A British View on America's Slave Trade

views updated

A British View on America's Slave Trade

Book excerpt

By: The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society

Date: May 10, 1853

Source: British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Fourteenth Annual Report of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. London: British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, 1853.

About the Author: The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society formed on April 17, 1839, with the aim of abolishing slavery throughout the world. It grew out of the Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing Slavery throughout the British Dominions, created in 1823. The society initially focused on slavery in British India and Ceylon. After 1850, it focused on abolishing slavery in the United States.


Early British abolitionists inveighed against the slave trade, not slavery itself. While they viewed the institution as evil because of the human horrors and the moral degradation associated with it, they argued that if the supply of slaves were halted, then the value of the slave would be increased and the planters in the British colonies would be obliged to treat slaves more humanely.

Supporters of slavery countered with an economic argument: Planters needed a ready supply of slave labor in the colonies to ensure that they could provide England with much-needed raw materials. In addition, British national interests would be seriously damaged unless all nations—including France, Spain, and other slave-owning rivals—emancipated their slaves at the same time. To that end, the British government tried to negotiate with other European nations to suppress the slave trade, but it was unsuccessful.

In addition to such setbacks, abolitionists realized that simply ending the slave trade would do little to better the life of the average British slave. This led to the creation of the Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing Slavery Throughout the British Dominion.

Great Britain ended its slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery in the British Empire with the Emancipation Act of August 29, 1833. British abolitionists then turned their energies to slavery in Europe and the United States. Americans finally abolished slavery in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.


In the history of great questions there are seasons when those who are engaged in the advocacy of a catholic principle, are especially required to take a retrospect of the cause they are advocating.

The present is one of the most momentous periods in the annals of the Abolition movement. The public mind has never been so thoroughly alive to the magnitude of the evils of Slavery, nor has a more favourable opportunity ever presented itself of directing public opinion, in the full force of its mighty power, against this gigantic inquiry.

With especial reference, however, to the present healthy tone of general sentiment on the subject of Slavery, your Committee would recur with satisfaction to the past labours of those eminent individuals in this country and in America, and of the earlier associations which they originated, through whose instrumentality public attention was first powerfully directed to this subject. Your Committee would remind you of a time when the Slave-trade was not illegal, and when Slavery was a domestic institution in many of our colonies—when the principal maritime powers of Europe, with Great Britain at their head—the United States of America and the other countries of that immense continent and the colonies adjacent, were extensively engaged in the abominable traffic in human beings; when scarcely any portion of its mainland, or of the beautiful islands that fringe its coasts, and in which Europeans were settled, were unpolluted with Slavery; when nearly the whole of our imports of sugar, rice, tobacco, coffee and indigo, were the produce of Slave-labour; and when the public sentiment of this country was as opposed to the abolition of the Slave-trade and of Slavery, as it is now unanimous in condemnation of both. Your committee would next revert to the efforts which at that early period were made by a few earnest-minded men, to create a sound public opinion on these subjects, and stimulate it to stem the torrent of iniquity, that had already disfigured so fair a portion of the earth, and threatened rapidly to overspread contiguous territories. At first these efforts met with but indifferent success. Arrayed against them, in formidable combination, and goaded into the most resolute opposition by the powerful party whose interests were supposed to be identified with the continuance of Slavery, were the parliament, the clergy, the Press, and even the People. All of these had to be enlightened, and converted to the cause of the slave: a process which was found extremely slow, and was oftentimes discouraging. It required, indeed, half a century of patient and indefatigable labour. But the national conscience was at length aroused, and the work was done—England renounced the Slave-Trade and Slavery.

Your committee, however, whilst dwelling on this grand moral triumph, would emphatically remind you, that notwithstanding the unwearied efforts of the Abolitionists, and their co-adjutors, to awaken the public opinion of this country to a sense of the enormous iniquities of Slave-holding, little real progress was made in this direction, until the principle was asserted of immediate and unconditional emancipation, on the ground that "Slavery is a sin and a crime before God." This doctrine it was that first startled the conscience of the nation. It smote its ear as an unbearable reproach on a professing Christian people, and aroused the religious feelings of the community. It led to investigation; conviction speedily followed. In vain Slavery asserted the rights of property in defiance of the laws of God. Such rights were indignantly denied to exist, when that property meant man: and thus, the principle that man cannot hold property in man, became the corner-stone of the Abolition movement.

