The Slavery Debate


Lorraine Martin

        The following facts and figures will help to establish the general historical, political and economic context in which the slavery debate took place. The first significant step towards eventual emancipation was The Mansfield Judgment of 1772. In this judgment, which considered the case of James Somerset, a black slave brought to England , it was ruled that indeed England's air was too pure for any slave to breathe, and so Somerset was set free. Abolition and Emancipation, however, did not follow hot on the heels of this ruling. Instead, a debate raged over these issues for the next sixty-one years, until finally the 1833 Emancipation Bill actually ended slavery altogether.

        In 1778, William Pitt introduced the first bill to Parliament which sought to abolish the slave trade. In 1778, Pitt became Prime Minister, thereby wielding much more influence in the slavery debate. Indeed, Pitt was one of the most influential players in this issue. The King at this time was George III, and it is important to note that during the whole slavery debate, he was not of sound mind: indeed, the year 1788 marks the first instance of his insanity. It should be noted that having an insane King to deal with must have greatly influenced the strategies of the abolitionists, especially when one remembers that it was the King's approval which was needed for the final passing of any bills in Parliament. The first country to actually abolish the slave trade was Denmark, in 1792. Also in 1792, the English Parliament did indeed pass a bill to abolish the slave trade, (to be completed by January 1st, 1796). This bill was introduced by William Pitt and William Wilberforce. However, this momentous event got overlooked in the face of the events taking place in France at this time, events surrounding the French Revolution. 1807 marks the year when the slave trade was abolished in Great Britain. However, it should be noted that the slave trade remained legal in the West Indies, so that a significant part of the trade was able to continue. In 1811, King George III was finally and officially declared insane. He was replaced by the Prince of Wales, who became Regent.

        Any consideration of the slavery debate in England must take into account the effects that the wars were having on the economic and social situations in Great Britain, and the ways in which these problems would have affected the arguments of both the abolitionists and slave traders alike. For example, between the years of 1815-1820, 400,000 men were demobilized from the armed forces, signaling the beginning of an economic depression in Great Britain. This depression would have been very influential in the arguments of the slave traders, for the annual profits from the slave trade alone contributed GBP 600,000 - 1,000,000 to the British economy.

        Two final facts illustrate how events, however, were turning and finally permanently turned in favour of the abolitionists: in 1821, the African regions of Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Gambia were joined to form British West African settlements. Emancipation itself came in 1833, whereupon 800,000 slaves were set free. The compensation to the owners for this emancipation however, was considerable: GBP 20,000,000. Figures which may help to further illustrate the whole slave trading situation include 38,000 - 42,000 Africans being either kidnapped or sold into slavery at the peak of the slave trade. Each slave was sold to a slave trader for a maximum of GBP 15 per head: once in the West Indies, however, the slaves were then sold to the planters for an average of GBP 35 per head, immediately therefore making the slave traders of approximately GBP 20 per head. The slave traders would force as many Africans into each boat which sailed for the West Indies as possible, for the traders knew the other startling statistics: that while on the Middle Passage between Africa and the West Indies, 13% of those captured would die, while a further 33% would die shortly after arriving at the final destination.

        These statistics were not helped by the fact that notions of hygiene during this period were very different from our own today. For example, according to Mackenzie- Grieve, it was actually considered dangerous to bathe too frequently, and fresh air was considered injurious to the health. Ironically, keeping the ship's ports firmly shut at night and infrequent washing of the floors etc. was therefore considered a kind consideration for the care of the ship's occupants. However, to give some example of what the so called "tolerable" ship conditions were like, an account in Mackenzie-Grieve's book sufficiently illustrates:

        Despite the losses incurred during these tortuous journeys, however, those slave who did survive and were able to be sold, enabled the slave traders to then buy tobacco and sugar, which in turn they could sell back in England at an enormous profit. Indeed one of the strongest arguments put forth by the slave traders was that the English nation was so addicted to tobacco and sugar that to consider removing the source of these products and thereby the products themselves, was so farcical as to be absurd. However, it should be noted that despite this claim to addiction, many British women refused to use sugar, using honey instead.

        The major force on the side of maintaining slavery was the Standing Committee of Planters and Merchants. The influence of this committee can not be underestimated, for it consisted of very wealthy, very influential men. The members of this committee and others supporters of slavery argued the following points to maintain the continuence of slavery. In Africa, they argued, slaves were already slaves, many having already been placed into bondage by their fellow countrymen. This, they argued, confirmed the moral correctness of the slave traders choice of trade. Moreover, those in favor of keeping slavery believed that Africans were savages, heathens, who were in need of a master to teach them the ways of Christianity. These savages were unfit for freedom, as they were irrational and unschooled in true morality. It's interesting to note here that in almost all of the writings of ex-slaves, abolitionists, etc. it was stressed that indeed it was the slave traders and supporters of slavery who needed to be taught the true values of Christianity, and that it was the slave traders who were proving to be the irrational thinkers: after all, was it rational to beat a slave to death, only then to have to go out and buy another to replace the one that's just been killed?

        The biggest argument in favor of those supporting slavery was the economic argument. It was argued that in a period of economic depression especially, no-one in their right mind would even consider allowing the government to pay the compensation to the owners which was always called for in any argument for abolition. However, in contra- distinction to this argument, Ottobah Cugoano forwarded the moral point that any financial loss would be a "just reward" for all the pain and suffering caused by slavery. He also noted that Adam Smith had reasoned that indeed slave labor was more expensive that free labor, and further, Cugoano asserted in counter-argument that freemens' labor would be just "as useful in the sugar colonies as any other class of man that could be found...."

         So it can be seen that the abolitionists had many counter-arguments on their side. The most important factor in favor of abolishing the slave trade, however, was the morally degradating affect that this "cancer" of the mind was having not only on individuals, but also on the nation. It was seriously wondered where the moral and spiritual nature of the nation was going to end up, if the nation's actions towards their fellow men continued in this way.

        There were several key characters who played vital roles in this debate, and who led the nation in considering the mental and spiritual decline which was inevitably happening due to slavery. These leaders included Granville Sharp,(who brought the Somerset case to trial), William Wilberforce, (who was a leading advocate and who headed efforts to abolish slavery in his role as Member of Parliament from Hull), Thomas Clarkson, a researcher whose painstaking findings and endeavors led to the nation having the full and true facts of slavery before them), and lastly the Quakers were very influential, as they as a group formed the largest outcry , establishing Anti-Slavery Societies throughout England and founding the Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter in 1823, a journal which proved to be very influential and contributed to emancipation in 1833.

        How Britain would be viewed in posterity was an all important question to consider for those living during this period. To return momentarily to the Mansfield Judgment, Mackenzie-Grieve notes that despite there still being hundreds of thousands of slaves invested in the trade even after the judgment, the case was so significant because it awakened the nation's conscience to the fact that slaves might indeed be human beings, and that therefore the way it would be seen in the future that Britain had treated these humans would have tremendous significance for Britain's reputation and position in the world. Writers such as Equiano, Cugoano, Prince, Wilberforce, Clarkson etc. all played vital roles in proving the rationality, humanness and worthiness of freeing the slaves and also of paying compensation to the owners. It was seen as imperative that restitution be made not only for the sake of their fellow men who had been bound and degraded in the worst possible way, but in fact mostly for the sake of the British individual and collective soul, which was in danger of being lost forever, not just in the present moment, but in posterity. No less than National and individual sanity and pride were at stake, and it was the abolitionists brilliant orations, writings, memoirs which served to bring to the nation's attention a moral and intellectual problem which threatened the future existence and enlightenment of a so-called "civilized" nation.

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