Wednesday 8 September 2010

Abolition of slavery

It seems that hardly anybody nowadays is interested in the actual historical process by which the British Empire abolished slavery worldwide.

Many people would assert that the (virtual) abolition of slavery was perhaps the greatest moral achievement of humankind, so far. At any rate, there would be very few people who would openly defend slavery nowadays.

Yet until about the mid 18th century slavery was universally accepted as an institution, all major civilizations had slaves, and it was found in all historically-recorded societies (except simple hunter gatherers).

At that point the British Empire was probably the largest slave trading nation (although there was also a huge amount of slave trading in North Africa, magnitude uncertain).

Most people do not know much about the actual process of abolition of world slavery. If people do know anything at all, it is restricted to William Wilberforce and the parliamentary acts in Britain, or black slavery in the USA.


The steps by which slavery was abolished seem quite well established.

1. Around the mid 18th century, English Quakers (Society of Friends) first began to question slavery and decided it was an evil that required abolition. The British were not exceptional in being slave owners and traders - that was universal - what was unique was that the British first decided that slavery was an evil.

2. In the late 18th century a group of evangelical protestants in London (The Clapham sect - William Wilberforce being the most famous) began to organize a campaign to abolish slavery - initially the tactic was to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire but the goal was universal.

3. Over the next few decades the moral conviction that slavery was wrong spread throughout Britain and became a mass moral movement (a mass pressure-group) leading to a series of pieces of legislation which banned the Slave Trade in the British Empire (1807), then slavery in the British Empire (1833).

4. But that was just the beginning. Making laws does not make it so. The British Empire then embarked upon many *decades* of of unrelenting pressure to abolish slavery throughout the world - by whatever means necessary: moral persuasion, diplomacy and treaties, and by military force - especially by the Royal Navy.

These decades of effort consumed a great deal of money, and many lives of British sailors, soldiers, missionaries and explorers - as well as slave traders and slaves themselves (who were for instance sometimes thrown overboard to drown when slaver's ships were stopped by the Royal Navy - to hide the evidence). But the crusade had massive and sustained support among the British population.

Eventually, the goal was (almost) achieved, and slavery was universally condemned - and (almost) universally abolished.


Why is this story so little known?

Probably because abolition was initiated by Christians - especially evangelical ('born again') Christians - and these people are not popular among the liberal and leftish commentators who most-often adevrtise a concern with issues of slavery nowadays.

And - although legislation and treaties were important, and although many abolitionists and abolition societies were pacifists (eg. Quakers) - in practice, world slavery was abolished by coercive force deployed by a major world military power - the British Empire; which is currently supposed to be wholly 'a bad thing'.


The real lesson of the abolition of world slavery is one which only relatively tough-minded people wish to take on board.

The implication is that to rid the world of a great evil required a sustained and single-minded moral crusade of exactly the kind which many modern intellectuals find simplistic and narrow.

Maybe slavery *could* have been abolished without this kind of 'fanaticism'? - but in fact and reality slavery was abolished by Christian moral fanaticism.


Furthermore, to rid the world of slavery also involved military imposition of the will of the British Empire on the rulers of societies who resisted abolition, and who saw nothing wrong in the institution of slavery.

Abolishing slavery involved the death and extra suffering of many people of many types. Maybe slavery could have been abolished with less death and suffering? - but in fact and reality slavery was abolished by a kind of 'the end justifies the means' moral reasoning.


Slavery was therefore (mostly, but of course not entirely) abolished as a consequence of the moral conviction of the dominant world power - the British Empire.

At the time, critics from other nations who wished to retain slavery claimed that the British were hypocritical (in ignoring other major problems of their own - such as the horrendous povery and deprivation caused by indistrialization) and that the British were using abolition as an excuse to pursue their own economic and political interets.

No doubt all of these accusations were true, to a varying extent, in different times and situations - the British *were* (like everyone else) hypocrites, and they did turn abolition to their advantage in some ways or even perhaps wherever possible.

Nonetheless, in reality it was the British and not somebody else who for more than 100 years kept up the pressure to abolish slavery worldwide, and poured resources into the task until it was all-but accomplished.

So, world slavery was abolished by hypocrites; Christian, militaristic hypocrites. Suck it up.


On the basis of the common assumption that abolishing slavery was a great good, the conclusions that I draw from this are:

1. That abolishing a great evil may require a sustained and single minded dedication in mass popular movements that many modern intellectuals find narrow and simplistic.

2. Abolishing a great evil may require many methods, including the use of coercive force and short/ medium-term sacrifices (including even sacrifice of the group that it is intended to help) to attain long-term goals. Uncomfortable though it is, and open to abuse, we have to accept that the end substanially justifies the means - or else we will probably not attain the end.

3. Abolishing a great evil involves being accused of hypocrisy - and these accusations may be correct. But achieving the primary goal involves sacrifices in secondary goals. It is no doubt desirable that people be morally consistent - but there are worse sins than moral inconsistency. Abolishing a great evil involves focusing on remedying the great evil, but even when the mission is successful it does not abolish all evil. What followed the abolition of slavery was often a very bad situation for the ex-slaves and/or others.

4. In a nutshell, morality in great things may therefore involve immorality in smaller things. Abolishing world slavery entailed death and suffering of many slaves, and other innocent parties. It also involved the British Empire forcibly imposing its own moral values and laws on other cultures. This is a high risk tactic, it is an argument that can be misused - but it is probably true.


The persistence or resurgence of slavery in modern times has been in societies which are isolated from communication with the modernizing world (Mauretania, Congo etc), and also in other Middle Eastern societies where the moral case against slavery was never accepted; and in modern Politically Correct societies where members of 'minorities' are allowed to live by different rules than the rest of the population, and where effective action to prevent and reverse slavery is regarded as 'discriminatory'.

In a nutshell slavery (being a spontaneous attribute of settled societies) is a growing presence in the world due to the lack of a modern equivalent of the British Empire which had the zeal, as well as the ability, to use whatever means were necessary to abolish slavery wherever it was found.


dearieme said...

"Why is this story so little known?"

Let me add three more suggestions to your list.

(1) The Christians involved were not only evangelical, but many of them specifically Anglican.

(2) The politicians who took up the cause were many of them, specifically, Tory.

(3) It was fear of success of the early abolitionists in the Empire that was one of the driving forces, in Virginia and points south, for the American "revolution".

F said...

The Chinese did not practice slavery starting at least 1,000 years ago. There were no slaves under the Song (960-1275) or the Ming (1368 to 1645) - at least if one defines slaves as human property (see F.W. Mote "Imperial China" pg. 366). Slavery was re-established by the Manchu (1645-1910) in specific areas of their empire (specifically in Manchuria) when they enslaved Chinese peasants and shipped them north to work on farms. But then the Manchu were pretty much barbarians.

Not that I disagree with any of your substantive points. I agree 100% that people do not give credit to the British Navy which risked using deadly force to end the slave trade when it would have been much easier to just "sail on by".

xlbrl said...

The British fervor had died by the time of the War Between the States. The mills were quiet, unemployment was very high, and Britian looked for any means to free themselves of the American blockade of cotton, and to support the Confederacy. Henry Adams chronicles the British players in his autobiography. It is quite a cast.