Antislavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law

By Martinez, Jenny S. | The Yale Law Journal, January 2008 | Go to article overview
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Antislavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law

Martinez, Jenny S., The Yale Law Journal



     A. The Rise of British Abolitionism
     B. Abolitionism and British Foreign Policy, 1807-1814:
     C. British Foreign Policy at the End of the Napoleonic Wars: A
        Network of Treaties

     A. Overview of Court Operations
     B. The Courts in Operation: Impact and Limitations
        1. Impact: Volume of Cases
        2. Limitation: Nonparticipation
        3. Limitation: Other Loopholes
        4. Limitation: Reluctant Treaty Partners
        5. Limitation: Faltering Domestic Support
     C. From Crisis to Success: The Final Abolition of the Slave Trade
        1. Portugal
        2. Brazil
        3. Spain, Cuba, and the United States



Almost exactly two centuries ago, in March 1807, both the United States and Great Britain passed landmark legislation prohibiting the slave trade. The anniversary of this event has been marked with fanfare in both countries. (1) But these celebrations mask the fact that the transatlantic slave trade continued for another sixty years before it was finally suppressed. This Article is about those sixty years and the surprising and forgotten role that international law and international courts played in the extinction of the slave trade.

Between 1817 and 1871, bilateral treaties between Britain and several other countries (eventually including the United States) led to the establishment of international courts for the suppression of the slave trade. (2) Though all but forgotten today, these antislavery courts were the first international human rights courts. They were made up of judges from different countries. They sat on a permanent, continuing basis, and they applied international law. The courts explicitly aimed to promote humanitarian objectives. Though the courts were extremely active for only a few years, over the treaties' lifespan, the courts heard more than 600 cases and freed almost 80,000 slaves found aboard illegal slave trading vessels. (3) During their peak years of operation, the courts heard cases that may have involved as many as one out of every five or six ships involved in the transatlantic slave trade. (4)

These international antislavery courts have received scant attention from historians, (5) and legal scholars have almost completely ignored them. (6) To be sure, the cases they adjudicated represented only a fraction of the transatlantic slave trade from West Africa, and they left the East African slave trade untouched. Social, economic, political, and military factors created an environment amenable to the formation of the courts, and it is difficult to untangle the causal role played by these factors from the role of the courts themselves in the ultimate global abolition of the slave trade. The final suppression of the slave trade only occurred when changes in attitudes toward the trade in various countries led to effective enforcement of domestic laws against the traffic; these changes in domestic attitudes appear linked at least in part to international efforts to ban the slave trade, though other factors likely played a role as well. But regardless of the weight of various causal factors in the suppression of the slave trade, an international legal institution that had a direct and tangible impact on nearly 80,000 human lives should be far more than a footnote in the history of international law. Modern international courts--about which tens of thousands of scholarly pages have been spilled--measure their successes on a much smaller scale. (7)

In addition to its intrinsic historical interest, the story of the antislavery courts has important implications for contemporary issues in international law.

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