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Socialism Today 108 - April 2007

The end of the slave trade

Myth and reality

Two hundred years ago parliament voted to end the brutal slave trade. That was after the British empire had been built on the bones of millions of Africans torn from their homes. Today, William Wilberforce, figurehead of the British abolition movement, is portrayed as the liberator of the slaves. HANNAH SELL explains that other mighty forces, especially slave uprisings, were behind the 1807 act.

MARCH 2007 MARKS the 200th anniversary of the decision to abolish the slave trade in what was then the British empire. The anniversary has produced an avalanche of documentaries and books describing the horror of the transatlantic slave trade and, in some cases, the vast profits made from it by the British ruling class. Most, however, have combined this with pious statements about Britain’s ‘moral stance’ on abolition, epitomised by the official government pamphlet which states, "the 1807 Act marked an important point in this country’s development towards the nation it is today – a critical step into the modern world, and into a new and more just moral universe".

Describing the means by which Britain’s industrial capitalists developed, and particularly the role of slavery in the accumulation of capital, Karl Marx famously said that capitalism had come into existence, "dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt".

In the 21st century, capitalist politicians try to disguise their system’s responsibility for the continuing brutal exploitation of Africa by talking about the corruption of Africa leaders. This, of course, ignores imperialism’s willingness to back the same corrupt leaders provided that they act in the interests of Western multinationals. Similarly, while slavery is now officially abhorred, this does not prevent an attempt to lay a portion of the blame on African tribal leaders who sold slaves to the West. In reality, while some forms of slavery did exist in parts of Africa prior to the start of the transatlantic slave trade (as in most tribal and many feudal societies), this was on a relatively low level, and mostly consisted of enslaving captives in war, often not for life. The drive by the West to buy slaves on a vast scale had a horrifically destructive effect on African society which it is difficult to overestimate.

Initiated by the Portuguese, the transatlantic slave trade was carried out by all the major European powers. However, from the early 17th century onwards it was Britain which dominated and transformed the trade. Many millions of African men, women and children (most official estimates suggest around twelve million, others as many as 40 million) were transported across the Atlantic against their will, and in unimaginably barbarous conditions, and sold into slavery in the New World.

The slave traders sold Africans to the plantation owners, and the sugar, tobacco and cotton grown on the plantations were then shipped back for use in Europe. Capitalism, based on wage slavery – where workers sell their ability to work in return for wages – was in its infancy. More economically advanced than anything that had gone before, it was nonetheless only able to come fully into existence on the basis of the horror, brutality and backwardness of slavery – where people were commodities to be bought or sold at will, no different to horses or cattle.

In the ‘trunks’, where slaves were incarcerated on the African coast before being loaded onto slave ships, mortality rates were around 20%. More than 10% died on the crossing and many more – arriving in the New World and put straight into back-breaking labour – died soon afterwards. The slave ships were designed to carry the maximum number of slaves possible. Each slave had a space only three or four feet in length and two or three feet in height. It was impossible either to lie down fully or to sit upright.

Resistance and racism

THE MYTH THAT slaves bore their fate willingly is completely untrue. Revolts were incessant and the slaves were kept chained on the ships – right hand to right leg, left hand to left leg – and attached in rows to long iron bars. Nonetheless, they tried to revolt – going on vast hunger strikes or attempting to overcome the crew (it is estimated that shipboard insurrections took place on 10% of Atlantic slave crossings). When they were allowed on deck for exercise some took the opportunity for the only kind of escape available and flung themselves overboard to their deaths. This was a sufficiently frequent occurrence that many slave ships had a net around them to try and prevent slaves flinging themselves into the sea.