The greatly improved state of public opinion, which resulted from the maintenance of this principle, finally led to the extinction of Slavery in the British colonies. Many of the northern States of the American Union had, indeed, already set a worthy example in this respect, and the odious institution would probably have been rapidly abolished throughout the entire federation, had not the value of slave-labour become greatly enhanced, by the extraordinary demand that unexpectedly arose for the chief products of that labour, and had not the monetary interest concerned in the support of Slavery been enabled, in consequence, to trample upon the greater interests of humanity. It is, nevertheless, encouraging to reflect, that the northern limit of Slavery in the American Union was finally fixed by an Act of Congress, so that in one direction at last, its area is circumscribed. Mexico, and the smaller republics of South America, also, from the first recognized the right of the slave to emancipation. In these States it no longer exists, or is in rapid process of extinction. It was, subsequently, abolished in the small island of St. Bartholomew, belonging to the King of Denmark, whilst in 1847 an act was passed for the emancipation of the slaves in the Danish West India Islands; though it is to be lamented that the labouring population has since been subjected to a code of regulations of a semi-slavery character. The following year the then Provisional Government of France gave immediate freedom to 300,0000 slaves in her colonial dependencies, and there is some reason to hope that Portugal will speedily banish Slavery from her Indian and African possessions. In the Dutch colonies it still exists; but the question of emancipation is occupying the attention of the home and colonial authorities, and will, it is expected, soon be officially discussed, with a view to its final adjustment. Thus, the principal territories in which this unrighteous system is now firmly maintained, on any very extended scale, are the Southern States of the American Union, Brazil, and a few minor States of South America, the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Porto [sic] Rico, and to a limited extent, in the colonies belonging to Holland. In all of these, the entire number of human beings held in bondage does not fall short of eight millions, thus distributed:—in the American Slave States, three million, three hundred thousand; in Brazil, about the same number; in the Spanish colonies probably above half a million; in the Dutch colonies, and the Portuguese settlements, about two hundred and fifty thousand; the remainder being spread over the South American Republics, and other territories….

Your Committee would next refer to the Address they have recently issued, calling the attention of Christians of all denominations in the United Kingdom, and especially of Christian ministers, to the position of the American churches, and of the principal religious associations of the United States, with reference to the monstrous evil which they are cherishing in their midst. Upwards of five thousand copies of this Address, with a Statistical Appendix, have been distributed amongst the various religious denominations in the United Kingdom and the ministers connected with them. This measure has been attended with the most encouraging results. Resolutions have been founded upon them, and passed unanimously in public meetings and congregational gatherings, and earnest appeals to corresponding denominations in America have been adopted, and forwarded to your Committee, to be transmitted to the United States. The subject has also been adverted to at the annual meetings of some of our religious and benevolent associations, and public attention has thus been forcibly directed to the monstrous anomaly existing in America, of professedly Christian ministers openly defending the abomination of slavery, as a Divine institution, or observing upon the subject a scarcely less culpable silence. Towards such individuals as are identified with so deplorable a state of things, the religious sentiment of this country has suggested thee observance of a line of conduct which, it is hoped, may prove alike a solemn rebuke and a significant warning.

And here your committee would advert to the strenuous efforts which the slave-power in the United States is making to consolidate the iniquitous institution, against which public opinion is now so thoroughly aroused. Not only have several of the States passed new and most oppressive laws, involving the liberties and the rights of the free coloured population … Jamaica, however, pursues her career of disaster and decay, without making any visible efforts at self-improvement. Possessing within herself, every clement of wealth, nothing seems wanting to secure her commercial prosperity, but that whilst claiming aid from the mother country, she should assume the initiative in those measures which are essential to her welfare, and which includes the emendation of her vicious constitution, and a more economical expenditure. Unfortunately, Jamaica has been made to represent the British West Indies, and her actual condition is pointed at by slave-holders, as proof of the failure of Negro Emancipation. Her own mismanagement however, consequent on the non-residence of her proprietors, has reduced her to a position of comparatively small importance; her export of sugar being now far below that of the small island of Barbadoes.

