Building an International Conscience: Great Britain and the Atlantic Slave Trade

Article excerpt

William Wilberforce wept. The crusade to end the British slave trade that had required so much effort from Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and other members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade over the past twenty years was at long last accomplished. The House of Commons concluded its deliberations on the measure to abolish the slave trade on February 23, 1807. But what occurred in the House that day could hardly be called debate as member after member rose to affirm his support for the bill and to shower praises on Wilberforce its chief architect. When the vote was taken the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade passed 283 to 16 producing one of the largest cheers ever recorded in Parliamentary history as well as Wilberforce's well deserved emotion. The bill received royal approval on March 25, 1807 and effective May 1 of that year all participation in the sale or transport of African slaves became illegal. (1) The abolitionist victory was only a first step, however. Now what remained to be done was to convince the rest of the world to follow Britain's example. Many were optimistic about the prospect. Henry Brougham, the great jurist and later abolitionist Member of Parliament wrote in 1803 that," we have been the chief trader, I mean the ringleader in the crime ... " (2) Surely if the leader abandoned the trade everyone else would fall into line. In this the abolitionists would be disappointed as former allies and enemies made preparations to fill the demand for labor that the British had abandoned. So the crusade continued. In 1833 Parliament ended the institution of slavery in the empire with a_scheme for gradual emancipation that was finally completed in 1838. But for almost sixty years after Wilberforce's great day of victory the bedrock of British foreign policy would be the effort to exterminate the Atlantic slave trade. The result was almost constant negotiations with other powers, a long- term commitment of naval forces and an expenditure of vast amounts of treasure and not a few lives.

The 1807 Slave Trade Act that outlawed British participation in the slave trade after May 1, 1808 prescribed the penalties for violating the act. Anyone buying, selling, or transporting slaves would be fined 100 [pounds sterling] per slave and any vessel employed in the trade would be forfeited to the government. (3) An addition to the law passed in 1811 made the trading of slaves a felony punishable by transportation to the penal colony of Australia for a period of fourteen years. (4)

To begin the enforcement of the act the Admiralty dispatched two rather small, slow ships to the African coast in 1808 to intercept slavers. The frigate Soleby (32 guns) commanded by Commodore E. H. Columbine and the sloop Derwent (18 guns) were all that the Royal Navy could afford to send while the war with Napoleon continued. By 1811 the Admiralty felt secure enough to send a squadron of five ships commanded by Captain Frank Irby to Africa but a permanent West African Squadron had to wait for the end of the Napoleonic Wars. (5) The squadron's orders directed it to sail

   down the coast ... to look into the several bays and creeks ...
   between Cape de Verd and Benguela, particularly on the Gold Coast,
   Whydah, the Bight of Benin, and Angola, in order to your seizing
   such ships and vessels as may be liable thereto, under the
   authority of the acts ... prohibiting the slave trade.... You are
   to use every other means in your power to prevent a continuance of
   the traffic in slaves.... (6)

This meant that the squadron had to patrol the coast of Africa from 12[degrees] North latitude to 15[degrees] South, a distance of some 2000 miles. Moreover, the whole route lies within a belt of tropical calms and currents that make sailing the area difficult. Add to that the heat, humidity, cockroaches, mosquitoes, and the constant outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever and the navy's task becomes truly formidable. …