Once they had arrived in the colonies, slave resistance continued. For example, mass uprisings took place in Antigua 1735-6, Grenada 1795-6, Jamaica 1760 and 1831, Barbados in 1816. Most famous is the successful slave revolt in Saint-Domingue in 1791. More frequently slaves ran away. A section, ‘the maroons’, succeeded in building free societies in inaccessible corners of the colony they found themselves in. Nonetheless, African slaves proved more productive than the indigenous peoples of the Americas (or the Irish, several thousand of whom were sent to the Americas as slaves, with many more as ‘indentured labourers’, a form of time-limited slavery). This was partially because, away from their homes, transported halfway across the world, they were less able to effectively resist than the indigenous peoples. It was also because, however many died or escaped, there were more African slaves arriving.

Capitalism, above all British capitalism, amassed huge profits on the bones of African slaves. Liverpool, Bristol and London all made fortunes on this basis. Still today the grand buildings of these cities, such as the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool, are monuments to slavery. By time the 1807 act was passed British ships had taken three-and-a-quarter million slaves across the Atlantic. In addition to the trade itself, British industry initially grew primarily on the basis of cotton manufacturing, using cotton supplied by slave labour.

With slavery came the development of all kinds of pseudo-scientific, racist theories designed to justify the enslavement of African peoples. These, combined with barbarous violence, were crucial for the slave owners to maintain power. After all, the white slave owners were a small minority. For example, in 1745, 877,000 people lived in the British Caribbean of whom 85% were slaves. Such were the extremes of prejudice required by the system of slavery that people were categorised by the degree of ‘black blood’ in their veins – right down to 1/16th! (Sexual exploitation of slave women by slave owners meant that many mixed-race children were born.) The racism created by slavery still affects society today. When slavery no longer suited the purposes of the ruling class, racism was adapted to justify the subjugation and exploitation of Africa, Asia and Latin America under colonial rule. Today variants of these theories linger on and are used to disguise the continued exploitation of the neo-colonial world.

Why was the act passed?

WHILE THERE WAS a growing anti-slavery mood among broad sections of the British population – for example, more than half the adult male population of Manchester signed a petition calling for abolition – and Wilberforce drew on strong support from the evangelical wing of the church, these were not the central factors in why the 1807 act was passed. Rather the act was part of a process in which British capitalism had been trying to work out how best to defend its strategic and economic interests in a rapidly changing and turbulent world.

The change in the attitude of the British ruling class towards the slave trade was due to a number of factors. The loss of America as a colony in 1776, as a result of the American war of independence, led to a crisis in British imperialist policy. One result was that British imperialism accidentally discovered that it was making greater profits after the abolition of the ‘mercantile system’ with America (by which America was bound by rigid rules to trade only with Britain). This led to a development among the industrial bourgeoisie of support for Adam Smith’s ideas of ‘free trade’, particularly for the increased exploitation of India.

At the same time, the British and French ruling classes were in fierce competition for domination of the Caribbean and its plantations, all based on slavery. The largest and most important colony in the Caribbean was French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). In 1789 the exports of Saint-Domingue amounted to £11 million (more than half of all French exports). By contrast, the trade from all of Britain’s colonies amounted to £5 million. Saint-Domingue produced about 40% of all the sugar and 60% of all the coffee consumed in Europe. At the same time, 50% of all slaves imported into the British-controlled islands were sold to the French colonies, primarily to Saint-Domingue. Britain’s slave trade was effectively strengthening France. It was this that led the Tory prime minister, William Pitt, to encourage Wilberforce to move his first motion in parliament calling for the abolition of the slave trade in 1789.

The French revolution

PITT DID NOT follow through on his support for abolition. It was the mighty French revolution, which erupted in July 1789, that was to change his attitude and the course of history. The French revolution sent shockwaves around the world. It signalled the end of feudalism in France and laid the basis for a modern capitalist society. The British ruling class initially took a semi-neutral position on the revolution. The grouping around Pitt saw it simply as an opportunity to steal France’s colonies. Another section hoped to encourage France to introduce a ‘constitutional monarchy’ based on the British model. They retreated from this, however, as the revolution advanced. The poor masses, the sans-culottes, drove the revolutionary process forward again and again. The slogans of the revolution were ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. Equality and ‘the rights of man’ stood at the centre of the revolution’s propaganda.

