The Death Of Atlantic Slave Trade
Learn how and why Britain went from being a major force in the atlantic slave trade, to demanding the total abolition of slavery.
The European nations, with Britain at the forefront, were responsible for the encouragement and conduct of transatlantic slave trade. During the 1700’s Britain dominated the export of slaves from West Africa, controlling more than fifty percent of the market. This situation was later turned on its head though, because in 1807 Britain became the first European nation to abolish the slave trade. Unfortunately, this did not mean the end of slavery itself, but was a significant symbolic gesture that would prove the beginning of the end of the transatlantic slave trade. Following Britain’s lead, other countries abolished the slave trade (USA in 1808, Holland in 1814 and France in 1817).
One might be tempted at first glance to believe that abolition came about because of a sudden enlightenment of the ruling powers of European nations concerning the rights of freedom for every human being, no matter the colour of their skin or origins. Undoubtedly, the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, both occurring in the late eighteenth century, would have brought to a head these issues, but it would be foolish to think that this alone swayed the powerful European rulers. The main reason for its abolition came about due to a change in the economic viability of the slave trade.
The late 1700’s saw a huge expansion in the Caribbean sugar plantations, particularly by the French. This led to overproduction, and in turn, a fall in the selling price of sugar. The French then undercut Britain in the sugar market. At the same time the African rulers who provided the workforce for these plantations upped the selling price of slaves. So the sugar plantations became less profitable.
European bankers had, up until this point, invested heavily in the sugar plantations. When the selling price of sugar became very low though, the plantations were no longer able to keep up payments of debts to the bankers. This led to the bankers turning to new homeland based manufacturing industries that had begun to flourish in the rise of the Industrial Revolution.
The British government realised that the sugar plantations were no longer the profitable enterprises of previous years and preferred instead to seek new business opportunities. They surmised that by employing British people in British factories, paying them a low wage, and making sure the employees bought the goods that they were producing; it would be more efficient and profitable than the plantations.
Subsequently, the British realised that Africa was a huge untapped source of raw materials. By stopping the slave trade, Africa would have a huge labour force at its disposal. This labour force would have need for the type of goods the British were manufacturing, so raw materials could be exchanged for the manufactured goods from Britain.
Having decided on this course of action, the British realised that slavery had to be totally abolished to make the enterprise as profitable as possible. In order for this to be achieved, they had to force the other European nations to follow suit. The British navy was probably the strongest in the world at that time, so it began patrolling the coast of West Africa and the waters of the Atlantic ocean, forcing any ships containing slaves to give themselves up. In general this was successful, although boats did still get through. This meant there was a long drawn out ending to the recognised ending of slavery. It finally occurred in British colonies in 1834. Throughout the rest of those centuries other countries finally abolished slavery – France in 1848, Cuba in 1860, the southern USA in 1865 (following the conclusion of the American Civil War), and Brazil in 1888.
Although economics were mainly responsible for the ending of the transatlantic slave trade, Africans themselves, through their resistance by fighting and highlighting the problem through writings, also played a significant part. Olandah Equiamo and Ottobah Cugoano were ex slaves, who gained their freedom in Britain, and travelled the country denouncing slavery. Ottobah was the first to suggest that the British government should use its navy to fight the slave trade.
Revolts by slaves onboard ships were commonplace, as they were on land. In Jamaica, slaves that escaped made for the central highlands and formed self-governing farming communities, which were capable of fending off attacks.