On the 200th Anniversary of the Slave Trade Act

On 25 March 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed, prohibiting British traders from buying and selling African slaves. The bicentennial of this event has been greeted by a great deal of fanfare, with leading politicians queuing up to issue half-hearted ‘apologies’ for Britain’s role in the slave trade. The great insight and moral loftiness of the likes of Tory MP William Wilberforce (the most prominent British parliamentary abolitionist) have been lauded, and the marvel of 21st century ‘free labour’ has been counterposed to the insufferable cruelty of slavery. The bourgeois analysis of the history of the slave trade and the events leading up to its abolition has been heavily focussed on the benevolence of the ‘saints’ (the parliamentary abolitionists) and has pointedly ignored the economic and political forces at work.

In truth, the parliamentary abolitionists acted merely as a mouthpiece for the economic interests of industrial capitalism. There were undoubtedly many fine humanitarians within the abolitionist movement, but the movement itself was essentially an economic one. Eric Wiliams, in his book Capitalism and Slavery (an essential read for anyone trying to get a proper grasp of the question of the abolition of slavery) sums up the role of the abolitionists as follows: “The humanitarians were the spearhead of the onslaught which destroyed the West Indian system and freed the Negro. But their importance has been seriously misunderstood and grossly exaggerated by men who have sacrificed scholarship to sentimentality and, like the scholastics of old, placed faith before reason and evidence.” (p178)

More recently, in an article for The Guardian, Tristam Hunt writes: “Profits from the bloody trade secured the imperial hegemony of Georgian England. It was only brought to an end in 1807 because of the move from a colonial sugar trade to industrial capitalism. There was nothing noble about abolition …” (‘Easy on the euphoria’, 25 March 2006)

The purpose of the current article is to demonstrate that the abolition of the slave trade (1807), and later the emancipation of all slaves in the British colonies (1833), was the result of just two major factors, neither of which had anything to do with the humanitarian spirit of some nice members of parliament: i) changed economic conditions; ii) slave rebellions.

Introduction: the slave trade and its importance

The discovery of the Americas and the West Indies was a massively important chapter in the history of European capitalism. These new territories opened up the possibility for conducting agriculture on an unheard-of scale, in favourable conditions, on lands that were completely fresh. The only thing that was missing was the labour with which to tend these lands. There were simply not enough people in the leading capitalist countries of the time (Britain, Portugal, Holland, France and Spain) willing to make the journey to the New World, and even the forced capture and sale into indentured labour of thousands of Europeans could not satisfy the needs of the planters. The solution to this problem was found in the form of the Atlantic slave trade. Basil Davidson, in his excellent work ‘Africa in History’, writes:

“The early sale of Africans to European sea-merchants departed in no way from previous practices of exchanging servile persons within Africa, or, indeed, within Europe. The only difference was that servile persons were now sold for transport overseas instead of transport overland, a change that was of no importance (at least for many years) to the traditional economies and social systems either of sellers or buyers. And had the European demand remained at the minor level of interest where it stood before the American discoveries and enterprises, the slave trade with West Africa could never have exercised any major influence on the course of events. But the American discoveries changed everything.

“Not only were Africans plentiful. They were also skilled in tropical farming and in mining, being in these respects far superior not only to the Amer-Indians but often to the Europeans as well. As the years went by, they became so valuable and their rapid replacement so necessary, because of the hardships to which they were ruthlessly submitted, that the Portuguese from Brazil were even bringing gold to the Gold Coast, during the eighteenth century, in order to purchase with it slaves who could not otherwise be had.” (Basil Davidson, Africa in History).

