[Marxism] Britain's vote to end its slave trade was a precursor to today's liberal imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 25 07:09:26 MST 2007

(I found out about this article from 

Britain's vote to end its slave trade was a 
precursor to today's liberal imperialism

The sanctimonious interventionism that still 
motivates British governments was first conceived in 1807

Richard Gott
Wednesday January 17, 2007
The Guardian

In March, the British state will rightly 
celebrate the bicentenary of the end of Britain's 
part in the slave trade. Yet ordinary citizens, 
as well as schoolteachers and makers of 
television programmes who may find themselves 
caught up in the prolonged bout of 
self-congratulation imposed by government fiat 
(with the help of £16m from the Heritage Lottery 
Fund), will do well to reflect on aspects of this 
anniversary that are not so praiseworthy.

In the first place, when remembering the 
parliamentary vote in 1807, we should also recall 
that the slave trade was, for more than two 
centuries, the central feature of Britain's 
foreign commerce - endorsed, supported and 
profitably enjoyed by the royal family, and by 
the families of sundry courtiers, financiers, landowners and merchants.

The personal and public wealth of Britain created 
by slave labour was a crucial element in the 
accumulation of capital that made the industrial 
revolution possible, and the surviving profits 
have remained a solid element within specific 
families and within British society generally, 
cascading down from generation to generation, in 
John Major's felicitous phrase. In this context, 
the demand for reparations is a serious 
proposition, similar to the claim put forward by 
the families of Holocaust survivors for the 
return of property stolen by the Nazis. Black 
people whose forebears were slaves, victims of 
that other Holocaust, are simply asking for the 
stolen fruits of their ancestors' labour power to 
be given back to their rightful heirs.

Second, we should remember that the end to the 
trade came not simply from the useful agitation 
of Quakers, other Christian dissidents and 
parliamentary radicals, but also from the work of 
slaves who engaged in the propaganda of the deed, 
people who today would be described as 
"terrorists". Driving the anti-slave trade 
agitation was the ever accelerating rate of slave 
rebellion experienced in the Americas and the 
Caribbean in the late 18th century, reaching a 
peak in the years of the French revolution.

It is customary to pay homage to the slave 
revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue, today's Haiti, 
who rebelled in August 1791. They seized power, 
abolished slavery, and established the first 
black republic in the Americas. Yet other islands 
also saw serious uprisings by slaves and Maroons, 
who - at the time of the French-British wars - 
seized control with French help of large parts of 
Dominica, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St Vincent, 
Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad. Even where their 
actions were not eventually successful, the 
rebellions defeated two British armadas sent to 
destroy them, killing thousands of seamen and 
soldiers (with assistance from the French and 
from the twin weapon of malaria and yellow 
fever). They also deprived the British of income 
from their sugar plantations for years. Since 
those in the forefront of these rebellions were 
slaves recently arrived from Africa, the stark 
danger of the continuing slave trade to British 
commercial interests could not have been more graphically revealed.

Third, in considering the British achievement of 
1807, we should remember that other countries got 
there first. Again, it is customary to record the 
decision of the French convention to abolish 
slavery itself, on February 4 1794. Yet in the 
US, in spite of the wording of the constitution 
adopted in 1787 that endorsed the slave trade (at 
least for the subsequent 20 years), several 
states abandoned slavery. While the southern 
states grew rich on slave labour for another 70 
years (until 1863), slavery was abolished in the 
1780s in New Jersey and Delaware, and the trade 
was outlawed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island.

The Danes were also among the first in the field, 
decreeing an end to the trade to their Caribbean 
colonies in March 1792 (though it continued until 
1803). The British voted much the same way as the 
Danes at the end of a Commons debate a month 
later, declaring that "the slave trade ought to 
be gradually abolished". The weasel word 
"gradually" was introduced by an influential 
imperial politician from Scotland, Henry Dundas, 
who thereby postponed the trade's end for 15 years.

This long postponement is a further reason for 
this year's anniversary to be celebrated in a 
minor key, for the continuing trade allowed the 
evil practices of the Atlantic passage to 
continue, as well as permitting the British to 
purchase black people in the slave market to 
serve in their imperial wars. Black people were 
imported from the slave market in Goa and from 
Mozambique to fight a war of conquest in Ceylon, 
while 13,000 slaves were bought in the Caribbean 
to help in the suppression of slave rebellions. 
Black battalions were formed in several islands 
after 1795, and the soldiers were promised 
freedom when hostilities ended. Since the promise 
was often forgotten, the rebellions on one side 
were followed by mutinies on the other, both 
leading to a horrendous litany of floggings and executions.

A fourth aspect of the slave trade ban should not 
be forgotten: the vote of 1807 was not always 
respected. The British in Asia continued to take 
advantage of the continuing trade. The governor 
in Mauritius, conquered in 1810 from the French, 
sought to befriend the existing French settlers 
by allowing them to continue importing slaves, 
some 30,000 between 1811 and 1821.

The vote did not put an end to the international 
trade by other nations, nor did it terminate 
slavery. Several countries continued the trade, 
with half a million slaves arriving in the 
Americas in the 1820s, more than 60,000 a year. 
About 3,000 slaves were still being landed 
annually in Brazil in the 1850s. Slavery itself 
was not abolished in the British empire until 
1838, in the French empire in 1848, and in the US 
in 1863. Spanish Cuba continued with slavery until 1886, and Brazil until 1888.

One lasting and dubious legacy of 1807 has been 
the sanctimonious interventionism that has 
survived in Britain for two centuries, and still 
motivates contemporary governments. The British 
navy was given the task of patrolling the 
Atlantic, to police the continuing international 
trade from Africa to Brazil, Cuba, and the US. 
The West Africa Squadron began surveying the 
coast of Africa, and securing the naval bases 
that would make easier the task of imperial 
expansion later in the century, when east Africa 
was brought into the frame. Parliamentary 
radicals, however, were always opposed to the 
policy, arguing cogently in the 1840s that "our 
unavailing attempts to suppress the traffic 
worsened the lot of the slaves by making the 
misery of the Middle Passage worse than ever". 
Yet their opposition was ineffective. The naval 
squadron was not phased out until the 1870s, but 
by then Britain's taste for empire had become well established.

The navy's activities gave the British a taste 
for international action that has survived long 
into the post-colonial era. Tony Blair's speech 
in Plymouth last week, on Britain as a 
"war-fighting" nation whose frontiers reach out 
to Indonesia, last included in the empire between 
1811 and 1816, was emblematic of the new 
enthusiasm for imperial revival, echoed by Gordon 
Brown's repeated remarks that the empire gives us nothing to apologise for.

The final tragic aspect of the decision to end 
the slave trade was its arousal of the false 
expectation among slaves that their servitude 
might soon be abolished. It was to be more than 
30 years after 1807 before the British finally 
abandoned slavery in their empire, years that saw 
major slave rebellions in Jamaica, Dominica, 
Barbados, Honduras and Guyana. All were savagely 
repressed. Some participants claimed that the 
trumpeted news of an end to the trade had led 
them to believe that slavery itself was over, a 
mistake that some people still make today.

· Richard Gott, author of Hugo Chávez and the 
Bolivarian Revolution, is writing a book about imperial rebellions.

rwgott at aol.com

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