Featured Culture and Identity Reports

Britain, Slavery, and Anti-Slavery

people harvesting crops painting
Written by Nigel Biggar

Britain’s involvement in slavery is a heated topic of public debate. We are told that we need to face up to our past, and learn from it. So we should, honestly and in full. Britain was a major participant in the slave-trade and slavery during the 18th century, but there followed 150 years of imperial penance in the form of costly abolitionist endeavour to liberate slaves around the globe. The vicious racism of slavers and planters was not the essence of Britain or its empire, and whatever racism exists in Britain today is not its fruit.

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Slavery is an ancient institution. From the earliest times, victors in battle chose to enslave the vanquished rather than slaughter them. Not only was it ancient; it was universal. Across the globe societies have employed forced labour in agriculture, mining, public works and even as troops. All the ancient Mesopotamian civilisations practised slavery in one form or another, starting with Egypt in the third millennium BC. To the west, around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the ancient Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans followed. To the east, slavery could be found among the Chinese from at least the 7th century AD, and subsequently among the Japanese and Koreans. In the Americas, the Incas and the Aztecs extracted forced labour from subject peoples, including prisoners of war, from the 15th century AD, as did native tribes in north America.


From time of Muhammad in the 600s onward, slavery was practised throughout the Islamic world. In the 8th and 9th centuries the Vikings supplied slave markets in Arab Spain and Egypt with slaves from eastern Europe and the British Isles. In the 1600s corsairs or pirates from the Barbary Coast of north Africa raided English merchant ships, and even Cornish villages, for slaves. One estimate has it that raiders from Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli alone enslaved between 1-1.25m Europeans from the beginning of the 16th century to the middle of the 18th century.[i]


Meanwhile, Africans had been busy enslaving other Africans for centuries, mostly by capturing them in war or raids, sometimes taking them in lieu of debt. Often slaves were destined for profitable export, first to Roman markets and then to Arab ones. But they also had their local uses, which included supplying victims for human sacrifices. The practice of human sacrifice in west Africa was attested as early as the 10th century by Ibn Hawqal,[ii] and by Europeans four hundred years later. Human sacrifices—as distinct from the judicial execution of criminals—served a variety of purposes: sometimes to appease the gods, but more often to supply a deceased master with servants in the afterlife, to make a conspicuous display of extravagant wealth, and to intimidate onlookers. Although wives, favourites, women, and foreigners were also liable to serve as victims, slaves—usually war captives—were the main source. Commonly, their fate, especially at funerals, was to be buried alive. One report in 1797 has it that between 1,400 and 1,500 people were sacrificed at royal funerals in Asante.[iii]



Slavery and the slave-trade, then, were alive and well in Africa long before Europeans arrived to develop the export market. The Portuguese were the first to seek slaves from West Africa in the 1440s, to make up for a labour-shortage in Portugal and to man sugar plantations on their Atlantic island possessions, not least Madeira. Between 1525 and 1866 the Portuguese Empire is reckoned to have shipped 5,841,468 slaves out of Africa, amounting to 46.7 per cent of the grand total of African slave exports of 12,508,381. After the Portuguese came the English—or, from 1707, the British—with 3,259,443 slaves exported or 26.1 per cent of the total, mostly between 1660 and 1807.[iv] The exporting was primarily done by merchants operating under the charter of the Royal African Company, which granted not only a monopoly, but the right (and obligation) to establish forts and ‘factories’ (trading posts), maintain troops, and exercise martial law on the west African coast.[v] In fact, the Company was never able to secure its monopoly against interlopers, and in 1698 it was formally withdrawn.[vi]

The conditions under which slaves were transported across the Atlantic were infamously dreadful, with the human cargo packed like sardines below decks, initially shackled, starved of daily fresh air and sunlight for all but an hour or two, malnourished, dehydrated, and prey to disease for a voyage lasting up to six weeks. According to one estimate, of the African slaves shipped by British traders in 1672-87 a full 23 per cent were ‘lost in transit’.[vii] It seems that conditions improved later, since, according to another estimate, over the much longer period 1662-1807 only 13.2 per cent died before they reached the shores of the Americas.[viii] However, even if this does represent an ‘improvement’, it still amounts to the loss of about 450,000 souls.