As is well documented, the treatment of the African slaves was utterly contemptuous. Millions died on the slave ships, and millions more died on the plantations. C.L.R. James, in his book The Black Jacobins, discusses the treatment of the slaves: “The slaves received the whip with more certainty and regularity than they received their food. It was the incentive to work and the guardian of discipline … Their masters poured burning wax on their arms and hands and shoulders, emptied the boiling cane sugar over their heads, burned them alive, roasted them on slow fires, filled them with gunpowder and blew them up with a match; buried them up to the neck and smeared their heads with sugar that the flies might devour them; fastened them near to nests of ants or wasps; made them eat their excrement, drink their urine, and lick the saliva of other slaves … Were these tortures, so well authenticated, habitual or were they merely isolated incidents, the extravagances of a few half-crazed colonists? Impossible as it is to substantiate hundreds of cases, yet all the evidence shows that these bestial practices were normal features of slave life.” (p10).

But, no matter how unpleasant the trade was, it quickly formed an exceptionally important part of European – especially British – economic life, and British capitalism became dependent upon it. Any member of parliament in 1700 calling for the abolition of slavery would have been pronounced insane, such were the profits being derived from the ‘triangular trade’ between Britain, West Africa and the Americas. The British supplied cheap goods to West Africa in return for slaves, who were transported to the West Indies and the Americas in return for sugar, tobacco and cotton, which were then sold in western Europe for cash, which was turned into the capital upon which the industrial revolution was built.

Eric Williams writes: “The triangular trade … gave a triple stimulus to British industry. The Negroes were purchased with British manufactures; transported to the plantations, they produced sugar, cotton, indigo, molasses and other tropical products, the processing of which created new industries in England; while the maintenance of the Negroes and their owners on the plantations provided another market for British industry, New England agriculture and the Newfoundland fisheries. By 1750 there was hardly a trading or a manufacturing town in England which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade. The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution … The West Indian islands became the hub of the British Empire, of immense importance to the grandeur and prosperity of England. It was the Negro slaves who made these sugar colonies the most previous colonies ever recorded in the whole annals of imperialism” (p52).

The rise of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow was a direct result of the triangular trade. The capital accumulation in these cities then stimulated the growth of other cities such as Manchester, whose manufactures were used extensively in the triangular trade.

The banks whose capital financed the scientific adventures required to propel the industrial revolution were deeply involved in the slave trade (many of these banks are now the big players on the British high street).

Williams notes that “it was the capital accumulated from the West Indian trade that financed James Watt and the steam engine” – Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton received loans from financial institutions with significant slave interests.

In the poetic words of Karl Marx:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, etc …

“With the development of capitalist production during the manufacturing period, the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience. The nations bragged cynically of every infamy that served them as a means to capitalistic accumulation …

“If money, according to Augier, ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek’, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” (Capital Vol 1)

Given the foregoing, how is it possible that British capitalism would ever give up slavery?

The industrial revolution and the move towards free trade

As pointed out above, profits from the slave trade provided the impetus for the industrial revolution, the effect of which was enormously profound. For example, the exports of British cotton manufactures increased thirty-fold between 1785 and 1830; the population employed by industry rose from 350,000 in 1788 to 800,000 in 1806 (see Williams, p128). Towns such as Oldham and Manchester had emerged from nowhere to be major players in the British economy.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the British West Indian planters, with their exhausted land and labour force, were in no position to compete with the mass manufacture made possible by the industrial revolution. Sugar profits were becoming negligible in comparison with the export goods of British industry. New technology, built on the profits of the slave trade, had made British goods extraordinarily profitable and had given British capitalists a free trade monopoly – that is, a monopoly of the world market gained not through tariffs and colonial preference but through the ability to supply better, cheaper produce than their rivals. Britain truly had become the ‘workshop of the world’. As Williams writes, “The sugar planters, who had for so long enjoyed an unquestioned right to a box seat, could now barely find standing room.”

