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Africa During the Scramble: The Blockade

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

By Gary Oswald

Arthur H. Clark's drawing of the HMS Brisk capturing the slave ship Emanuela.

It is estimated that in the 1780s less than a quarter of the human world was what we would consider free. The rest were held in some kind of bondage, whether serfs, slaves or feudal peasants and few people were more disproportionately represented in this bondage than the Africans. For centuries Africa was defined as a place slaves came from. Millions were sent across the Atlantic where they died in horrific numbers, in the cramped disease filled boats of the crossing, in the awful conditions they laboured under particularly in the Sugar plantations and at the hands of their masters, who used routine torture and murder to keep order. Over one third of captured Africans died within the first year and the death rate was so high that the vast majority of slave populations were not self sustaining. This was not helped by the way slaves were often worked so hard they couldn't bear children, roughly half of female slaves in the sugar plantations were infertile and those that did give birth were often the results of rape by their white masters. As a result the plantations were reliant on new slaves so the trade was massive and African slaves were so sought after that large areas of Africa were destabilised as a result of slaving bands roaming far and wide to find victims. More than 2 million slaves were sent to the British Caribbean and upon abolition the result was a black population of less than 700,000 such was the death rate.

As discussed previously, the progressive pushback against this situation became a moral crusade against the survival of slavery anywhere and one of the motives for European involvement in Africa during the 19th century. In that it was, at least on first glance, incredibly successful. Pretty much all African countries in 1780 owned slaves and most sold them but by 1915 this wasn’t true. Time and time again, in negotiations with African powers from the Boers to the Omani, from the Dahomey to the Somali, Britain attempted to get them to free their slaves and in return offered to buy other goods or give them subsidies. Moreover the Blockade of Africa meant the royal navy, later joined by the Americans, patrolled the shores of Africa stopping ships and searching for slaves. But what was very clear is that the economics of the slave trade, in which European goods were far more valuable than African goods, meant stopping Africans selling slaves was harder than stopping Western powers from buying them. The short British blockade of Brazil achieved more than the long blockade of Western Africa and it was through bullying European powers into agreeing to ban slave imports into their colonies, in particular in making it a cornerstone of the Congress of Vienna, that the British achieved their best results.

But, while the efforts to end slavery are obviously worth lauding, it was not as unambiguously successful as it might seem on the surface. Colonisation was seen by many progressives as a natural step in the fight for an African economic model un-reliant on slavery, the Three C's of uplifting Africans were 'Christianity, Commerce and Colonisation'. Arguably the first major British attempt at political change in Africa on a large scale was the 1841 Niger Expedition which was ran by abolitionists with the aim of Christianising and uplifting African native Kingdoms on the west coast to create a prosperous Christian Africa that would not sell slaves. This did not work, the expedition gave up after being ravaged by diseases but the dream did not die, it just became taken up, at least nominally, by the governments and the armies.

Whenever a European country conquered a native one, they ended slavery by law and often, such as in the case of the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, used that act to justify their conquest. But to an extent this is another pretty lie. As we have also previously discussed, forced labour, in terms of labour instead of taxes and labour by prisoners of war, was prevalent throughout European colonies in Africa even those founded under the aim of breaking chains. The residents of the Congo Free State suffered if anything a worse version of slavery under the supposedly abolitionist King Leopold then they had under the existing slavers, so did the Herero in German South-West Africa. On a smaller scale, British flat rather than progressive taxes meant newly freed Zanzibari plantation slaves worked longer hours as paid workers under a colonial economic structure then they had as slaves and has as much freedom of movement, though they were able to eventually win better terms by decades of strikes, which was something they could not achieve as slaves.

The same noble impulse that prevented child slaves being ritually killed in vodun ceremonies or sold to Cuban plantations ended up being used to justify the many crimes of colonialism. The villages held as hostages to force the men into work, the villages burned as examples to the others and even the slaves being bought. The treaties the Spanish, Portuguese and Germans had signed banning the slave trade often were about exporting slaves from Africa and they felt comfortable to buy slaves from intact African nations for their own African colonies. This would often be recorded as free labour offered by friendly or subordinate nations in return for trade or instead of taxes but it was buying slaves. It is a myth to say that slavery did not exist at all in colonial Africa or even that, in certain areas, it did not increase. Not all abolitionists supported colonialism but many did and colonialists regularly used abolitionist language while putting men in chains.

