Many have written about the atrocities of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is one of the darkest chapters in Western and African history. It represents some of the cruelest treatment that man has dealt to his fellow man. The ending of the slave trade was one of the greatest things that England ever did. What did it take to end this atrocity? The ending of the slave trade was due to spiritual, political and economic factors.
Spiritual factors contributed to the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the late 1700s and the early 1800s, opposition to slavery was rising in evangelical Christian circles. The brutal violation of Africans who were made slaves was against the spirit of Christian love. Quakers, such as John Woolman, as well as other Christians, published literature voicing objections to the slave trade and influenced many. i The slave trade in England was officially ended in 1807, largely through the strong leadership of the Christian parliamentarian, William Wilberforce.ii
As well as spiritual factors, political factors also contributed to the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The political control over slaves in some places was unstable. In Jamaica, in 1760, there was a great rebellion by slaves.iii A further Jamaican revolt occurred in 1831. iv In Haiti, slaves also rose up and took political control. However, Napoleon put down this rebellion in 1802. v Political documents, such as, The American Declaration of Independence, in 1776, and The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, in 1789, also influenced the abolition of the slave trade.vi The political lobbying of men like Thomas Fowell Buxton, who prepared documents and presented them to the British House of Commons attacking the slave trade, contributed as well. vii
As well as spiritual and political factors, economic factors also contributed to the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As European and North American economies were moving into a capitalistic, free-trade empire, older economic systems, such as mercantilism and slavery, began to die out.viii Europeans and Americans had perpetrated a terrible injustice upon the African people. The possibility of Africans striking back and fighting for their freedom was very real. If slaves revolted, they would upset the economic system that they were a part of. Europeans and North Americans began desiring more stable free-man labor.
What effect did the slave trade, and the banning of it, have on the social and economic conditions in African society? In the early nineteenth century, native Africans produced a surplus of agricultural and non-agricultural products such as household pots, baskets, clothing, leather products, bags, harnesses and various metal items. This means that native Africans had a production market in which goods were bought and sold. This did not receive much recognition from Europeans, who thought of native African economies as being subsistence economies that were largely stagnant. ix
With the negative influence of the Europeans, the native African market which was based on the production of goods, transitioned into a slave production market. Native African kings worked together with the Europeans to establish and maximize the slade trade. This crippled African society in both social and economic ways. The depressing and demoralizing atrocities of the slave trade caused the victimized African society to unravel in many ways. Worst of all was the hurts of family breakup and the robbing of freedom – a fundamental human right. This slave market increased on a massive scale, entirely restructuring African economies. x Profits were now made by large entrepreneurs, while everyone outside of this category suffered economically. This trend continued, with some overlap, until the banning of the slave trade.
With the banning of the slave trade, African economies transitioned again into capitalistic market economies. The slave economy was replaced, for the most part, with legitimate commerce, and European industrial needs began to shape the production and consumption of goods by non-industrialized Africa. xi Goods such as ivory products, ostrich feathers, gold dust and palm oil were produced and sold. xii For the first time, small-scale native African producers were linked to a world economy.xiii This link marked the transition to a capitalistic economy and benefitted native African merchants by placing more power within their own hands. These developments also involved Africans becoming artisans, professionals and traders. xiv As more power was placed in the hands of African merchants, the power of African kings and aristocrats began to weaken. xv Kings were not able to control a capitalistic market to the extent that they were able to control a slave market.
So we see the terrible damage that the slave trade did to African society, both socially and economically. Its greatest crimes were against African families and individuals who were broken up and robbed of their freedom. Christian leaders, such as Wilberforce and others, determined to battle against this evil. It took spiritual, political and economic factors, that actually worked together, to bring to an end the trans-Atlantic slave trade. With ending of the slave trade African economies, which had been structured around the sale of slaves, now began to transition back into market economies.
iPatrick Manning, “The End of Slavery,” Slavery and African Life (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 149.
viiThomas Fowell Buxton, “The Principles of Abolition,” as found in Robert O. Collins, editor.
Western African History (Marcus Wiener Pub., 1990), 207.
viiiSeymour Drescher, “Beyond Economic Interest,” Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977), 167-168,170.
ixJ. Flint and E. Mcdougall, “Economic Change in West Africa in the Nineteenth Century,” as found in J. Ajayi and M. Crowder, editors. History of West Africa, vol. II. Second Edition (Longman Press, 1974), 380.
xiiIbid., 391, 394.
Buxton, Thomas Fowell. “The Principles of Abolition,” as reprinted in Robert O. Collins, editor.
Western African History. Marcus Wiener Pub., 1990.
Drescher, Seymour. “Beyond Economic Interest,” Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of
Abolition. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.
Flint, J. and E. Mcdougall. “Economic Change in West Africa in the Nineteenth Century,” as
reprinted in J. Ajayi and M. Crowder. Editors. History of West Africa, vol. II. Second Edition
Longman Press, 1974.
Manning, Patrick. “The End of Slavery,” Slavery and African Life. Cambridge University Press,