The system of exclusivity of trade (the ‘mercantile system’) between the British West Indies and Britain, whereby Britain was assured of exclusive rights to supply various goods to the West Indian market and the West Indian plantations were assured of exclusive rights to supply sugar to the home market, was no longer of interest to the British bourgeoisie. The West Indian planters would buy British goods regardless of the trade monopoly, because they were cheaper and better than the alternatives; meanwhile British refiners were being forced to buy sugar at inflated prices because of the regulations protecting West Indian sugar exports. This situation was increasingly irksome to the British industrialist. As Williams points out, “the attack on the West Indians was more than an attack on slavery. It was an attack on monopoly. Their opponents were not only the humanitarians but the capitalists.” (p136)

Another problem with the monopoly was that, as British exports expanded, it became increasingly important that the British market be able to absorb foreign raw materials as payment for these exports. Williams notes: “the British West Indian monopoly, prohibiting the importation of non-British-plantation sugar for home consumption, stood in the way. Every important vested interest – the cotton manufacturers, the shipowners, the sugar refiners; every important industrial and commercial town – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, the West Riding of Yorkshire, joined in the attack on West Indian slavery and West Indian monopoly”. Further: “When British capitalism depended on the West Indies, they ignored slavery or defended it. When British capitalism found the West Indian monopoly a nuisance, they destroyed West Indian slavery as the first step in the destruction of the West Indian monopoly.” (p169)

Furthermore, slavery as a method of labour was not consistent with the needs of the industrial revolution. Adam Smith, the principal economic thinker of industrial capitalism, put it like this: “The work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no property can have no other interest than to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible”. Similarly, Merivale wrote: “Slave labour is dearer than free wherever abundance of free labour can be procured”. Of course, at the height of the slave trade, before the industrial revolution, it would have been unthinkable for a bourgeois economist to describe slave work as the “dearest of any”. Williams points out that, prior to 1783 (the end of the American Revolution, which concluded with the defeat of the British colonisers), “all classes in English society presented a united front with regard to the slave trade. The monarchy, the government, the church, public opinion in general, supported the slave trade. There were few protests, and those were ineffective.” (p39)

Increasing inefficiency of West Indian sugar production

The production of sugar in the West Indies took place on a vast scale, and the intensity of farming increased year by year as the British colonies started to feel the heat of competition from their rivals in San Domingo (now Haiti), Brazil, Cuba, and North America. This led to a rapid deterioration in the productiveness of the land, which in Britain’s case was limited to a few relatively small islands after the American Revolution. Meanwhile, in a bid to compete with France for control of the world sugar market, the British government had decided to cultivate sugar on a mass scale in India. The result was an unsustainable over-saturation of the home market. Production needed to be curtailed, and the abolition of the slave trade was the means of achieving this. As Eric Williams pointed out, “overproduction in 1807 demanded abolition; overproduction in 1833 demanded emancipation.” (p154)

C.L.R. James writes: “The West Indian sugar-producers were monopolists whose methods of production afforded an easy target, and Adam Smith and Arthur Young, the forerunners of the new era, condemned the whole principle of slave-labour as the most expensive in the world. Besides, why not get sugar from India? India, after the loss of America, assumed a new importance. The British experimented with sugar in Bengal, received glowing reports and in 1791 the first shipments arrived … Pitt and Dundas saw a chance of capturing the continental market from France by East India sugar … Indian free labour cost a penny a day” (op cit, p42-3)

Imperialist rivalry

By the late 18th century, Haiti (or San Domingo, as it was then called), with its half million slaves, was the “greatest colony in the world, the pride of France, and the envy of every other imperialist nation” (ibid). Of course, Britain could well do without the competition in terms of selling raw materials; but more important was the question of preventing France from using the profits from its slave production to replicate Britain’s industrial success. Having made its own industrial revolution off the back of the slave trade, Britain was very keen to prevent any other country from doing the same.