Most of those who survived the sea-journey were deposited in the Caribbean, especially Barbados and Jamaica. Some were taken beyond to the coast of the American colonies, mostly south of New Jersey. There they were sold at auction as pieces of property or ‘chattels’, usually separated from their families.[ix] In the West Indies and southern American colonies they were put to work on plantations, probably producing sugar, though perhaps tobacco or rice. Organised into regimented gangs, they were subject to severe discipline, which was not infrequently cruel. In 1654 a French priest, Antoine Biet, reported how one master in Barbados whipped a slave “until he was all covered in blood”, and then “cut off one of his ears, had it roasted, and forced him to eat it”.[x]

Of course, the treatment of slaves was not always so grim. Sometimes masters regarded them with a certain benevolence as members of their extended household, taking a kindly interest in their lives. Sometimes slaves were manumitted, usually by paying an agreed price, less often by getting baptised or being granted their freedom in their master’s last will and testament.

Notwithstanding that, the slave remained radically dependent on his master’s will and accordingly vulnerable. Because slavery had not existed in England for centuries, the common law was completely silent on the status and treatment of slaves. So, the colonies were left free to formulate their own slave codes, which typically gave owners almost complete control over the movements of their slaves, whose company they kept, and how they behaved. Unlike indentured servants, they “effectively had no legal redress against maltreatment”.[xi]

Further, the conditions of work were very harsh, especially on the sugar plantations. Slaves commonly toiled for their owners for up twelve hours a day, six days a week, without pay. They were malnourished, labouring in a very debilitating climate, and prey to a wide array of diseases. Not unsurprisingly, they suffered a high rate of mortality. As a result, before the ending of the slave trade, none of the sugar colonies in the West Indies managed to achieve a natural increase in the slave population. That is why they had to keep on bringing in fresh supplies. Even so, Jamaica, which had imported 575,000 Africans in the course of the eighteenth century, still only had 348,825 left in 1807.[xii]



Famously, in his seminal Capitalism and Slavery (1944) the Trinidadian historian, Eric Williams, argued that profits from the slave trade provided a major source of capital for financing Britain’s world-leading industrial revolution and made “an enormous contribution to Britain’s industrial development”.[xiii] This thesis has been controversial. Williams himself was quite clear in not claiming that the slave trade was “solely and entirely responsible for industrial development”.[xiv] So the dispute concerned its effect relative to other factors. In the late 1960s Roger Anstey minimised its effect by calculating that the profits from the slave trade fell far below Williams’ estimate and could not have financed the industrial revolution to a significant extent.[xv] Anstey’s general view later found confirmation in C. H. Feinstein, the noted economic historian, who estimated that profits from the slave trade probably contributed under one per cent of total domestic investment toward the end of the 1700s.[xvi] In 2010, David Brion Davis, the distinguished historian of slavery and its abolition in the Western world, confidently pronounced the last rites on Williams’ thesis, writing that it “has now been wholly discredited by other scholars”.[xvii]

Nevertheless, the slave economies of British colonies did serve to fuel the growth of external trade and thereby generate the accumulation of further capital. The growing demand for sugar on the part of British consumers stimulated increased production in the West Indies, which in turn stimulated the importation of clothing and equipment from Britain and slaves from Africa. The economic historian, Kenneth Morgan, reports an argument that Caribbean-based demand might have been responsible for about 35 per cent of the growth of total British exports between 1748 and 1776, and for about 12 per cent of the growth in British industrial output in third quarter of the 1700s.[xviii]

As the effects of colonial slavery upon Britain are controversial, so are its effects on Africa. And they are likely to remain so, since data on trends in output and population in pre-colonial Africa are scarce. Some argue that the Atlantic slave trade made little difference to most of Africa, though it might have had a greater impact on the population and wealth of societies along its Atlantic coast.[xix] Others hold that it had devastating consequences, causing widespread depopulation and economic dislocation, undermining the socio-political fabric of African societies, and propagating forms of slavery and servitude hitherto unknown.[xx] Although it is impossible to calculate the costs to Africa of the slave trade with any precision, it makes sense to suppose that British (and European) demand for slaves stimulated African endeavour to supply—and thereby an increase in war and slave-raiding in west and central Africa. While the British investors and merchants bear responsibility for that, so do their African suppliers. Commercial and political élites in west and central Africa “appear to have made large profits from helping to meet the American demand for slave labour.[xxi]



The British were actively involved in the slave trade for about one hundred and fifty years until 1807, and in employing slave labour for almost three decades beyond that, until 1834.

