The political and economic reasons behind the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade Like most historical arguments, there is much controversy about the reasons for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent progressive abolition of the slave system itself in the New World . Some have argued that in Britain, it was the power of the moral/Christian arguments presented by the abolitionist movement, led by the great parliamentarian, William Wilberforce.
Others have pointed to the international impact of the French Revolution, or emphasize the growing crescendo of slave rebellion in the New World colonies, or inter-imperialist competition between the European powers, or to changing economic conditions in the development of capitalism . In support to this background, this paper discusses the political and economic reasons behind the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. In the first place, the paper discusses the political reasons behind the abolition of the slave trade and then lastly the economic reasons behind the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.
To begin with, it is worth noting to note that, politically, critical events such as the Haiti and the slave revolts inspired by the French and American Revolutions played a very substantial role in the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade . With regards to this, it is of absolute importance to note that the vital changes that brought the transatlantic trade to an end occurred not in Europe, but in the colonies where the slaves were put to work in the plantation system .
Although the abolitionist movements in Britain, the USA, France and elsewhere were important, they played a secondary or auxiliary role to the struggles of the black slaves themselves . Thus, Political and social change inspired by the American and French Revolutions, stimulated both slave revolts and abolition movements alike, which often became inextricably linked with independence movements .
The 1791 slave rising in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), which transformed into a struggle for self-determination and national independence, was two years after Revolution in France and the first successful slave revolution . In response, the French revolutionary government was inspired to abolish slavery in 1794, though this was restored under Napoleon in 1802 . The final victory of Haiti’s ‘Black Jacobins’ over British invasion and then Napoleon’s attempt to re-take the island in 1803 led in 1804 to recognition of Haiti’s independence.
In 1816 Simon Bolivar was inspired and materially aided by the revolutionaries in Haiti, in the invasion of mainland South America that eventually defeated the Spanish Empire . The army included many black troops. Very closely related to this, in British Jamaica, the continuing resistance of the Maroons (warrior communities of escaped slaves) was a constant thorn in the side of the colonial government and the planters, despite the compromise treaty that resulted from the Maroon wars led by the woman liberation fighter, Nanny of the Maroons, fifty years earlier .
Also it was the revolt of 20,000 slaves in Jamaica in 1831, and its horrific repression, which influenced the passing of the 1833 bill abolishing slavery itself in all British colonies which only finally took effect in 1838 after ?20 million in compensation, was paid to the planters for their loss of property (?20 billion in today’s money) .
In the second place, it is of paramount importance to note that, the abolition of the Atlantic Slave trade was a political movement with a social base that was mainly plebeian who saw slavery as a threat to their own liberties . If the motives of the slaves themselves for resistance and revolution are clear, the motives for the abolition movement in Britain are less so . First, it was not just a moral crusade by a few upper class leaders but a political movement with a social base that was mainly plebeian who saw slavery as a threat to their own liberties .
The movement was a broad alliance of artisans, small farmers and other petit-bourgeois layers, together with exploited workers, many of whom sympathized with the egalitarian and democratic ideals of the French Revolution and in a few cases socialism, but whose leaderships were often drawn from the articulate professional classes and the gentry, like Wilberforce one of the abolitionist himself, and his allies in parliament.
It was this broad, multi-class mass movement, far more than a single issue campaign, which included many of the 10-15,000 black people living in London at the end of the eighteenth century which also led to the abolition of the Atlantic Slave trade . Having looked into the political reasons for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade let us look into the economic reasons. In the first place it is of absolute importance to note that the economic shifts from dirty slavery business into imperialism and Industrial revolution also led to the abolition of Atlantic slave trade .
That is, underlying both political and social movements, systemic developments in the growing world capitalist economy were taking place; in the vanguard was British imperialism and its industrial revolution . The New World plantation system was a highly developed form of the slave mode of production that, unlike ancient slavery, was integrated into and increasingly driven by a growing capitalist world market . The profits from New World slavery had significantly contributed to the ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital that enabled the industrial revolution, especially in Britain .
However, by the end of the 18th century, the profitability of plantation slavery was in decline and so was the slave system as a whole . However, it was certainly in decline relative to the overall development of British capitalism . It had played a crucial role during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the process of accumulation of capital, but became increasingly secondary and eventually marginal to later development . There were now more profitable outlets in industry and commerce for investments than in the dirty slave business .
