Slavery is a dark chapter in human history that has left a lasting impact on societies around the world. While many countries were involved in the transatlantic slave trade, the British Empire played a pivotal role in its suppression worldwide. Despite the economic benefits of slavery, Britain’s abolitionist movement led to the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which banned the trading in enslaved people in the British Empire. Further diplomatic and military pressure, as well as sustained campaigning, eventually led to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834, which banned slavery throughout the Empire. This article explores the British Empire’s role in ending slavery worldwide, including its efforts in diplomacy, naval pressure, and Africa, and the legacy of its actions in the fight for equality and justice.
Abolitionist Movement In Britain
Pressure from abolitionists, including such people as William Wilberforce MP, led to the Slave Trade Act of 1807 banning the trading in enslaved people in the British Empire, but not slavery itself. After sustained campaigning in Britain, the Slavery Abolition Act came into force in 1834 and finally banned slavery throughout the Empire. In order to free some 800,000 slaves, Parliament paid a huge £20m in compensation to the slave owners in the Caribbean, South Africa, and Canada.
Diplomacy And Naval Pressure
Diplomacy was integral to the British fight to abolish slavery. At the Treaty of Vienna of 9th June 1815, the Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh put pressure on allies France, Spain, and Portugal, the main slave buying countries, to abolish their slave trade. Britain also petitioned the Pope for support. So many nations reneged on their promises that Britain placed a naval squadron off the coasts of East Africa, looking to intercept slave ships: the West Africa Squadron. This patrol, sometimes just a handful of ships, sometimes as many as 20, patrolled the Atlantic from 1808 to 1870, landing their human cargo at Freetown in Sierra Leone, a colony set up for freed slaves. Over 62 years the Royal Navy captured hundreds of slave ships and freed some 160,000 captives. Several hundreds of thousands more were saved by diplomatic and naval pressure.
Friction Between Slave-Owning States And Britain
There was constant diplomatic friction between slave-owning states and Britain. British officials were often threatened with violence. At first, America and France refused to let the Royal Navy stop and search ships flying their flags. However, during bad weather in the 1830s and 1840s, several American ships were forced into British waters by bad weather and had their slave cargoes released. A serious diplomatic incident occurred in 1841 when the American ship Creole was seized by the slaves it was carrying en route from Virginia to New Orleans to be sold. The slaves were given asylum in the Bahamas, ruled by Britain, where they were set free.
Efforts In Africa
In Africa, Britain made some 45 treaties with African rulers to stop slaving at the source, however, in some cases, they had to be paid off. Quite often, Britain was also invited to offer protection. For example, Africans on the coast were being terrorized by the aggressive slave kingdom of Ashanti and requested British protection. Central Africa was being ravaged by Muslim slave traders supplying the Middle East. The British campaign against slavery was not seen as just a humanitarian cause. French and American slave traders accused Britain of using it as a pretext for colonial expansion into West Africa, Cuba, and even Texas. However, slave trading was booming at this time, and it would have been in Britain’s economic interests to continue with it. Instead, the abolitionist, humanitarian, and religious pressure at home won out.
The Legacy Of The British Empire’s Role In Ending Slavery
Britain aimed to stop slavery not just at the time but also in the future. Its efforts to suppress the slave trade worldwide became known as the “British Crusade.” The legacy of the British Empire’s role in ending slavery is still felt today. The abolitionist movement in Britain inspired other countries to follow suit, and slavery was eventually abolished worldwide. However, the effects of slavery are still felt today, and the fight for equality and justice continues. The British Empire’s role in ending slavery serves as a reminder of the importance of standing up for what is right and fighting against injustice.