Before about 1770, few condemned the institution of slavery as such. Even the maroons, runaway slaves who hid out in the forested interiors of Jamaica and elsewhere, were prepared to secure their own autonomy in 1739 by agreeing to stop freeing slaves and to assist white settlers in suppressing slave revolts.[xxii] They also kept slaves of their own.[xxiii] Nevertheless, in the second half of the eighteenth century both the trade and the institution came under mounting public criticism in Britain. A leading catalyst for the emergence of the movement to abolish the slave trade and slavery in the late 18th century, was Christian. Anti-slavery sentiment flourished widely among English Dissenters or Non-Conformists—especially the Quakers—and the Methodist or Evangelical wing of the Church of England. John Wesley (1703-91), Anglican priest and founder of Methodism, prefaced his Thoughts upon Slavery (1774) with a quotation of the tenth verse of the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis: “And the Lord said—What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground” (Genesis 4.10). The context is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and the implication is clear: African and Englishman, slave and master, are brothers, common children of the same God.[xxiv]

Anti-slavery sentiment acquired practical, political focus in 1787 with the founding of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in London. Among its founding members was Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who promoted the sale of the autobiography of Olaudah

Equiano (1745-97), a former slave from west Africa, and who collaborated with William Wilberforce (1780-1825) and other members of the Clapham Sect in mounting and sustaining a campaign both inside and outside Parliament.[xxv] Extra-parliamentary agitation was considerable: in 1791 about thirty per cent of the adult male population of Britain signed anti-slavery petitions.[xxvi] Events overseas also played an important part in shaping public opinion at home. The 1791 rebellion of slaves in Saint-Domingue, which neither the French nor the British could suppress and which culminated in the foundation of the independent, black-led Republic of Haiti in 1804, began to give abolition the appearance of historical inevitability.

The efforts of the campaigners finally bore fruit in 1807, when Parliament legislated to abolish the slave trade. It took a further twenty-six years to achieve the empire-wide abolition of the institution of slavery itself, initially because the leading abolitionists were politically conservative and assumed that cutting off fresh supplies of slaves would doom the slave-based economies to wither naturally, gradually, and with minimal disruption. Even most black abolitionists were gradualists until the 1820s.[xxvii] However, when the plantations proved more resilient than had been expected, agitation to hasten abolition picked up steam. It then intensified when news arrived of the savage retribution meted out to black rebels (and their white missionary supporters) in the slave revolts in Demerara in 1823 and then in Jamaica in 1831-2. The following year Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which came into effect twelve months later. Thus, on 1 August 1834 slaves throughout the British Empire were formally emancipated.



One controversial feature of the process of abolition was the agreement to compensate slave-owners for their loss of property to the tune of £20 million, which was paid by the government and funded by metropolitan taxpayers. That concession is controversial today and it was controversial then. The Whig Government was already committed to abolition, but it preferred to win the consent of the West Indian planters rather than have to coerce them. The shadow of the French Revolution and its Terror was long and made unthinkable the idea of the state riding roughshod over the right to property. The payment of compensation to the slave-owners was a necessary political compromise.

The Anti-Slavery Society, which had been founded by Wilberforce and Clarkson in 1823, was not happy with many aspects of the Slavery Abolition bill but supported it rather than jeopardise the momentum toward emancipation. Yet Clarkson was quite unapologetic about the compensation, viewing it “not as an indemnification but as money well paid for procuring the cooperation of the West India Planters and Legislators, without which the abolition of slavery might have been materially obstructed and retarded, if not prevented”.[xxviii] Besides, since the planters faced ruin without compensation, not to have granted it would have bankrupted the plantations and destroyed much of the prospect of paid employment for freed slaves.

