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The Suppression of the Slave Trade

African history is scattered with cases of societies that refused to sell captives into transatlantic slavery. But from a global perspective, African political and military power, as well as African slavery, was highly dispersed. Effective action would have required an unlikely degree of coordination. Such action was much more likely on the American side of the Atlantic.

Both large-scale slaveholdings and political power (Brazil, Cuba, the U.S., the British and French Caribbean) were heavily concentrated and therefore easier to control. And indeed, the key initiatives that ended the transatlantic slave trade came from regions in the Americas that had continued to allow slave imports after formal abolition. A shift in public opinion against the slave trade, accompanied by serious attempts to enforce the law, is clearly discernible in Brazil between 1831, when abolition was first proclaimed, and 1850, when the government began to take serious action against slave merchants, culminating in the expulsion of Portuguese citizens involved in the business.

In Cuba, the other major market for slaves in the mid-nineteenth century, a repressive regime meant that public opinion had much less impact, but in 1862 a new captain-general of the island began to expel slave traders and dismiss officials who had been bribed to permit new arrivals.

What holds true for suppression in the final era of the slave trade also applies to the disappearance of the trade in other regions of the Americas earlier in the century. When the authorities of the importing region became serious about ending the trade, then the trade ended. This happened in the British case in 1807 (except for a few thousand shipwrecked Africans over the next half century), the Dutch after the Napoleonic Wars, the French in 1831, and less certainly, given the arrival of several thousand African captives before 1820, and indeed two slave vessels from Africa in 1858 and 1860, the U.S. after 1807.

It should nevertheless be noted that while penalties against slave trading grew more severe over time — in the U.S. in 1820 and Britain in 1824, slave trading was declared a capital offence — few sentences resulted in extended imprisonment, and only one man was ever executed for slave trading. This was Nathaniel Gordon, in 1862, and Lincoln's refusal to commute his sentence had much to do with the outbreak of the Civil War.

Confiscation of property and fines were the normal outcome of successful prosecutions, though most decisions were taken in international courts of one kind or another, where penalties against persons have always been uncommon. It would seem that at no point did governments or the general public anywhere ever view slave trading as equivalent to murder.

Thus the key events in the suppression of the slave trade stem from changing attitudes rather than military intervention by the British. A half century of British diplomatic pressure and the intervention in Brazil in 1850 were not without significance, but a perspective that spans the last five centuries suggests a global shift in values: whereas slavery was once accepted and the slave trade viewed as a useful but unremarkable institution present in most societies, it became inconceivable that either chattel slavery or the slave trade could exist ever again.

In the last three centuries, such a shift has happened in one country after another so that today no state sanctions slavery or slave trading. In some countries, the change manifested itself as a popular campaign against abuse, while in others it happened with less fanfare. But in all instances the end result was the same. The fact that in our own day, the terms "modern slavery" and "modern slave trade" can increasingly be used to describe activities that no captive emerging from the hold of a nineteenth-century slave vessel would recognize as slavery is, in a sense, testament to how far and how fast values have altered.

David Eltis
Robert W. Woodruff Professor of History
Emory University