Your Committee regret to have their attention still directed to attempts on the part of some of the colonial Legislatures to pass laws oppressive in their operation on the labouring classes, and measures to effect immigration, and to control the immigrants, which are of a most objectionable character. Your committee, however, will continue to watch this subject, and strenuously oppose the introduction of any measures likely to interfere with the just rights of the emancipated classes, or to retard their religious and social advancement….

Your committee would here refer, with much satisfaction, to those noble Addresses from the Women of England to the Women of America, on the subject of American Slavery, which have recently been presented to an eminent lady, now sojourning in this country, and who has kindly undertaken to lay them before her country-women.—To those distinguished personages who originated this expression of womanly sentiment, especially to Her Grace the Duchess of Sutherland, and to the Earl of Shaftesbury; and to those ladies who so gracefully seconded their efforts, and were instrumental in procuring the large number of nearly six hundred thousand signatures, a special tribute is due. When those whom a kind Providence has so highly favoured, are thus forward in promoting good works, oppressed humanity has reason to hope that the day of its deliverance is at hand.

But although your Committee have reason to be grateful for the large measure of success with which their labours have been crowned hitherto, the desperate efforts which the Slave power in America is making to extend and perpetuate the hateful institution of Slavery, demands increased watchfulness, and unabated exertion on the part of your Society. If it be objected that Slavery has been removed from British soil, and therefore it is not our province to interfere, in order to effect its eradication in foreign lands, the emphatic reply is; that no civilized nation can remain unaffected by a system, which, though operating afar off, brings disgrace on civilization; and that no professedly Christian community can view the perpetration of an enormous iniquity by another people professing the same religion, without feeling that their common faith is outraged and scandalized. Your Committee, therefore assert, that for the credit of civilization, for the welfare of humanity, and for the honour and the interests of Religion, we are bound to employ all moral and pacific means to extirpate that unrighteous system, which so long as it exists inflicts the foulest outrage upon them all. But your society can only hope to achieve this great object, through the same pubic opinion, which, in modern times, has been found so potent to accomplish the mightiest changes, and which, sustained by correct religious sentiment, has proved irresistible. Looking, therefore, to the influence of public opinion, as the chief means by which Slavery is to be abolished, yet fully alive to the extreme difficulty of impressing society at large, with the sense of the importance and efficacy of a simultaneous demonstration of sentiment on this question, your committee have hailed with heartfelt satisfaction, the appearance of those noble works which are identified with the name of Harriet Beecher Stowe, works which by their intrinsic excellence and truthfulness have deservedly achieved a success unprecedented in the annals of literature, and aroused a universal spirit of opposition to Slavery, that they trust will not again slumber, until this monster iniquity shall be utterly suppressed. For having accomplished this so effectually and in so eminently a Christian spirit, the cause of the slave owes Harriet Beecher Stowe a deep debt of gratitude, which the emancipated generations of a degraded and despised people now held in ignominious bondage will repay with unnumbered blessings, whilst cherishing, as household words, her works and her name in their hearts….


The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society remains in existence because slavery remains in existence even at the millennium. By the 1890s, the members of the society had focused their energies on the ill treatment of indigenous peoples. In 1909, the society merged with the Aborigines's Protection Society to form the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society. In 1990, the organization became Anti-Slavery International (ASI).

ASI addresses slavery, forced and bonded labor, child labor, and the trafficking of human beings, abuses that can be found around the world. Chattel slavery, or the sale and ownership of one person by another, exists in the Sudan and Mauritania. In India, Pakistan, and Nepal, children are forcibly employed in the handmade woolen carpet industry. In Iraq, women and girls have been abducted and forced to work as sex slaves. In the United States, female immigrants from Latin America and Asia have been forced into prostitution. In African countries torn by civil war, children are routinely forced to serve as soldiers.

Despite widespread evidence of bondage around the world, slavery fails to ignite major protests such as those sparked by globalization. The United Nations has formed a Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, but most people in developed nations continue to regard slavery as an issue that was resolved in the nineteenth century.



Miers, Suzanne. Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade. London: Longman, 1975.

Temperley, Howard. British Antislavery, 1833–1870. London: Longman, 1972.

Web sites

Anti-Slavery International. "The History of Anti-Slavery International." April 20, 2006. 〈http://www.antislavery.org/homepage/antislavery/history.htm〉 (accessed May 1, 2006).

About this article

A British View on America's Slave Trade

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article