Also controversial at the time was the requirement that, as a transitional arrangement, all slaves over the age of six should first become apprenticed labourers bound to perform unpaid work for their former masters for between forty and forty-five hours a week, for up to six years. Only work undertaken over and above that would be paid. Upon completion of this period of apprenticeship, the slaves would be fully emancipated. Although special imperial magistrates were appointed to supervise the system and ensure fair play, they were too few, too underpaid, and too weak vis-à-vis the colonial assemblies to be effective. The result was that planters were able to hinder black apprentices from developing economic independence, and to continue exploiting their labour. However, revived abolitionist agitation in Britain, combined with signs of active disaffection among apprentices in the British Caribbean, persuaded the Government to end the transitional system two years early on 31 July 1838. In Jamaica, Trinidad, and British Guiana, many emancipated slaves found unsettled land on which to subsist, but in smaller colonies such as Antigua and Barbados, where free land was not readily available, employment on the plantations remained the only option.

In recent times the greatest controversy attending the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself stems from another thesis proposed by Eric Williams. In Capitalism and Slavery (1944) not only did Williams hold that profits from the trade had financed Britain’s industrial revolution he also argued that the trade and the institution had been abolished because they were no longer profitable. This second thesis has been quite as contentious as the first. Against Williams, Roger Anstey demonstrated in 1975 that, in terms of economic interest, 1806-7 was the worst possible time for Britain to abolish its slave trade, embroiled as it was in a long war with Napoleon.[xxix] Two years later Seymour Drescher published  Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (1977), which presented a mass of empirical evidence that abolition amounted to an act of suicide for a major part of Britain’s economy.[xxx] Drescher showed that the value of trade between the West Indies and Britain had increased sharply from the early 1780s to the end of the eighteenth century, and that the West Indies’ share of total British overseas trade did not enter long-term decline until well after the flow of fresh supplies of slave labour had been cut-off by Parliament. Although Williams continues to have his supporters, it is fair to say that the weight of judgment among contemporary historians falls heavily against him.[xxxi]



The strength of abolitionist feeling in Britain was so great that it did not relax after persuading Parliament to abolish the slave trade and slavery within the British Empire; it went on to persuade the imperial Government to adopt a permanent policy of trying to suppress both the trade and the institution worldwide. One sign of this enduring commitment was the emergence in the Foreign Office of a separate Slave Trade Department from 1819, which was in fact the Office’s largest department in the 1820s and 1830s, maintaining its independence until 1883, when it was incorporated in the Consular and African Department.[xxxii] During the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 Britain used its diplomatic clout to try to secure support for a general abolition treaty between all the major European powers, but in vain. Before and after the Congress, however, she did succeed in getting nearly all the states still involved in the Atlantic slave-trade to agree in principle to end it—including the Portugal, Spain, France, Brazil, and United States. However, none would consent to a reciprocal right of search of suspect shipping, which was required to give the principle practical bite. Nevertheless, the British Government persisted to such an extent that in 1842 the Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen, saw fit to describe anti-slavery diplomacy as a “new and vast branch of international relations”.[xxxiii]

In addition to the velvet glove, the British also deployed the hard fist. Up to ten ships of the Royal Navy were stationed off the coast of west Africa to disrupt the export of slaves until 1833. Over the next ten years their number rose as high as nineteen, and from 1844 to 1865 it seldom fell below twenty, for several consecutive years stayed at over thirty, and twice reached a peak of thirty-six. At its height, the west African station employed 13.1% of the Royal Navy’s total manpower.[xxxiv] From 1839 naval patrols extended south of the Equator, and in 1845 the Slave Trade Act authorised the Navy to treat as pirates Brazilian ships suspected of carrying slaves, to arrest those responsible, and to have them tried in British admiralty courts. In 1850 Navy ships began trespassing into Brazilian territorial waters to accost slave ships, sometimes even entering its harbours and on one occasion exchanging fire with a fort. In September of that year Brazil yielded to the pressure, enacted legislation comprehensively outlawing the slave trade, and began to enforce it rigorously. Shortly before his death Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), twice Prime Minister, wrote that “the achievement which I look back on with the greatest and purest pleasure was forcing the Brazilians to give up their slave trade”.[xxxv]