At its high point towards the end of the eighteenth century the Atlantic triangular trade supplied about one third of all European imports and could make up to 200 percent profit on investments . In Britain a copper and brass industry was created along the Avon valley to supply Bristol with quality metal goods to be traded for slaves in Africa . Similarly the iron industries of the Severn valley did the same. Wealth poured into ports such as Bristol, London, Liverpool and Glasgow, which provided more capital for investments and credit to kick-start the industrial revolution .
By 1770 ‘Britain’s colonial markets absorbed 38% of her exports. But it was during the last quarter of the eighteenth century that industrial take-off occurred leading to a gradual relative decline in the importance of the slave colonies . It was the existing dynamism of emergent British capitalism based on wage labour that enabled Britain to become the dominant slaving nation . By the end of the eighteenth century there were fifty factories in Manchester alone employing hundreds even thousands of workers.
Rapid industrialisation required new larger markets and drew in more and more capital investment, pushing the Atlantic trade system into relative decline. British capitalism had outgrown the triangular trade . Another economic reason behind the abolishment of the Atlantic slave trade was Imperial competition . Although Britain had been the premier slaving nation, slavery now appeared to benefit Britain’s competitors more than Britain itself. Prior to revolution in Haiti, this one large island colony had provided France with two thirds of its foreign earnings.
In particular, Napoleonic France needed the profits from slavery more than industrialising Britain did . The abolitionists, whose ideology corresponded to the interests of egalitarian and democratic artisan and proletarian classes in alliance with Christian fundamentalists, had started with the support of only nine MPs . But, political instability in the colonies, changing economic priorities` and now war with France, led a once marginal anti-slavery lobby to gradually gain ground within sections of the ruling class and their representatives in parliament, which now turned to support measures against the slave trade .
In May 1806 parliament passed an act, supported by the abolition movement, banning British subjects from participating in the slave trade with France and its allies . The pro-slavery lobby was outmaneuvered because the bill was presented as a patriotic war measure directed against French interests . It was a major blow to the slave trade and laid the ground for the 1807 act of abolition . The Royal Navy’s subsequent campaigns against the international slave trade were presented as a moral crusade by Britain, but was much more a form of economic war against its less economically developed competitors .
Lastly, the decline and fall of the colonial slave mode of production was also the other economic reason behind the abolition of the Antalgic Slave trade . That is, although in 1820 the plantations were still profitable, by then the policing of the seaways by the British navy was taking its toll . Profits and investment were in relative decline . Historically all large-scale slave systems require a constant replenishment of cheap stolen labour power for an adequate realisation of surplus value. However, if these onditions fail, at a certain point the costly reproduction of labour –‘slave breeding’ – that had previously been discouraged, except in North America, becomes a rational economic choice. Thus, growing shortages of labour, which could not be adequately solved by smuggling slaves, forced the plantation owners to institute a labour regime of hutted slaves, who were now encouraged to raise a family, often maintained by small plots of land, and who could work together as a family on the master’s plantation.
It was only in North America where the internal reproduction of slave labour proved viable in the long term. This was the system that came to predominate during the nineteenth century. It was different in important respects to the far more profitable and brutal all male slave gang system (who lived in guarded barracks), which had predominated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the Caribbean . In eighteenth century Barbados four out of ten slaves died in three years due to brutality and overwork.
This inhuman system, with parallels in the Roman ergastulum at the time of Spartacus, is marked by great gender inequality, with mostly segregated female slaves representing less than a quarter of the slave population, who were employed in the great house as servants, or in market gardening, processing, etc . Although inhuman, cruel and highly exploitative, the hutted slave is only a step away from a dependent tenant, or a system of peonage. The successful encouragement of family life required better conditions creating greater self-respect, social solidarity, and a better relationship of forces in relation to the master class .
Slave resistance could no longer be contained. Slavery perished because it became politically untenable, perishing in stormy class struggles in the colonies and the metropolis . ’ In conclusion, the Atlantic slave trade perished because it became politically and also economically untenable as the paper has explained because of the slave revolts inspired by the French and American Revolutions which stimulated abolitionist’s movements in Britain, France, USA and elsewhere.
Apart from this, the Atlantic slave trade also perished because it was a political movement with a social base that was mainly plebeian who saw slavery as a threat to their own liberties. Further to this, the Atlantic slave trade also perished because of economic shifts from dirty slavery business to imperialism and industrial revolution and also because of imperial competition and the fall of colonial slave mode of production.
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