By the end of the 18th century, France was very much moving in this direction. James writes: “Nearly all the industries which developed in France during the eighteenth century had their origin in the goods or commodities destined either for the coast of Guinea or for America. The capital from the slave-trade fertilized them; though the bourgeoisie traded in other things than slaves, upon the success or failure of the traffic everything else depended.” (ibid, p39)

With its own interest in the slave trade waning quickly, Britain realised that it could cause a great deal of damage to France’s economic interests by preventing the trafficking of slaves: “The British bourgeois were the great rivals of the French. All through the eighteenth century they fought in every part of the world. The French had jumped gleefully in to help drive them out of America. San Domingo was now incomparably the finest colony in the world and its possibilities seemed limitless. The British bourgeoisie investigated the new situation in the West Indies, and on the basis of what it saw, prepared a bombshell for its rivals. Without slaves San Domingo was doomed. The British colonies had enough slaves for all the trade they were ever likely to do. With the tears rolling down their cheeks for the poor suffering blacks, those British bourgeois who had no West Indian interests set up a great howl for the abolition of the slave-trade”. (ibid, p41)

Britain had a very strong hand in terms of breaking the slave trade, for it was by far the biggest and most successful of the slave-trading nations. No other country had sufficient ships and experience to supply the Americas and the West Indies; the vast majority of San Domingo slaves were sold by the British.

Before the American War of Independence, the British had profited doubly by its supply of slaves to the French colonies: firstly, of course, they made a handsome profit through the sale of the slaves; secondly, by the supply of molasses from the French West Indies to Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which cities were built on the distilling business and which made substantial yearly remittances to London (see Williams, p118). However, by the end of the eighteenth century things were very different. San Domingo was larger than any of the British colonies in the West Indies, and its soil was in far better condition. Williams writes: “The greatest disaster for the British sugar planters was that the revolt of America left them face to face with their French rivals. The superiority of the French sugar colonies was for the British planters the chief among the many ills which flew out of the Pandora’s box that was the American Revolution. Between 1783 and 1789 the progress of the French sugar islands, of Saint Domingue especially, was the most amazing phenomenon in colonial development. The fertility of the French soil was decisive. French sugar cost one-fifth less than British, the average yield in Saint Domingue and Jamaica was five to one.”

The British capitalists and their parliamentary representatives calculated that any loss incurred to Britain by putting an end to the slave trade would be more than offset by the damage caused to France’s rise.

Slave revolts

In addition to the direct economic drivers of abolition, we must also discuss the role of the slaves themselves in bringing about their freedom. The ‘official’ history has painted the African slaves as a docile bunch with an almost religious reverence for their owners. Such a picture of things is specifically crafted to imply that freedoms and reforms are not won by the exploited; rather they are dispensed at the will of the exploiters. The writers of such history would have the modern working class and oppressed masses of the world waiting patiently for their liberation. The history of slave revolt is largely ignored, or at least features only as a footnote, in bourgeois accounts of abolition. Bourgeois academics have settled on a version of history that emphasises the benevolence of white colonialists, ignores the economic basis upon which political acts rest, and downplays any thirst of the oppressed for freedom. Perhaps one day Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson and David Trimble will be remembered in secondary schools as the bearers of Irish freedom!

In reality, the resistance of the slaves had a considerable impact in terms of rendering the whole system of slavery untenable and bringing forward abolition and emancipation. The history of slavery, in the West Indies as well as in North and South America, is littered with examples of large-scale slave revolts. As late as 1823 – 16 years after the abolition of slave trafficking and seven years before emancipation – there was a massive co-ordinated revolt of 50 plantations (with a combined population of 12,000) in British Guyana. Jamaica, Barbados, Tobago and the other British colonies all saw dozens of uprisings. Although San Domingo wasn’t British, it would be remiss not to mention the slave uprising in that country (now called Haiti), which resulted in the expulsion of the colonisers and planters, and led to the establishment of the first independent black republic outside Africa. There is no doubt that the Haitian Revolution, completed in 1804, scared the British enough to spur them on to abolition (the Slave Trade Act was passed just three years later).

A great many slaves simply ran away, usually grouping together in forests. Runaway slaves in Brazil, often in conjunction with natives, established free quilombos, the most important of which was Palmares – a free republic established in 1605 and lasting for nearly 100 years.

The increasing number of slave revolts and runaways of course reduced the viability of slavery, and it is no coincidence that every major reform relating to the slave trade took place in the immediate aftermath of a major slave rebellion.