Meanwhile, back in west Africa, the British employed a variety of means to achieve the same end. The thesis of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) that the key to ending the slave trade and slavery in Africa was to promote alternative, ‘legitimate’ commerce had found wide acceptance. This led to the setting up of trading posts, and then, when the merchants complained of the lack of security, a more assertive colonial presence on land.[xxxvi] The year after strong-arming Brazil, and after trying in vain to persuade its ruler to terminate the commerce in slaves, the British attacked Lagos and destroyed its slaving facilities. In 1861, when an attempt was made to revive the trade, they annexed Lagos as a colony.

On the other side of the continent the British brought persistent diplomatic pressure to bear upon the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which was the main port for the Great Lakes slave trade, but which also depended on the Royal Navy to protect its shipping from pirates in the Indian ocean. Treaties were signed banning trade in slaves to the Americas in 1822 and to the more important Persian Gulf in 1845. In 1873 the Sultan gave way when Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of Bombay and a resolute opponent of the east African slave trade, threatened a naval blockade unless the export of slaves from the African mainland ceased altogether and the slave market was shut down once and for all. Bit by bit the trade in slaves was throttled. The institution of domestic slavery, however, was tolerated until Zanzibar became a British protectorate in 1890. Between then and 1909 a series of measures gradually emancipated slaves, first of all granting them rights against maltreatment and of self-redemption, then adding a right to obtain freedom on application to the courts. Here, too, slave-owners were compensated for their loss, partly in recognition that domestic slavery was sanctioned by Islamic law, but also to minimise the economic disturbance and political opposition.[xxxvii]

The task of estimating the cost of all the Empire’s various efforts to abolish the slave trade and slavery worldwide, over the course of more than a century, would at least present a major challenge both in scale and in complexity. No one has yet tried it. Some, however, have developed an estimate of the expense of transatlantic suppression. David Eltis reckoned that this cost British taxpayers a minimum of £250,000 per annum —which equates to £1.38-1.74 billion, or 9.1-11.5 per cent of the UK’s expenditure on development aid, in 2019—for half a century.[xxxviii] Moreover, “in absolute terms the British spent almost as much attempting to suppress the trade in the forty-seven years, 1816-62, as they received in profits over the same length of time leading up to 1807”.[xxxix] And by any more reasonable assessment of profits and direct costs, the nineteenth-century costs of suppression were certainly bigger than the eighteenth-century benefits”[xl]

Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape took a broader view. In addition to the costs of naval suppression, they considered the loss of business caused by abolition to British manufacturers, shippers, merchants, and bankers who dealt with the West Indies. They also factored in the higher prices paid by British consumers for sugar, since duties were imposed to protect free-grown British sugar from competition by foreign producers who continued to benefit from unpaid slave labour. Overall, they “estimate the economic cost to British metropolitan society of the anti-slave trade effort at roughly 1.8 per cent of national income over sixty years from 1808 to 1867”.[xli] Although the comparisons are not exact, they do illuminate: today the UK spends 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid and just over 2 per cent on national defence. Kaufmann and Pape conclude that Britain’s effort to suppress the Atlantic slave trade (alone) in 1807-67 was “the most expensive example [of costly international moral action] recorded in modern history”.[xlii]



Set in the context of the history of the world, or even just of Europe, Britain’s involvement in slavery was nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone was at it, including, as we have seen in the case of the maroons, self-emancipated slaves. It is also true that British slave-owners were not universally sadistic and inhumane. Nevertheless, when all the qualifications have been added, it remains the case that the transatlantic transportation of slaves, and the treatment of them in the sugar fields, was usually brutal, often cruel, and invariably life-shortening. The injustice was grave, systemic, and massive.

