Slavery and the Slave Trade

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 4

The abolition of the so-called 'slave trade' preceded, often by a few decades, the actual removal of slavery as a legal institution throughout European colonies. One difficulty in prohibiting slavery, in comparison to banning the trade, was the demand by slave-owners for compensation in return for the release of enslaved peoples.

With the exception of Spain, political movements advocating the end of the Atlantic trade in enslaved people became active across imperial Europe from about 1770. These movements largely fell on deaf ears, as throughout colonial Europe, the commercial interest in the maintenance of the slave trade outweighed any pressure to abolish it. It should also be noted that abolitionist movements were typically located in Europe and rarely had any white support in the colonies.

After the conclusion of the Haitian Revolution in 1789, however, the situation became more complicated. The success of the revolution of the enslaved in St Domingue made the end of slavery and the slave trade appear more plausible.

In the end, a variety of factors converged to bring about an end to the Atlantic trade of people. The Danish colonies stopped receiving enslaved people from Africa in 1803, the British in 1808 and the Dutch in 1818.

However, the trade in people did continue in other states, including Spain, France, Portugal, and the United States. The French were bringing enslaved peoples into their colonies until the 1830s, while the Spanish did not officially abolish their slave trade until 1867.

The British took a leading role in the abolition of slavery in its Caribbean colonies; no doubt concerned with growing unrest - the 1831 Christmas Rebellion in Jamaica was of great influence.

In 1834, the British formally abolished slavery in its colonies, which only came into effect in 1838 - three decades after the formal abolition of British participation in the slave trade.

The four-year gap between formal abolition and effective abolition saw a period of 'Apprenticeship', a system designed to support plantation-owners. These apprenticeships tied supposedly free people to plantations for years, requiring them to work a minimum number of hours without payment.

The Apprenticeship was essentially a compensatory system for the plantation-owners, giving them continued slave labour by using new legislation to keep people working on their plantations.

Alongside this apprenticeship system, the British government also introduced financial compensation. Far from being restitution paid to the formerly enslaved for the generations of oppression endured under slavery, remuneration was instead paid to slave-owners.

The British government paid out the equivalent of £17 billion as compensation following their abolition of slavery. Money that went primarily into the pockets of slavers, merchants and other benefactors in the trade of human beings. One such slaver was British government official John Gladstone, who was paid the equivalent of £80 million as compensation for his 2,500+ slaves.