While the revolution terrified the British ruling class, it inspired the most thinking sections of the working class and led to their first steps towards political organisation. On the slaves in the French colonies it had an electrifying effect. Hearing stories of the slogans of the French revolution they inevitably wanted to take the same road. Before the end of 1789 there were uprisings in Guadeloupe and Martinique. In Saint-Domingue divisions and splits emerged among the white population about the attitude they should take to the revolution. In particular, there were splits between the ‘small whites’ and the big landowners. These initially centred on what attitude should be taken to the free ‘Mulattoes’ (the term that was used for those of mixed-race), a few of whom owned plantations and, despite severe repression, had amassed considerable wealth. For the ‘small whites’ in particular, whose privilege was entirely dependent on the colour of their skin, any step towards equal rights for those of mixed-race was a disaster. As is often the case, those at the bottom, the slaves, gained confidence from the splits in the ruling elite. It was against this background that, in March 1791, French soldiers arriving on Saint-Domingue embraced everyone they met – black, mixed-race, and white, slave and free – proclaiming that France had declared all men free and equal.

This was not actually the case. This was a bourgeois revolution and the wealth of the French bourgeoisie had been built on the slave trade. Those on the rightwing of the revolution, and particularly the maritime bourgeoisie, were determined to prevent any steps towards ending slavery. Even the left were hesitant. However, the sans-culottes pushed the struggle forward. When a spokesperson for those of mixed-race, Ogé, was brutally tortured and murdered by the Saint-Domingue whites, he became a hero of the Parisian masses, and the ‘colonial question’ was put centre stage. Robespierre, the Jacobin leader representing the most radical section of the bourgeoisie, gave a famous speech to the National Assembly discussion on the colonial question: "You urge without ceasing the Rights of Man, but you believe in them so little you have sanctified slavery constitutionally".

However, even Robespierre was not demanding the abolition of slavery at that point. After four days of debate, the Assembly agreed that every person of mixed-race whose parents were both free should be declared free. This was a mealy-mouthed compromise as there were only about 400 who would be freed by it but, as the maritime bourgeoisie correctly feared, it was the start of an unstoppable process. When the Saint-Domingue whites heard of the decision they carried out widespread lynching of people of mixed-race and burned the French flag.

The Black Jacobins

WITH ALL THIS as their backdrop, the slaves were preparing for revolt. The uprising that took place was planned to a greater degree than any previous revolt, and involved thousands of slaves. It is an indication of how well organised they were that no word leaked out before the uprising had begun. The initial reaction of the slaves was to destroy the plantations on which they had suffered. The slave owners were murdered and the plantations burnt to the ground. Brutal as this initial month of the revolt was, it was moderate in comparison to the treatment that had been meted out to the slaves over generations. Nonetheless, however understandable the destruction of the plantations was, it did not offer a way forward for the insurgent slaves.

This was not to remain the outlook of the rebels. Around a month into the revolt, Toussaint L’Ouverture, joined them. He was to become the decisive leader of the revolution in Saint-Domingue. Under his leadership, the ex-slaves were organised into an army. Over the next twelve years the blacks of Saint-Domingue fought an almost ceaseless war for freedom. Having defeated the local slave owners they went on to defeat invasions of British, Spanish and French troops. No ruling class in the world was prepared to give the slaves of Saint-Domingue freedom. They achieved it, and founded the state of Haiti, only by the utmost determination and reliance on their own strength.

Toussaint and his followers not only fought endless wars. In the midst of it they attempted to build a new society. Toussaint opposed breaking up the great plantations, arguing that the ex-slaves should work on them as wage labourers. In many cases, he allowed the old slave owners to remain – as long as they provided the wages and conditions agreed. Toussaint seems to have been attempting to move towards capitalist agriculture. However, at a later stage in the revolution, when Toussaint had died in one of Napoleon’s prisons, many of the great estates were broken up and the land redistributed in response to the demands of the poor.