            The British could not undo the past, but they did do the next best thing: repent of it and liberate the still living. And with due respect to Eric Williams, they did not just repent when it was economically convenient to do so. They did so because many of them had come to believe that making another human being one’s disposable property both corrupts the owner and violates the dignity of the owned—because they had come to view slavery as morally repugnant. They abolished the slave trade within the Empire, in spite of the advantage they were thereby handing commercial rivals, who would continue to benefit from employing cheap, wage-free labour in sugar production and in spite of the loss of business to English exporters to the West Indies. And they abolished slavery itself, in spite of the higher price that British consumers would have to pay for freely produced sugar, and in spite of the cost to the taxpayer of compensating the slave-owners for the loss of their property in the sum of £20 million, which was about forty per cent of the Government’s budget at the time.

For sure, enslaved Africans played important parts, too—through the example of the creation of the black Republic of Haiti, through the eloquent witness of Equiano and others, and through the slave rebellions that exposed the savagery of their masters. But no black cast a vote in the British Parliament either in 1807 or in 1833.

            The decision to compensate the slave-owners in 1833 is commonly used by anti-colonialists to discredit the abolition movement today, as Eric Williams’ thesis sought to discredit it in 1944. There is no denying that it was a political compromise, but peaceful politics usually requires compromise, and some compromises are morally justified, even obligatory. Besides, the planters claimed that they faced ruin without compensation and, given the novel additional cost of paying wages to previously slave labour, that claim is plausible. Even with compensation, many planters sold up within thirty years of emancipation, which suggests that their business model was indeed precarious. From this it is reasonable to infer that, without compensation in 1833, at least some plantations would have gone bankrupt, with the consequent loss of employment opportunities for those free slaves, who, for one reason or another, could not find land of their own on which to subsist—especially on Antigua and Barbados. Many ex-slaves chose to stay working on plantations after the end of apprenticeship, because of the housing, medical care, and food provided.

Subsequent attempts by the British Empire to suppress slavery were often attended by political compromise, because however powerful the Empire was, its power was not infinite. It did not have the resources to send ships or troops to every part of the globe, in order to impose its will on unwilling natives. And even when it did send troops, it sometimes came off worst. Notoriously, in 1842 a British army of four and a half thousand (plus twelve thousand camp followers) was annihilated in its retreat from Afghanistan. In 1879 thirteen hundred British and colonial troops were overwhelmed by Zulu warriors at Isandlwana in south Africa. And in 1883 an eight thousand strong Anglo-Egyptian army was massacred at El Obeid in the Sudan by the forces of the Mahdi, the purported redeemer of Islam. In this last case, the suppression of the slave-trade was among the grievances of the Mahdists.[xliii] Lacking the power always to impose, the Empire often had to act against slavery by increments, being careful not to excite too much opposition. Basil Cave, who was Consul-General in Zanzibar when domestic slavery was finally abolished in 1909, bore witness to this when he reflected with satisfaction on the local history of British efforts at abolition:

all the time British influence was being steadily brought to bear upon the Sultan …. Whenever an opportunity presented itself, when the Sultan appealed for political, financial, or personal assistance, when some benefit was offered or conferred … occasion was always taken to introduce some fresh anti-slavery measure and to move one more step forward towards final abolition.[xliv] As a result, “the whole of the servile population of East Africa has been freed from bondage without a hand, and almost without a voice, being raised in protest”.[xlv]



Contemporary British agitators in the cause of ‘decolonisation’, whether they belong to the Rhodes Must Fall or the Black Lives Matter movements, clamour that white Britons need to learn more about their ancestors’ involvement in the slave-trade and slavery. This is because the anti-black racism allegedly endemic in British society today is supposed to derive from the ‘white supremacism’ used to justify the enslavement of blacks in the 17th and 18th centuries. White Britons in the third decade of the 21st century, so it is claimed, view blacks now essentially as white slavers and planters did in the early 18th century. Racist colonialism is what connects them, and it needs to be exposed, owned, and repudiated.