But while this should be born in mind, I will not pretend that good things weren’t achieved by the abolitionists or, for that matter on a smaller scale, by the colonial powers they worked with. The Indian Ocean slave trade ran by the Portuguese and the Omani Arabs was increasing drastically during the 19th century as was the number of slaves killed in vodun ceremonies and European Colonial intervention ended both.

And, while ending the Atlantic Slave Trade was mostly done prior to the Scramble of Africa rather than during it, the abolitionists should also take credit for ending one of humanity’s worst crimes. As a result of bans on importing slaves millions of Africans were saved from enduring that fate and the population of areas ravaged by slave raids were able to recover. That in itself is an achievement to be praised. Such an event was a profound one which altered the nature of Africa in the 19th century. As a result thousands of slaves remained in Africa, thousands more returned from the New World to Africa and the old slaving Kingdoms of the West Coast were weakened in a way that limited their abilities to resist European conquest. So it is worth detailing how exactly we got there.

English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson by Carl Frederik von Breda

The reason was a campaign by British Christian humanists. They had organised protests, they had won over MPs, they had won victories on regulating the conditions of slave ships, and they had published slave diaries and won court cases and shocked the country with tales of the atrocities committed in their name. Moreover they took advantage of the hatred of press gangs and the fear of sailing to make much of the huge death toll of the white crew on slaving ships who were dying to African diseases, this trade, they said, kills both white man and black and the message was heard. Throughout the 1790s there was a growing boycott of sugar by the abolitionists and non-voters signed petitions and sent letters to the parliament in numbers previously unforeseen. The result was a vote in the British House of Commons on abolishing the trade in slaves.

And they lost. 163 votes against abolishment to 88 votes in favour. In the aftermath abolitionists, on wondering why they had lost, blamed the timing. This was 1791. The Dolben Act, which had restricted the amount of slaves any one ship could carry had been passed in 1788. This was seen as the time for the abolitionists to strike, while the iron was hot. They had attempted to put up a bill in the same year on complete abolition of the slave trade but first William Wilberforce, their chosen politician, got sick before he could table the bill and when he recovered, King George had a fit of madness and so all other business was delayed a year while the discussion of the regency dominated parliament. In 1789 the pro slavery lobby delayed it further asking for time to find evidence to counter the claims about the slave trade and calling for further investigation.

The 1791 vote happened only after three years of delay, which the abolitionists deemed crucial to their defeat. Because during these three years a lot had changed. For a start the French revolution had happened and thus poisoned a lot of ideas of liberal reform in the minds of the British. Secondly the West India Lobby of pro slavery interests, who were barely existent as a united force in 1788, had begun to properly organise, the money they spent in lobbying increased hugely in each of those intervening years. Some of that money was spent on a PR campaign to rename the slaves 'assistant planters' in a reminder that satire often has a hard time outdoing reality. On the other side, the Abolitionist forces were weaker because James Ramsey, probably the most vigorous of all their campaigners, died in 1789.

One other thing had happened between 1788 and 1791, the first of what would become a series of slave revolts had occurred in the Caribbean which had been blamed on the abolitionists. This would set the pattern for the 1790s as the British would be faced with revolts in Jamaica, Grenada and Dominica. The French, newly destabilised by events at home, would fair even worse. A few months after the 1791 vote, a slave revolt in Haiti broke out, the largest the world would ever see. In 1793 the French, unable to defeat the Slaves, instead agreed to free them, in 1794 this became a complete announcement across the entire empire that all slaves were to be freed and made full citizens. In practice the French Republic had limited power over a lot of their empire and a lot of colonies did not enact this law but this was still a hugely radical step.

It was way beyond anything the British abolitionists had been able to accomplish, their efforts had been aimed at banning the trade in slaves rather than freeing existing slaves and their main accomplishment was a law in 1792 that set out a progress of gradual abolition of the slave trade. This was not an effective law. Henry Dundas, who had amended the bill to make it gradual, attempted to introduce a timetable for it to be abolished and dates such as 1794, 1795, and 1799 were considered before Dundas settled on 1796, but while that measure passed the House of Commons, it did not get past the Lords and so there was no timetable set on when this gradual abolition had to happen. Moreover the law said abolition could not happen without the approval of the West Indian Colonial assemblies and thus the main slave owners, the people who would lose the most money by this law passing, would be able to delay it indefinitely simply by not supporting it.