As W.E.B DuBois writes in The World and Africa, “The slave revolts were the beginnings of the revolutionary struggle for the uplift of the labouring masses in the modern world. They have been minimised in extent because of the propaganda in favour of slavery and the feeling that the knowledge of slave revolt would hurt the system.”

British connection with slavery did not end in 1807

To further demonstrate that the British opposition to slavery was economic and not moral, the reader should note that the proportion of British cotton imports coming from America (where slavery was still very much in force) increased dramatically in the first half of the nineteenth century. There was certainly no question of boycotting slave-grown produce where it was of importance to British industry. To quote Williams: “The abolitionists were boycotting the slave-grown produce of the British West Indies, dyed with the Negro’s blood. But the very existence of British capitalism depended upon the slave-grown cotton of the United States, equally connected with slavery and polluted with blood … The boycotters of West Indian sugar sat upon chairs of Cuban mahogany, before desks of Brazilian rosewood, and used inkstands of slave-cut ebony … In a country like England total abstinence from slave produce was impossible, unless they wished to betake themselves to the woods and live on roots and berries.” (p190)


The crocodile tears of the British media, of Tony Blair and the queen, and the self-satisfied back-patting in relation to the Abolition Bill, are hypocritical and despicable. A version of the history of the slave trade which does not deal with i) the economic forces behind abolition, ii) the role of the slave trade in furthering British capitalism, and iii) the armed revolts of the slaves themselves, is deliberately misleading and can only be designed to let capitalism off the hook. The facts are simple. From the beginning of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, the slave trade was absolutely essential to British capitalism. With the end of the American War of Independence in 1783, the slave trade, in particular the West Indian mercantile system, increasingly became a burden on British capital and was therefore slowly got rid of. Humanitarian concerns played no leading part. For a long time after the Slave Trade Act of 1807, slave-grown produce formed an important part of the British economy. And now, in the 21st century, Britain continues its rape of Africa, albeit in a different form – that of neo-colonialism.

One of the most profound consequences of the slave trade was its devastation of the African continent. Basil Davidson writes: “Essentially, the Atlantic trade was a large and long-enduring exchange of cheap industrial goods, mainly cottons and metalware and firearms, for the ‘raw material’ of African labour … By providing Africa with cheap substitutes, the Atlantic slave trade undermined the local production of cotton goods and metalware; against this partial benefit of cheaper imports, it discouraged expansion from the handicraft stage. In the sixteenth century the Portuguese had imported the cotton stuffs of West Africa for sale in Europe; now the flow was reversed. Secondly, the Atlantic trade deprived a large number of African societies of many of their best producers, the youngest and strongest of their men and women; and it did this not spasmodically but continuously over several centuries.” If the British government is serious about ‘apologising’ for slavery, surely it would be better to show some goodwill and put an end to its ruthless profiteering in Africa? The imperialist powers’ relentless quest for raw materials, cheap labour and willing markets is the cause of all the famine, poverty and war to which Africa is today exposed.

Another highly significant and enduring effect of the slave trade is the cancer of racism which continues to poison the minds of millions of people. Again quoting Davidson: “The degradation went beyond the slaving ships and plantations. Ramifying through European and American society, it formed a deep soil of arrogant contempt for African humanity. In this soil fresh ideas and attitudes of ‘racial superiority’, themselves the fruit of Europe’s technical and military strength, took easy root and later came to full flower during the decades of nineteenth-century invasion and of twentieth-century possession of the continent. Even men and women of otherwise thoughtful and generous disposition came to think it well and wise that Africans should be carried into slavery, since they were carried at that same time, it was said, out of an ‘endless night of savage barbarism’ into the embrace of a ‘superior civilisation'”. This racism – the social ideology of slavery – still survives today, and is one of the most important factors in keeping the working class from uniting against capital.

On the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act, communists must resolve: to fight with renewed energy to smash racism and build unity in the working class; to fight with renewed energy against all forms of imperialist interference (economic, political, military) in Africa and beyond; and to take courage from the heroic slave rebellions and put our all into the struggle against wage slavery.