The Hell-Borbe Traffic: William Owen and the African Slave Trade

By Goodman, Jordan | Geographical, September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Hell-Borbe Traffic: William Owen and the African Slave Trade


Goodman, Jordan, Geographical


As the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade draw to a close, Jordan Goodman tells the story of a forgotten hero of the fight to end the trafficking of human beings

1807 was a momentous year in the history of human rights. In that year, the British parliament abolished its nation's participation in the African slave trade. It was unprecedented: Europeans had been trading in African slaves since the 15th century; and, for two and a half centuries before abolition, Britain was the trade's main beneficiary. It's quite right that we celebrate the achievements of men such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano, partly because of their extraordinary determination to see it through, and partly because of the extent to which they publicised the horrors of the trade.

But, as it turned out, 1807 wasn't the end, but rather the beginning of the end of the African slave trade. The trade in slaves across the Atlantic, for example, continued for a further 60 years, and at a level not far short of what it had been in previous centuries.

The 1807 act declared that for British nationals 'all manner of dealing and trading in the Purchase, Sale, Barter or Transfer of Slaves ... is hereby utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful'. The act laid out stiff penalties for those caught trading in slaves: forfeiture of the ship and a fine of 100 [pounds sterling] per slave captured. At the same time, it also provided incentives to those engaged in the trade's suppression--prize money for the capture of successfully prosecuted vessels.

The humanitarian zeal that propelled Britain to be the first major power to abolish the slave trade for its nationals (Denmark had done the same in all of its possessions in 1802), eventually spilled over into a campaign for the full abolition of slave trading regardless of nationality. But that aspiration, first articulated by the British negotiators at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, proved to be even more difficult to achieve.

The call for concerted international effort, including raising an international police force, largely fell on deaf ears. Although other nations that traded in African slaves, such as France, Spain and Portugal, made appropriate acquiescing noises when put under pressure by Britain, they didn't follow the British example and didn't abolish their participation in the trade.

Britain's lofty principles were greeted more with cynicism than respect. After all, within living memory, Britain had been making a fortune out of enslaved Africans; in the years before abolition, one out of every three ships leaving the African coast for the Americas had been flying a British flag.

Britain would continue to use diplomatic means to convince these nations to follow its lead, but in the meantime, the country was bent on eradicating the illegal trade: ships flying flags of convenience without proper papers. It fell to the Royal Navy to suppress this trade, but it wasn't an easy task. The Admiralty, for one, was less than enthusiastic about its responsibility to the humanitarian effort. Chasing slavers was mundane compared to fighting battles. It was more glorious to capture an enemy's vessel than to catch a ship full of slaves. In the first decade following abolition, the Admiralty committed less than two per cent of its resources to suppressing the trade.

There were also two major logistical problems. First, Africa was deadly to Europeans: malaria and yellow fever would claim many lives on naval vessels sailing around river deltas looking for slavers. Second, while European knowledge about Africa's western coast was, at best, patchy, the eastern coast of the continent was a complete blank.

There was little the Admiralty could do about disease, but accurate charts were another matter. The naval officer as fighting hero was receding from the scene, to be replaced by the chartmakers and slave suppressors (often one and the same) who spread out from Britain to tame and civilise the world's oceans. …

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