After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807

Review of After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807, by Marika Sherwood (I.B. Tauris, 2007)

2007 marked the bicentennial of an extraordinary event. In that year, the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade. While the anniversary passed without too much comment in the United States, it was commemorated widely in Britain. Out of that cultural moment has come Marika' Sherwood's provocative new book, After Abolition.

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic to death or degradation as slaves in the Americas. Finally in 1807, thanks to the impassioned efforts of the Anti-Slavery Society, the British Parliament took the great step of making the slave trade illegal – a story recently told in the movie Amazing Grace. Then, in 1834, Parliament ended slavery in British colonies. Many see 1807 and 1834 as the first great victories in the campaign for human rights. But were they? Sherwood suggests that the British abolition of slavery has a badly tarnished legacy.

After Abolition reveals the extent to which Britain continued to profit from slavery and the slave trade even after it had outlawed both practices, and it uncovers a hidden history of depravity, hypocrisy, and willful blindness. Sherwood, an honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, is also a founding member of the Black & Asian Studies Association in the UK. After Abolition makes the claim that Britain has used the heroic myth of 1807 as an excuse to avoid facing up to continued British involvement with slavery.

The Act of 1807 had made it illegal for British subjects to buy or sell slaves, or otherwise be involved in the trade. Many, however, simply evaded its restrictions. Slave ships were regularly fitted out in British ports like Liverpool or Bristol. In fact, until 1811 carrying slaving equipment like shackles was not considered proof of involvement in the slave trade. Even after it became impossible for slave ships to be fully equipped in British ports, ships continued to fit out there and load their slaving gear just outside British waters.

Often the law was evaded by British ships operating under the Spanish or Portuguese flag, since neither country had yet outlawed the trade. While Britain, and later other nations, supported an Anti-Slaving Squadron to catch slavers off the West African coast, many of the ships they confiscated were re-sold to known slavers. Even where the slavers were not themselves British, they often relied on British credit and shipyards. After all, there was still a thriving market for slaves in Brazil, the Spanish colonies, and the United States. Millions of Africans were exported as slaves after 1808, many of them carried in ships financed, built, or equipped in Britain

According to Sherwood, the British Emancipation Act of 1834 was equally half-hearted. It ended slavery only in the Caribbean, not the rest of the British Empire. Slavery only became illegal in India in 1848, on the Gold Coast in 1874, and in Nigeria in 1901. In the late nineteenth century, colonial soldiers and police in Africa were often slaves themselves. Even after it was officially prohibited, slavery continued under other names as indentured service or forced labor. As late as 1948, colonial officials privately acknowledged that domestic slavery existed in northern Ghana.

Equally damning is the fact that after 1834, British investment continued in places where slavery remained legal, like Cuba and Brazil. In the 1840s, 20% of British sugar imports came from Cuba. British merchants and bankers lived in Cuba and helped finance the trade. British consuls, or their families, even owned slaves. Similarly, Brazilian mines and plantations that relied on slave labor were financed by British capital. By 1860, British imports from Brazil were worth £4.5 million every year (£99 million in 2005).
After Abolition shows how, despite the laws of 1807 and 1834, Britain was generally apathetic about the fate of African slaves. In the 1840s, despite the pleas of the Anti-Slavery Society, Parliament reduced the duty (tax) on imported slave-grown sugar to the same rate as sugar grown by free workers – Lt. Yule of the navy's Anti-Slavery Squadron said it could have been called "a Bill for the Better Promotion of Slavery and the Slave Trade." At the same time, the industrial Midlands imported vast quantities of raw cotton from the USA and Brazil, where it was grown by slaves.
Beyond British business involvement in slaving there was also the government's refusal, despite numerous committees of inquiry in the House of Commons, to close the obvious loopholes in its anti-slavery legislation. The Anti-Slavery Squadron which was supposed to enforce the Act was soon outmatched by newer, faster, slave trading ships. Sherwood wonders why, having agreed to abolish the trade, Parliament was so slow to make their abolition effective. Was it because of the continuing importance of slavery and the slave trade to the British economy? After Abolition suggests that more of the Industrial Revolution was built on the backs of slavery than people would like to admit.
The story After Abolition tells is a horrifying one, but it is still incomplete. As Sherwood admits, she has uncovered more questions than answers. Just how extensive was surreptitious British involvement in the post-1807 slave trade and to what extent did trade and investment in slave-holding countries support British industrialization? Coming close on the heels of the bicentenary of the British abolition of slave trade, Sherwood's book raises serious questions about the extent of British involvement in the slave trade after 1807. Those interested in British or African history will find After Abolition a worthwhile read.