Celebrating the Madness:
Britain's Financial Decision to End the Slave Trade
March 27, 2007
When has Western society ever taken moral precedence over the dollar? All the examples chronicled in our recent and ancient history indicate that the answer is a resounding "never." It is therefore safe to say that the decision to ban the slave trade in 1807 was not about those in authority taking moral and legal responsibility for an injustice but, as historical evidence has proven, was a decision based on the economics of the time.
Sunday 25 March, 2007, marked the bicentenary of the British parliamentary bill that outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire. Since anniversaries, especially when they meet or cross the hundred year mark are deemed important, there is a great hullabaloo about the decision to end the slave trade two hundred years ago. However, there is nothing to celebrate because the decision to end the slave trade was not a noble intention but a decision based on its growing impracticality.
Those most recognized in the struggle under this British celebration of their decision to end the slave trade are mostly Christian philanthropists such as Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Charles James Fox and of course, the most celebrated of the bunch, William Wilberforce. The British highlight these figures in an attempt to make themselves heroes in the African liberation struggle and also to distract people from the fact that they were major players in the slave trade and the genocide of African people.
As noble as the act of abolition of the slave trade may seem to some, and notwithstanding the fact that some white Britons, Americans and other Europeans were against slavery and the slave trade, it was the economic factor that rendered the trade obsolete in most countries.
Many argue that the slave trade must have been outlawed for humanitarian reasons because many were still eliciting substantial profits from the trade and from slavery. While this may have been true for a few, critical events in history made the sugar business less and less profitable for most. As the West Indian historian Selwyn Carrington pointed out, Britain's stance on the American War of Independence affected the prospects of the West Indian plantation economy tremendously. In fact, it was Britain that demanded that her colonies desist from engaging in trade with North America, one of its biggest markets at the time, with the Prohibitory Act of 1776 that criminalized trade with the American colonies. The British further sealed the deal by demanding in 1783 that American ships continue to be debarred from entering West Indian ports.
The British had relied on the American colony to provide provisions for the enslaved Africans for proximity reasons as well as for financial expediency. Britain's move to punish America (for its bid to gain independence) by ending trading relations hurt its colonies severely. They were unable to locate alternative markets to meet their import and export needs and were thus thrown into a situation of economic depression. Apart from this, there was increasing competition later on from other sugar producing territories such as Cuba and so-called East India and competition from alternative sources of sugar: mainly beet sugar.
Also posing an economic threat to the sugar industry was the rapid growth and importance of the industrial revolution, which ironically was financed by profits procured off the blood and sweat of Africans who were coerced into slave labour on the sugar plantations. Britain, in order to ensure that it maintained a stronghold on the industrialization current, banned its colonies from evolving independent mechanisms using new industrial technology to be self-sufficient. Instead, Britain was the only place where these new technologies were to be operational (although Europe and America were abreast with the new technological developments and would soon surpass Britain in this regard). In fact, the British ensured that others did not profit from this new industrial revolution by very brutal and nasty measures that many conveniently forget to mention. Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee in his article Live and Let Die: Colonial Sovereignties and the Death Worlds of Necrocapitalism stated that:
"...the 'technological superiority' of the British textile industry for example, was established as much by invention as by a systematic destruction of India's indigenous industry including some innovative competitive strategies that involved cutting off the thumbs of master weavers in Bengal."
This proves once again that the West would do anything for economic reasons. Economic reasons and not any moral conviction on their part, was their main motivation for action. It is a fact that the British government had allowed this situation to continue until they were certain that the Indians could not compete with the British. These are the same ones that some say benevolently ended the slave trade and later on slavery.
The fact of the matter is that there is strong evidence, and I may go as far to say, irrefutable evidence that points to sugar production and chattel slavery becoming unprofitable to Britain in the 19th century. Whether slavery could have persisted beyond that period is a matter that can be debated. Many things have lived on despite economic death because of habit. The slavery institution could have been one of them. However, there was vested interest in the new economic order that pushed for a swift transition from slave-based labour to a laissez-faire economy to accommodate industrial capitalism.
In this regard, the abolitionist voices that clamored for change at this time did not influence the decision to end slavery in any way. However, their views were allowed to circulate more during this period because it was a call to end an institution that was holding back the progress of new capitalism. Tristram Hunt in "Abolition of Slave Trade: Easy on the Euphoria" puts it nicely:
"Profits from the bloody trade secured the imperial hegemony of Georgian England. It was only brought to an end in 1807 because of the move from a colonial sugar trade to industrial capitalism. There was nothing noble about abolition and the proper response today is a comprehensive package of reparations."
Also, as Eric Williams rightly pointed out in a quotation from N.B Lewis' book 'The Abolitionist Movement in Sheffield, 1823-1833', "with no vested interest in the maintenance of colonial slavery, (it) offered a favorable field for the abolitionist" (Capitalism and Slavery p. 159). In fact, had it not been in the best interest of the mercantilists and their supporters in high office, the abolitionist cry would have been silenced to a greater degree.
Unlike what the British are claiming today, there was no real moral realization on their part to end slavery. It was a decision based on the then current turn of the economic tide that pointed in the way of a new industrial capitalist system.
Celebrating or commemorating the passage of the act abolishing the Atlantic Slave Trade in the British Empire is paying homage to Whites for passing a bill that was strictly for their financial gain. It is a slap in the face to others who are nameless in the African liberation struggle and even to the noted heroes of the movement such as Toussaint L'Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, Nanny of the Maroons in Jamaica and many others. What would be more appropriate is to celebrate the efforts of these persons, and countries such as Haiti that were courageous in the fight for their freedom. Why not start by celebrating Haitian Independence which took place on January 1, 1804?
We must remember the true reasons for the end of the slave trade and by extension slavery. It was never about fulfilling any ethical obligation to make right with the enslaved but rather to give rise to an opportunity to delve into industrial capitalism with less hindrances. If notable historians and other Afrocentrists are cognizant of the true reasons for passing the Slave Trade Act, then they should not recognize this day as a good milestone in history. What may have been a major concern for most Whites was how to end an institution that they had grown accustomed to and how the Africans would act if 'freed'. That was the scare that many Whites faced. White politicians and the elitist business class knew that it no longer made economic sense to keep Africans as slaves.
Are we thus celebrating the "bold step of Whites" to end the slave trade, despite their dubious motivations?