The most steadfast support received from abroad came from the revolutionary masses of France who had initially inspired them. While sections of workers in Britain also had sympathy with the slaves’ fight for freedom, it was not comparable to France. This was not the result of any inherent difference between the poor of France and Britain. But the poor of France were in the midst of a revolution which had raised the consciousness and broadened the horizons of the masses to events on a world scale. Responding to the slave revolution in Saint-Domingue in 1794, France declared an end to slavery, what the Paris masses called ‘the aristocracy of the skin’, with the mover of the motion to the Convention declaring: "When drawing up the constitution of the French people we paid no attention to the unhappy Negroes. Posterity will bear us a great reproach for that. Let us repair the wrong – let us proclaim the liberty of the Negroes. Mr President, do not suffer the Convention to dishonour itself with a discussion".

The motion was passed to general acclamation. Only when they heard the news were Toussaint and his troops prepared to align themselves wholeheartedly with France. Rightly, they wanted to be sure that ‘equality’ included them, before committing themselves.

Just eight years later, however, Saint-Domingue faced a new French invasion, intent on restoring slavery, although they did not dare declare it openly. In France, the revolutionary phase of events was over and the reactionary Thermidor had begun. The newly-empowered bourgeoisie no longer needed the Paris masses and were brutally asserting their power through Napoleon Bonaparte. Many of the gains of the revolution were unravelled. However, it was not a return to the feudal, absolute monarchy that had existed before. Instead, it laid the basis for the development of capitalism.

Nonetheless, Napoleon saw the restoration of slavery as an important part of his programme. He sent tens of thousands of troops, led by his brother-in-law, to take Saint-Domingue. Using trickery, they were able to capture Toussaint, but they could not win the war. Within six months, 24,000 French troops were dead. Most of the French forces had no idea they were fighting for the restoration of slavery. When they found out some actually went over to the ‘Black Jacobins’. In particular, a section of Polish troops, themselves suffering national oppression, defected to the black revolutionary movement. As a result, when the French were defeated, Poles were given the option to stay behind.

The gyrations of the British ruling class on the question of slavery were directly connected to this maelstrom of events. Pitt’s first reaction to the uprising in Saint-Domingue was to shelve any idea of abolishing the slave trade and instead attempt to invade and take the island for Britain. By the end of 1796, after three years of war, the British army had lost 80,000 soldiers in the Caribbean, 40,000 dead.

Only after they had been defeated on the battlefield by Toussaint’s army did they begin to talk about supporting the revolt as a ‘happy revolution’. The British ruling class did not think it so happy, however, when the slaves in the British colony of Jamaica decided to emulate their Saint-Dominguen comrades. The danger of further slave revolts would clearly be increased by the continuation of importing new slaves from Africa. This was a major factor in the change in the British government’s outlook.

Slavery after 1807

SUCH WAS PITT’S desire to make sure that Saint-Domingue could never again be a French colony, British advisors actively encouraged Jean Jacques Dessalines, who led the slave army to victory after Toussaint had been imprisoned, to massacre all those whites who remained on the island. It was these narrow, national interests which pushed the British government into the 1807 act (although it was a Whig, not Tory, government which actually passed it). The campaign to force the other European powers to follow suit was purely to ensure they did not benefit from Britain’s abandonment of the slave trade.

What is more, agreeing the ‘abolition of the slave trade in the British empire’ did not mean ceasing to make use of slave labour. It was only in 1833 that slavery was legally abolished in the empire, with the Emancipation of Slaves Act. And in 1850, The Economist remarked: "That the prosperity of Manchester is dependent on the treatment of slaves in Texas, Alabama and Louisiana is as curious as it is alarming".