The problem with this story, however, is that it requires amnesia about everything that has happened since 1787. It requires us to overlook how widely popular in Britain was the cause of abolition from the closing decades of the 18th century onward. For example, referring specifically to the project to settle freed loyalist slaves from the American colonies in Sierra Leone in 1787, Stephen Braidwood concludes: “the great majority of newspaper items [covering the expedition] … were sympathetic in tone. The fact of intermarriage and the good public response to the Committee’s appeal for money to help poor blacks also indicate that racial hostility may have been less common than has often been assumed”.[xlvi] Commenting on the following century, John Stauffer confirms this conclusion. “Almost every United States black who travelled in the British Isles”, he writes, “acknowledged the comparative dearth of racism there. Frederick Douglass noted after arriving in England in 1845: ‘I saw in every man a recognition of my manhood, and an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued in [the United States]’”.[xlvii]

Between the slave-trade and slavery of the 18th century and the present lies a hundred and fifty years of imperial penance in the form of costly abolitionist endeavour to liberate slaves around the globe. The vicious racism of slavers and planters was not essential to the British Empire, and whatever racism exists in Britain today is not its fruit.

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, and director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life, at the University of Oxford, where he runs the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project.


[i] Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500–1800 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). These figures do not include Europeans enslaved by other Mediterranean traders—for example, those based in Morocco. Davis’s calculations are not based on records, which do not exist, but on what would be needed to replenish the slave population, given annual losses to death, escape, ransom, and conversion to Islam. His speculative conclusion has been met with some scepticism, for example, from Peter Earle, author of Corsairs of Malta and Barbary (1970), and John Wright in The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade (London: Routledge, 2007). See Rory Carroll, “New book reopens old arguments about slave raids on Europe”, Guardian, 11 March 2004: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/mar/11/highereducation.books

[ii] N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, eds, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 52.

[iii] Robin Law, “Human Sacrifice in Pre-Colonial Africa”, African Affairs, 84/334 (January 1985), esp. pp. 57-8, 60, 61, 62, 70, 73, 74.

[iv] Stephen D. Behrendt, “The Transatlantic Slave Trade”, in Robert L. Paquette and Mark M. Smith, The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 262, Table 11.1. David Richardson reports a slightly higher figure of over 3.4m slaves exported by the British from Africa in the shorter period of 1662-1807 (“The British Empire and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1660-1807”, in P. J. Marshall, ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire, 5 vols, Vo. II: “The Eighteenth Century”, p. 441).

[v] Frank Kitson, Prince Rupert: Admiral and General-at-Sea (London: Constable, 1999), p. 238. The Royal African Company was founded in 1672 but had its origins in the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa, which had been established in 1660.

[vi] Richardson, “The British Empire and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1660-1807”, pp. 444-5.

[vii] Behrendt, “The Transatlantic Slave Trade”, p. 260, citing Philip D. Curtin’s Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

[viii] Richardson, “The British Empire and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1660-1807”, p. 454.

[ix] In 1788 Jamaica’s Assembly passed the Consolidated Slave Law, which was intended to keep families together (Kenneth Morgan, Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa to America [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007], p. 77).

[x] Larry Gragg, Englishmen Transplanted: The English Colonisation of Barbados, 1627-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 129.

[xi] Morgan, Slavery and the British Empire, pp. 23-4, 113.

[xii] Trevor Burnard, “British West Indies and Bermuda”, in Paquette and Smith, The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, p. 143.

[xiii] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), p. 105.

[xiv] Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, pp. 105-6.

[xv] Roger Anstey, “Capitalism and Slavery: A Critique”, Economic History Review, New Series, 21/2 (1968).

[xvi] C. H. Feinstein, “Capital Accumulation and the Industrial Revolution”, in Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey, eds, The Economic History of Britain since 1700, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), Vol. I, p. 131.

[xvii] David Brion Davis, “Foreward”, in Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition, 2nd ed, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), p. xiv.

[xviii] Morgan, Slavery and the British Empire, p. 83.

[xix] J. D. Fage, ‘African Societies and the Atlantic Slave Trade’, Past and Present, CXXV (1989), pp. 97–115.

[xx] Walter Rodney, “African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave Trade”, The Journal of African History, 7/3 (1966), p. 443: “many of the forms of slavery and subjection present in Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and considered indigenous to that continent were in reality engendered by the Atlantic slave- trade”.

[xxi] Richardson, “The British Empire and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1660-1807”, p. 463.

[xxii] Helen McKee, “From violence to alliance: Maroons and white settlers in Jamaica, 1739–1795”, Slavery and Abolition, 39/1 (2018), p. 28.

