It is estimated that about 14m Africans were enslaved by Arabs over a period of 1,300 years. It is time to note what they did.
It is important to differentiate between the trade in enslaved Africans and slavery. The abolition of the Atlantic trade by British traders was certainly agreed by both Houses of Parliament. Just why this was has been a subject of considerable debate among historians.
To stop the trade and to prevent it simply passing into other traders’ hands, Britain had to obtain agreement to the cessation from other European and American traders. This was obtained, often by the payment of a “fee” to the governments concerned. Compensation, if you like. However, as far as it has been possible to discover, no compensation was offered to the British traders.
Or could one argue that no compensation was needed as little was done to stop the “nefarious trade” for a number of years?
A couple of totally unsuitable vessels were sent out to Sierra Leone to intercept slaving vessels, but they hardly stopped any. Nothing else was put in place – not even when Parliament was informed of slavers leaving from the River Thames, under their very noses!
And even when some more effective attempts were made, the illegal trade continued. As had trade between the islands and from the islands to the mainland.
The Anti-Slavery Society and others alerted Parliament to the many ways the law was being transgressed. Parliament responded by passing amendments to the Act. It passed so many that they had to be consolidated twice, in 1822 and 1828.
But the trade continued unchecked until the 1840s when a more appropriate Royal Naval Squadron was sent to West Africa and seizures increased. However, the captured slaving vessels were then often sold to slavers!
But the Atlantic trade continued until slavery was outlawed in Cuba and Brazil in the 1880s. Around 80% of Brazil’s population has some African ancestry.
- Read our related article: How the West grew rich on gold and slavery: A review of Born in Blackness by Howard French
We shall never know the total numbers enslaved – that is, how many died in the process of enslavement, on the march to the coast, while awaiting shipment and then on the slave ships.
The most recent work by David Eltis on actual voyage records (and not all exist) is that around 9.5 million enslaved were “embarked” between 1501 and 1811, and 3 million between 1811 and 1866.
The compensation that was offered by the British government was to slave-owners, not traders. It obtained the £20m it dispensed (over £1bn today), as a loan from the Rothschild banking family.
The 1833 Emancipation Act applied to only four parts of the British empire: the Caribbean, Cape Town, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Canada. Other colonies, or British trading posts which eventually became colonies – for example, in West and East Africa – were not mentioned in the Act. India was specifically excluded. The freed men, women and children received no compensation.
How was it that Liverpool continued to flourish even when the city’s two MPs, Gascoyne and Tarleton, advised Parliament that the city would die if the trade was stopped? Precisely because it was not stopped and Liverpool traders and merchants (for example, in guns and gunpowder and trading goods), bankers and shipbuilders continued to participate in the illegal trade.
Liverpool supported the Confederate rebel states in the American Civil War: despite neutrality being the official British government policy, the city built and supplied vessels, ammunition and funds to the slave-holding Southern states. (See my book, After Abolition, London: I. B. Tauris 2007.)
The main reason for this support by Liverpool was the importance of the trade in slave-grown cotton from the Southern Confederate states. Liverpool was the main port supplying the Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire cotton mills: by the 1830s it handled 90% of the cotton imported, and 61% of raw cotton and cotton textile exports.
In the 1850s such textiles comprised around 12% of Britain’s total exports. Liverpool also handled about 22% of the slave-grown tobacco imported. The profits and excise duties from these contributed considerably to Britain’s national income and offered employment to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, often in appalling conditions.
It is also important, I think, to note the trade in slaves by Arabs across the Sahara desert, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It has been estimated that about 14m Africans were enslaved by and for Muslims in both North Africa and the Middle East over 1,300 years.
The conditions of the enslaved under Islam, according to Ronald Segal (Islam’s Black Slaves, Atlantic Books 2003) were very different from the conditions imposed by Europeans: the fundamental difference being that under Islam the enslaved were still human beings with some rights.
In British colonies in Africa, it was not till 1874 that slave dealing was abolished in the Gold Coast; slavery was abolished in Egypt in 1895, in Nigeria in 1901, and in Sierra Leone in 1928.
There is an even more painful issue to consider. The Europeans did not wage wars to capture and enslave Africans. They bought them from Africans, who sold prisoners-of-war to them. Yes, the Europeans encouraged wars – to ensure that they obtained the number of enslaved they wanted.
Clearly, some Africans, and not only coastal peoples, were willing to participate. An example of the latter were the kings of Asante, who conquered peoples to their north for export to the European slave “forts” along the coast.
Thus their already immense wealth from trade in gold and kola nuts was vastly increased. And it was these wealthy merchants who first sent their children to Europe to acquire western education, and thus became the “natural” native leaders and “professionals” within the colonies – and eventually the first members of Legislative Assemblies, etc.
So are those claiming reparations going to make a claim from these Africans also?
And what form should the reparations take? As a survivor of the Nazi pogroms against Hungarian Jews, as a teenager then living in Australia, I accepted the reparations offered.
It wasn’t much, but when you’re a hard-working immigrant you’re glad of free pocket-money.
But within a few years, I tried to pay it back – I had begun to feel that I had been bought. Would people of African descent feel this? And what about those of African descent in the Americas and in Europe? Can reparations take the form of monitored laws regarding equality issues?