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Slave abolition


(An adaptation of a presentation made to the Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival, November 3, 2007)

In organising my thoughts for a presentation at the Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival, I couldn’t help reflecting on what has happened since March 25, 2007, the start of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade, and concluding how farcical it really was. It is, on reflection, strange that Caribbean leaders had been among or in fact had been the drivers of the anniversary celebrations. I say strange because the effective date for the Caribbean was May 2008, and so for us the 200th anniversary is 2008.{{more}} Then all of the hype has created the impression in the minds of thousands of West Indians that slavery ended in 1807. It has, moreover, led to a revival of the central role of Wilberforce and the humanitarians in the abolition, not only of the slave trade but in the ending of slavery.

In a recent book After Abolition-Britain and the Slave Trade since 1807, British historian Marika Sherwood quotes another historian David Eltis to the effect that “The flow of British resources into the slave trade did not cease in 1807. After this date, British subjects owned, managed and manned slaving adventures; they purchased newly imported Africans in the Americas; they supplied ships, equipment, insurance and most important of all, trade, goods and credit to foreign slave traders.”

Sherwood makes a few other points that I need to mention; that Britain financed half the Brazilian slave trade after 1807 and might have done the same for the Cuban trade. By the 1840s, about 20 percent of the British market in sugar was supplied by slave grown sugar from Cuba and Puerto Rico. Wilberforce was primarily interested in the abolition of the slave trade, not in ending slavery, for in his view slaves were not ready for emancipation. They had to become fit to receive it, was his firm view.

Because of the way these anniversary celebrations have played themselves out, I find it necessary to look back at the contribution of Eric Williams to the debate and to the more recent emphasis being put on the role of the slaves in their own emancipation. Before Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, abolition and emancipation were all about Wilberforce and the humanitarians. The 200th anniversary celebration has again allowed Eurocentric scholarship to take central place. During the year, Wilberforce was the toast of Britain and the world. The movie “Amazing Grace” celebrated his work. The Queen proudly placed a wreath at his statue on March 27.

Ever since Eric Williams confronted European scholarship with his thesis on the ending of slavery, they have been battling him. Eric’s thesis was two pronged: The Slave Trade and Slavery were central to the industrialisation of Britain. In turn, an industrialised Britain, or rather in his words ‘mature industrialised Capitalism’, had no need for slavery and destroyed it. Every time European historians try to destroy Eric’s arguments, one part of his two pronged theories would pop out at them. Richard Sheridan writing in 1987 noted that “the almost monolithic opposition by European and North American scholars has been challenged in recent years by new research, analysis and interpretation.”

Williams’ book when it first appeared was earth shattering. It was a dagger thrown at the heart of Euro-centric ideas and historiography. What emerged was a war of historians as the traditional Eurocentric historians fought back. The African historian J.E Iniokori has made the point in the Journal of African History that the repeated attacks on the Williams’ thesis since the 1950s indicate that the critics are not convinced that their attacks have been effective.”

Let me highlight two points about the Williams’ thesis. Today, defenders of Williams are arguing that the contribution of slavery and the slave trade to British industrialisation and world trade is not only about profits but also about the multiplier effects, putting a dent in the armour of those who were trying to show that the profits made from the slave trade and slavery were not of the magnitude to contribute significantly to British industrialisation. The other area about which relatively little work appears to have been done is the impact of the American Revolution. Historians like Selwyn Carrington who have worked in this area have pointed to the significant role played by the American colonies in the triangular trade by providing the West Indian colonies with cheap sources of food, lumber and other supplies. With the independence of the American colonies, the cost of those products became prohibitive, creating dislocations and adding tremendously to the cost of production of the English sugar colonies.

Eric Williams’ contribution to the debate is as alive and useful today as it was sixty years ago. Many of those who used the occasion of the 200th anniversary to highlight the role of Wilberforce and the humanitarians have operated as though Capitalism and Slavery never existed. Williams did not deny the role of the humanitarian movement and of other factors. What he did was to highlight the economic factors. He wrote, “In 1833, therefore, the alternatives were clear, emancipation from above or emancipation from below. But emancipation. Economic change, the decline of the monopolists, the development of capitalism, the humanitarian agitation in British churches, contending perorations in the halls of Parliament, had now reached their completion in the determination of the slaves themselves to be free. The negroes had been stimulated to freedom by the development of the very wealth which their labour had created.” (Next week I will look at the contribution of the slaves to their own emancipation.)