[xxiii] Mavis C. Campbell, The Maroons of Jamaica, 1655-1796 (Massachusetts, 1988), p. 198-9: “it is certain that the Maroons did keep slaves among themselves, though not on a large scale to be sure. Now what is to be said of a people who fought their way successfully out of slavery, just to turn around and to commence slaving others? Without attempting a moralistic reply, we can only remind ourselves that in almost all known slave societies, from antiquity to modern, slaves have been known to keep slaves. Furthermore, in most slave revolts—Spartacus’s being the most outstanding—the rebels’ aim was invariably to reverse the system and not to overthrow slavery as such.”

[xxiv] John Wesley, Thoughts upon Slavery (London & Philadelphia: John Cruckshank, 1774), title page.

[xxv] The Clapham Sect was a network of socially and politically prominent evangelical Anglicans, who laboured for various social reforms, including the abolition of slavery, from the 1780s to the 1840s. Many of them worshipped at Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common, London. Hence the name.

[xxvi] John Stauffer, “Abolition and Antislavery”, in Paquette and Smith, The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, p. 564.

[xxvii] Stauffer, “Abolition and Antislavery”, p. 563.

[xxviii] Thomas Clarkson to Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, 25 September 1833, Clarkson MSS, Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California; quoted by Morgan, Slavery and the British Empire, p. 192.

[xxix] Roger Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810 (London: Macmillan, 1975), pp. 51-3.

[xxx] See note 17 above.

[xxxi] For a summary of the historical debate provoked by Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, see Gad Heuman, “Slavery, The Slave Trade, and Abolition”, in The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume V: “Historiography”, ed. Robin Winks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 322-4. In this section I have relied heavily on Morgan, Slavery and the British Empire, pp. 191-2, 194-98, supplemented by Jeremy Black, Slavery: A New Global History (Running Press Book Publishers, 2011), p. 216.

[xxxii] Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Slavery in Diplomacy: The Foreign Office and the suppression of the transatlantic slave trade, History Note No. 17 (London: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2007), Chapter 2, esp. pp. v, 29,  and 46: https://issuu.com/fcohistorians/docs/history_notes_cover_hphn_17

[xxxiii] Cited by Andrew Porter, “Trusteeship, Anti-Slavery, and Humanitarianism”, in The Oxford History of the British Empire, 5 vols., Volume III: “The Nineteenth Century”, ed. Andrew Porter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 211.

[xxxiv] David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), Table 2, pp. 92-3.

[xxxv] Leslie Bethell, The Abolition of the Brazilian Slave Trade: Britain, Brazil and the Slave Trade Question, 1807-1869 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 360.

[xxxvi] Michael W. Doyle, Empires (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), pp. 181, 185.

[xxxvii] Basil S. Cave, “The End of Slavery in Zanzibar and British East Africa”, Journal of the Royal African Society, 9/33 (Oct. 1909), pp. 20-33. Cave served as a British Consul in British East Africa and Zanzibar, at rising grades, from 1891 to 1909.

[xxxviii] Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, p. 96.

[xxxix] Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, p. 97.

[xl] Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, pp. 96, 97.

[xli] Chaim D. Kaufmann and Robert A. Pape, “Explaining Costly International Moral Action: Britain’s Sixty-Year Campaign against the Atlantic Slave-Trade”, International Organization, 53/4 (Autumn 1999), pp. 634-637, esp. 636.

[xlii] Kaufmann and Pape, “Explaining Costly International Moral Action”, p. 631.

[xliii] One of the themes of Jeremy Black’s Slavery is the relative military weakness of European powers in Africa. The assumption of “African vulnerability”, he writes “is misplaced, indeed woefully so” (Slavery, p. 253).

[xliv] Cave, “The End of Slavery in Zanzibar and British East Africa”, p. 22.

[xlv] Cave, “The End of Slavery in Zanzibar and British East Africa”, p. 32.

[xlvi] S. J. Braidwood, Black Poor and White Philanthropists: London Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement, 1786-1791 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994), p. 269.

[xlvii] Stauffer, “Abolition and Antislavery”, p. 564.


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Nigel Biggar