Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery during the 19thcentury is a well-known and well-studied part of the historiography of slavery. While it is often said this was due to the British upholding their Christian moral duty, there were other, more sinister motives that led to the British abolishing slavery. Thomas Cripps explains.

 William Wilberforce, perhaps the most famous campaigner in favor of abolishing slavery. Painting by John Rising.

William Wilberforce, perhaps the most famous campaigner in favor of abolishing slavery. Painting by John Rising.

How the British Abolished Slavery – And Ensured Many Others Did the Same

In 1765 Granville Sharp issued the first meaningful petition against Britain's role in the slave trade, and by 1783 there were significant protests outside of the British Parliament; in part due to the Zong Massacre of the same year where 130-150 slaves were massacred aboard a trading vessel. This in turn meant that by 1788-89 William Wilberforce, probably the most well known abolitionist, petitioned the government to end the Slave trade, yet this took 19 more years to happen. It was not until March 1807 and the Slave Trade Act that it would be illegal to trade in slaves, nevertheless slavery was still in place in much of the British Empire until the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which ended slavery in the British Empire.

That being said, this came with some caveats. The East India Company was exempt from the Act as was the colony of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the island of St Helena, although this did end in 1843 when the 1833 Act was enforced to its fullest extent. Furthermore, the slave owners received large compensation payments for their losses, the sum of which is estimated at around £20 million at the time. 

The trading of slaves in the British Empire was apparently now at an end, it was now their Christian duty of the British Empire to ensure that others partook in this humanitarian gesture and they set out to enforce this. 

Between c. 1833 and the end of the 19thcentury there was still a thriving illegal slave trade. Thousands of African slaves were being transported to the America’s, perhaps most notably to Cuba and Brazil. To combat this the British government increased the size of the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron that had been created in 1808 following the initial Slave Trade Act. By 1850 there were 50 ships in the region of West Africa. These ships aimed to deter would be slave traders, often stopping them forcefully in the process of transporting slaves who would then be returned to the African continent. This led to the expansion of societies such as Freetown in Sierra Leone where these ‘liberated’ slaves were delivered.

 

 

Ulterior Motives for the Abolition of Slavery

Whilst many of these actions may seem to be pointing the moral compass in the right direction, there were mostly certainly ulterior motives to the British enforcement of abolishing slavery and expanding the end of slavery globally.

The end of slavery cannot completely be seen as being motivated by the moral compass of Britain. And while there were certainly some who were driven by this, the powers that be were less certain and this can be seen as a large part of why the aforementioned legislation took so long to come to pass. Key wealthy individuals who had made significant monetary and political gains obviously objected to its end and funded serious campaigns against abolition. An apt example of this is William Beckford, who was a 22,000-acre plantation owner during the late 1700s and twice Mayor of London. In addition to this there were a large number of British Members of Parliament (MPs) who sided with the anti-abolition movement. It was not until later they came to the realization that it was no long conducive to profit. 

Excessive planting of crops, most notably tobacco, had lead to a large percentage of the soil in these areas becoming eroded meaning it was less profitable than it had been in the past to harvest these crops. Once the profitability of slavery was on the decline, it was not in the interest of the British Empire to continue with its previous policy on slavery. 

 

From Slavery to Colonialism

It is then, no coincidence that the number of British colonies in Africa significantly increased during the period following the abolition of slavery. In many ways their role in enforcing the end of slavery was a pretext for the expansion of imperialism into the African continent. 

Under the guise of a civilizing mission, to rid the ‘heathens’ of their inherent barbarism, the British among other European nations undertook a mission to ‘civilize’ the ‘dark continent’. The British abolition enforcers were then in a prime position to see that this goal was achieved.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s the city of Lagos in modern day Nigeria was in a succession crisis. Kosako, one of the contenders for the city declared his loyalty to the Oba of Benin and repulsed a British force. The British reaction was to support the other contender who agreed to abolish slavery in support for their help in overthrowing Kosako. Following a British bombardment of the city in December 1851 he was replaced with his British-backed rival Akitoye. Again, this may seem like a noble and chivalric mission, yet within ten years Lagos was seized as a crown colony and by 1887 the remainder of the former Benin Empire was seized as part of this so-called civilizing mission. 

Then, in 1884, at the Berlin Conference European nations met to discuss the partition of Africa. Following this, the well-known ‘Scramble for Africa’ took place - Britain was in pole position due to its activities in abolishing slavery.

By the turn of the century Britain had the largest empire in Africa, including South Africa, Nigeria, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Kenya, the Gold Coast (Ghana), and Sierra Leone.

In 1833 only 10% of Africa was colonized, by 1914 this figure sat at 90%. Only Liberia and Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, managed to successfully navigate the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and even Ethiopia was colonized in 1935 by Italy.

Whilst, Britain did not colonize the whole continent or force other countries to engage in imperial practices, it did utilize its maritime dominance and the opportunity afforded by the ending of the slave trade to expand its own imperial possessions.

 

What do you think about the motives of the British in ending the slave trade?