Magazine article The Spectator

Ending the Vile Traffic

Magazine article The Spectator

Ending the Vile Traffic

Article excerpt

SWEET WATER AND BITTER: THE SHIPS THAT STOPPED THE SLAVE TRADEChatto & Windus, £20, pp. 352, ISBN 9780701181598 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The narratives of slavery have, it's safe to say, replaced the narratives of imperial adventure in our reading lives, and our moral compasses are orientated by indignation at suffering and exploitation rather than by the contemplation of our ancestors' achievements. The slave trade, considered 'relevant' as well as a gruesome spectacle of human suffering on a colossal scale, is taught in schools and familiar to millions to whom 'Nelson' suggests only Mandela.

And yet the abolition of the slave trade, over long, difficult decades, was one of the bravest and most serious endeavours of the British in the 19th century. Siân Rees examines the long campaign to eradicate the Vile Traffic, as it was called, after 1807 when the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed, up until 1869 when the Preventive Squadron lost its independent existence. By 1845, one British merchant wrote:

We have spent £20,000,000 to abolish slavery and £20,000,000 more to repress the Slave trade; yet does no one nation under Heaven give us credit for disinterested sincerity in this large expenditure of money and philanthrophy.

Few historians now give the British much credit, and some Marxists have even proposed that British capitalists only abolished slavery because they saw more profits and potential for exploitation in a post-abolition world.

Few people thought initially that Britain could export its high moral standpoint. After the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, many countries and foreign citizens were in no mood to bow to what they saw as British hypocrisy; it will be remembered how Mrs Elton, in Emma, finds it necessary noisily to disavow any family connection with the trade, and what fun Peacock in Melincourt has with the bien-pensant 'Anti-Saccharine Society'. Turned into policy and international dictates, these attitudes struck many diplomats and merchants as insufferable. Though Europe-wide indignation ran high at tales of the enslavement of Christians by the Dey of Algiers, when the British suggested at the Congress of Vienna that action be taken against the slave trade, nothing but 'hidden yawns' and a meaningless declaration that 'the universal abolition of the trade in Negroes be particularly worthy of their attention, being in conformity with the spirit of the times.' The profits to be made were enormous -- a slave bought in Lagos for 12 shillings could be sold in Brazil for $400. In 1817, the Regent of Portugal and the King of Spain were very happy to accept compensation of £300,000 and £400,000 respectively, ostensibly for the abandonment of slaving. In practice, in remote and geographically half-mapped West Africa, the trade went on unabated. Other nations, such as the French and the Americans, were in no mood to fall in behind British instructions, and for years after the despatch of the Preventive Squadron in 1819, the trade actually increased. The risks, too, were not just of physical danger; one poor British officer boarded and liberated a Havana slave ship, only to find himself at the receiving end of a London law suit by the slavemaster, and found against for the gigantic sum of £21,180.

As well as the European profiteers, the trade was sustained by slavery's deep roots in African social structures. As one slave trader, Theophile Conneau, explained, slaves in Africa were a sort of currency, used to purchase wives, cattle, or agricultural land. …

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