Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Changing Metropolitan Attitudes to the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Changing Metropolitan Attitudes to the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Article excerpt


This paper will be in three somewhat unequal parts. In the first part of this paper, I will trace the development of British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and the attitudes of the British establishment that made it possible. Second, I will consider the historiographical debate on how the campaign to abolish the slave trade came about, with special reference to the classic work of Eric Williams. Third, I will say a few things about the emergence of the idea of freedom, and how this provided the context for the abolition debate at the end of the eighteenth century. All of this, I hope, will give some context to explain how the act to abolish the transatlantic slave trade came to be passed in 1807.

British Involvement in the Slave Trade

The first recorded example of British - or more specifically English - involvement in the transatlantic slave trade was in 1562 when John Hawkins, the privateer, led an expedition to West Africa, sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth I of England. He captured 300 Africans, who were then carried across the Atlantic and sold in the Spanish West Indies in exchange for a cargo of hides, ginger and sugar. Such was the success of this first expedition that Hawkins led a second expedition of three ships in a similar venture in 1564. A participant in the second expedition was Francis Drake (who later famously saved England from the Spanish Armada), while Queen Elizabeth I, who was anxious to share in the profits, provided one of the ships. European trade in Africa had been made a Portuguese monopoly by the papal arbitration between Spain and Portugal in 1493. Therefore, at a time of growing international tension in Europe, the use of privateers in this first foray into the slave trade allowed Queen Elizabeth to avoid the appearance of direct encroachment on the interests of her powerful Catholic neighbours. The Queen knighted Hawkins shortly after the second expedition; in his coat of arms, he proudly included the head of an African woman with a chain around her neck.

It is noteworthy that the first attempt by the state to expel black people from England also dates back to the reign of Elizabeth. In 1596, she issued a proclamation that read as follows: "Her Majestie understanding that there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are already to[o] manie . . . Her Majesty's pleasure therefore ys that those kinde of people should be sent forth of the lande. . . ."1 These two events were related: that is, the beginnings of English participation in the trade in Africans and the beginnings of the articulation of racist sentiments by the state towards them. Ultimately, racism would smooth the path of Western commerce by making it easier for those involved in the trade to see the enslaved as trade goods rather than as fellow human beings. However, racism was not a necessary precondition for the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in the sixteenth century; this would be to put the cart before the horse. In fact, racism emerged as a justifying ideology for the enslavement of black people during the period of the transatlantic slave trade. Prior to that time, unfree systems of labour, including serfdom, indenture and the use of convict labour (as well as slavery), were commonplace and generally unquestioned in many parts of Europe. The motivation for all of these systems was, in the first place, economic.

As Robin Blackburn explains in his book, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848, the original term in Europe for what is called a "slave" in modern parlance was servus (from the Latin), but this gradually evolved into the more general and imprecise term "servant".2 The term "slave" came into common usage in Western Europe, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as a reflection of the "slavic" origin of many of those who were subjected to this form of forced labour in Europe at that time. In fact, Europeans continued to enslave fellow Europeans well into the sixteenth century. …

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