade activists that helped to convince the British Parliament that the Slave Trade was shameful and should be abolished. Slave revolts indicated that the subjugation of human beings is always uncertain and dangerous. Black activists in London such as Ottobah Cjugoano, Olaudah Equiano and Robert Wedderburn also helped to expose the wickedness of the Slave Trade and slavery. Although the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1788 and 1792 declared against the Slave Trade, sadly it was not forthcoming in submitting a petition to Parliament.
Slaves cutting Sugar cane

The ending of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade did not stop the trade of buying and selling slaves. Indeed, it promoted the breeding of slaves indicating that the Slave Trade and slavery were twin evils and should have been abolished at the same time (photograph 5). There can be no compromise with evil.

Contrary to popular belief, Scotland played a prominent role in West Indian slavery.  Many slave owners and slave masters were Scottish. Even the great humanitarian Robert Burns wanted to be a slave master in Jamaica…to better himself. Tate and Lyle are dominant names in our sugar industry. Tate, who endowed the Tate Gallery, was English;  Lyle was Scottish. Both made their fortunes from the activities of slavery. Ewing from Glasgow was the richest sugar producer in Jamaica and the calm and beauty of the house and gardens at Inveresk Lodge, Edinburgh, were purchased by James Wedderburn with money earned from 27 years in Jamaica as a pernicious slaver. The heritage of Bathgate Academy is associated with the profits from slavery in Jamaica.  John Newland, a renowned slave master, left the town for Jamaica in the 1750s and, in his Will of 1799, gifted money which was used to build the Academy.  Dollar Academy had a similar benefactor. For many years, the goods and profits from West Indian slavery were unloaded at Kingston docks in Glasgow for the benefit of Scotland. Leith (Edinburgh) and Glasgow were popular ports from which ambitious Scottish men sailed, to make their fortunes, as slave masters in the New World. Many Caribbean people are descended from the British people that enslaved them and are therefore not only part of our heritage, they are our blood relatives and have a rightful place in our society.

map: Triangular trade
Why should we rejoice in the ending of the Slave Trade, (photograph 6) 200 years after the event ? The answer is simple.   The abolition of the Slave Trade reminds us of our capacities for committing evil and the importance of redemption exemplified in the 18th century life of John Newton, the slave ship captain, who, after some soul-searching and conversion to Christianity, wrote the hymn, Amazing Grace. Indeed, it is also amazing that after all the horrors of our slavery, it required recent laws (Race Relations Amendment Act 2000) to make us reasonable about race. Although, it took a disgracefully long time before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was abolished, we today must ensure that all forms of slavery should never be allowed to start or prosper.

Kind words and good deeds go together. If we are indeed sorry that the Slave Trade took place, then we should try and help those societies that carry the scars of this terrible time in our history.

Geoff Palmer


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