Friday, April 06, 2007

Many factors contributed to the abolition of the slave trade

A brief review of the historical records and literature in the latter part of the 18th century and the early 19th century, reveals the following facts:-

1. The campaign leading to the 1807 Slave Trade Act included the literary and other roles played by Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, Ignatius Sancho and other former enslaved Africans, among the community of 14,000-20,000 Africans who lived in England in the late 18th - early 19th centuries.

2. The roles played by Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and others who publicised the horrors of slavery, and organised several large petitions to Parliament to abolish the slave trafficking.

3. Several cases asserting the freedom of enslaved Africans were brought before the English courts, including Somerset in 1772, which prohibited Somerset from being taken captive in London for shipment to slavery in the West Indies.

4. The horrendous case of Gregson v Gilbert in 1783 (the Zong slave ship insurance claim for the genocide by drowning of 132 enslaved Africans in 1781) which stirred the public conscience. A replica of this ship, guarded by a Royal Navy warship, is currently moored at Tower Pier in the River Thames, London.

5. In 1789, the widely publicised diagram of the slave ship Brookes, packed to capacity, and the realisation that the skeletons of millions of Africans lay beneath the Atlantic Middle Passage, had a huge impact on British public opinion.

6. The loss of 80,000 British soldiers in St Domingue in 1798, in the defeat by the Haitian army, comprising former enslaved Africans, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe and others, had a devastating effect throughout the UK and colonies.

7. The campaign in the British Parliament led by William Wilberforce, initially concentrated on abolishing the slave trade, and not slavery.

8. Economic considerations influenced British parliamentarians in their decision not to abolish the British inter-colonial Slave Trade. British plantation owners in the Caribbean faced stiff competition from the powerful Spanish-Cuban and Portuguese-Brazilian sugar producers.

9. Trinidad, which had been seized from the Spanish in 1797, was ceded to Britain in 1802.

10. The Guiana colonies of Berbice and Demerara-Essequibo had been regained by Britain from the Dutch in 1803.

11. An Order-in-Council was passed in 1805 prohibiting the Slave Trade from Africa to the newly acquired colonies of Trinidad and Guiana.

12. William Wilberforce pointed out that there was an inexhaustible supply of untilled land in Demerara, Berbice and Suriname, which was fit for sugar, and was so fertile that an acre would generally produce the equivalent of three acres in the older islands, e.g. Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, St. Kitts and others.

13. The inter-colonial British slave trafficking continued in the Caribbean, as labourers were needed to develop the production on the growing plantations in Trinidad and the Guiana colonies. Several enslaved Africans were transferred from British Caribbean Islands to those colonies.

14. Demerara sugar became a product of international renown, but the competition from Cuba and Brazil was overwhelming.

Dr Eric Williams in his notable work, Capitalism and Slavery, summed up the dilemma facing the plantation owners, investors, politicians and others in the British West Indian islands as follows:

"The British West Indies had clearly lost their monopoly of sugar cultivation. In 1789 they could not compete with Saint Domingue; nor in 1820 with Mauritius; nor in 1830 with Brazil; nor in 1840 with Cuba. Their day had passed. Limited in extent, slave or free, they could not compete with larger areas, more fertile, less exhausted, where slavery was still profitable. Cuba could contain all the British islands of the Caribbean, Jamaica included. One of Brazil's mighty rivers could hold all the West Indian islands without its navigation being obstructed."

There was really no contest.

Source: Stabroek News - Guyane