At that stage, cotton, which was central to the prosperity of British industry, was grown exclusively in the US by slave labour. In 1860, on the eve of the American civil war, there were four million slaves in the US, of whom 60% worked in cotton. The Economist expressed alarm, but did not propose to change the situation. When the civil war came, the attitude of the majority of the British ruling class was to unrealistically recommend that the North accept the secession of the Southern states, thereby leaving the slave trade intact. In general, the workers’ movement, by contrast, was steadfast in its support of the North. Britain also continued to import tobacco and sugar from Brazil and Cuba, where slavery was only abolished in 1871 and 1886 respectively.

Nonetheless, the situation did change as a result of the development of capitalism – and in particular of science and technique. While Pitt and co were not necessarily fully aware of it, these underlying economic processes had been a factor in their actions half a century earlier. The slave plantations, while they played a major role in creating the economic basis for capitalism, were not compatible with it once it developed beyond a certain point.

Slavery was used almost exclusively in highly fertile regions, on crops which were labour intensive and did not require mechanisation. While slavery was used to grow sugar, tobacco and cotton, it was never widely used, for example, to grow corn because it was not sufficiently profitable. The nature of slavery, in which slaves were made to work by the threat of brute force and had absolutely no incentive to work harder or master more complicated techniques, meant that it proved, over time, to be less profitable than using wage labourers.

This was particularly the case as techniques to allow more intensive cultivation developed. Marx pointed out that by 1861, for example, the US states of Maryland and Virginia, where agriculture had previously been based on slavery, were exporting slaves but no longer using them to farm. In addition, plantations based on slavery tended to exhaust the soil to an extreme degree. The idea that greater profits could be made by a huge increase in the exploitation of the Indian sub-continent, not on the basis of slavery but by relying on paying pitiful wages, had already germinated in the minds of the British ruling class when the French revolution erupted. While it fought a determined battle to protect British imperialism’s interests in the Caribbean, it could see in the corner of its eye the glint of an alternative, and more lucrative, source of wealth.


IN THE 20TH century, revolutionary movements worldwide forced the imperialist powers to abandon direct colonial rule. However, the peoples of the neo-colonial countries continue to be held in a vice of exploitation by the major multinational corporations and their tools, the IMF and the World Bank. Modern capitalism has created phenomenal riches and yet billions are still in poverty. More than a billion people lack access to clean drinking water and 841 million suffer from malnutrition. Slavery and trafficking of human beings, while no longer the driving force of the world economy, still take place. Meanwhile, a few at the top have unimaginable wealth. Today, a total of 8.3 million individuals worldwide personally have $30,800 billion-worth of financial assets. It is not only in the neo-colonial countries that there is a growing gap between rich and poor. It is only necessary to look at the after effects of hurricane Katrina to see that dire poverty is widespread in the US, the richest country on the planet, and disproportionately effects the black population.

When slavery was abolished it was the slave owners, not the slaves, who were given compensation. There is a movement, particularly in the US, demanding that descendents of slaves receive reparations for what their forebears suffered. The profits from slavery are built into the very foundation of capitalism. It is therefore incapable of meeting this demand. The only means by which all the descendents of slaves still living in poverty today can achieve genuine liberation is by ending capitalism and building a new socialist society, based on the public ownership and democratic planning of the world’s resources in the interests of all.

The extreme left, the most heroic wing of the French revolution – which genuinely stood for equality for all, regardless of creed or colour – began to develop socialist or communistic ideas more than two centuries ago. Babeuf, for example, argued in the reactionary Thermidorean court which sentenced him to execution: "The purpose of the revolution is to abolish inequality and to restore the common welfare. The revolution is not yet at an end, since the wealthy have diverted its fruits, including political power, to their own exclusive use, while the poor in their toil and misery lead a life of actual slavery and count for nothing in the state".

It was these ideas that inspired the Black Jacobins, the army of ex-slaves who defeated every European colonial power and founded Haiti. Inevitably, it is William Wilberforce who is given prominence in most accounts of the abolition of the slave trade. In reality, it should be the power of revolution, and the heroism and instinctive internationalism of the oppressed once they enter action, that are given centre stage.


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