WIlberforce tried to set a firmer timetable in 1793 and 1794 but by this time France had executed its king and any sign of reform was dismissed out of hand as bringing the terror. Britain was thus still a slaving country when the French abolition happened and it was also a country at war with the French Republic and allied with the French nobility in exile. It was also a country increasingly conservative and paranoid, passing multiple laws which attacked personal freedoms as William Pitt's government veered sharply to the right. The result was that Britain went to war for Slavery. In the French Island colonies which had seen some form of abolition like Haiti, St. Lucia and Guadeloupe, the British fought with the aim of re-chaining those slaves, in those that hadn’t the British fought to capture them before it could happen. And in the background of this turmoil, their own slaves were revolting in greater numbers.

Victor Hughes arrived in Guadeloupe in 1794 with the above proclamation that enforced Emancipation, his armed slaves fought the British across Guadeloupe and St. Lucia as a result.

The British slaving system ate itself trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Nearly 65,000 white British soldiers and sailors died in the Caribbean front of the War, and many more became radicalised against Slavery by their experiences. When Britain broke the terms under which Jamaican maroons (escaped slaves) had surrendered, there was outrage among the British Army present. The slaves had also died in their tens of thousands and the brutality at the heart of the system was revealed by this slaughter. The need for new bodies in this war had also meant that the British Army became the largest single buyer of slaves in the world. These new slaves were bought from traders, conscripted and then used as shock troops in what was an incredibly expensive tactic when the French were getting the same soldiers with greater morale for free. The British came out of this fighting in a stronger position in the Caribbean then they'd entered it but they'd lost in the battle where they'd sent the most men and had to withdraw entirely from Haiti, defeated by Louverture's army of freed slaves. Moreover it had become increasingly clear to the powers that be within the UK that the costs in blood and gold of maintaining the old slaving system weren't worth it anymore. France was less convinced and reintroduced slavery in their surviving colonies in 1802.

With the French now no longer tainting abolitionism by supporting it, the British movement, cowed during the years of war with France due to being painted as radicals, grew in power again. As 1797 opened it seemed like they had ended as a force but the return of the soldiers from the wars in the Caribbean changed that and in 1800, the Act of Union with Ireland happened, adding 100 new MPs to the House of Commons, most of which were unconnected to the West India Lobby. At that point the momentum was firmly with the Abolitionists. In 1805 an abolitionist bill passed the commons but not the Lords. In 1806, a bill to ban neutral flagged ships which traded with French colonies from British ports passed both the commons and the Lords, and because of the habit of slaving ships wearing the American flag to dodge the limits on the amount of slaves any one ship could carry, this banned up to two thirds of British slave ships. Later in 1806 Lord Grenville, an abolitionist, became PM with getting the bill through as a major aim of his and in 1807 the bill of 1791 banning the trade of slaves was put once again to be voted on. This time the results were very different, only 16 votes against and 283 votes for within the commons and assent from the Lords and the King.

Within a year the Blockade of Africa had started with the British Navy stopping ships leaving the continent and freeing slaves before they could be taken to the New World. This was, ironically enough, something the West India Lobby was very much in favour of. They felt that if their sugar colonies couldn't get new slaves, they should ensure that nor could the other slave colonies so they wouldn't have an economic disadvantage. Within another decade Netherlands, France, the USA, Spain and Portugal had likewise banned the importation of slaves, thanks in a large extent to British pressure. The Atlantic slave trade was on its last legs.

Britain was at this point the flag waver for abolitionism but it still had slaves of its own. Excited MPs wanted to follow the victory of 1807 by putting up a vote on a law freeing all slaves within their Empire but they were talked down by their more conservative allies. Emancipation was not to happen until 1833 when, amidst yet more slave revolts in Guyana and Jamaica and faced with an abolitionist Public and Commons, the House of Lords, on the third opportunity, passed a bill setting out a timetable to free slaves, though it was not until 1838 that the last African slave in the British Caribbean was actually freed. Slavery had been ended in the British Empire (with the exception of India, excluded from the bill) and the British would encourage the same end in other countries. What replaced slavery was often badly paid work on the same plantations because there had been no compensation given to the freed slaves so they had no money, but without the ability to replace slaves worked to death with new ones, the conditions were less murderous. Likewise freed slaves were often press ganged into the British Navy which had its own perils but allowed them to earn and save money. The new status quo was not perfect by any means but it was better.

So that is the background as to how the Blockade of Africa and the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade happened, which is useful for the next few articles dealing with the return of new world slaves to Africa and the collapse of the slaving Kingdoms of West Africa. But within this article, we have two alternate possibilities to discuss. No abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and early abolition in 1788.

Abolition is difficult to avoid by the time you reach the late 1790s. Despite the economic benefits of slavery, the British economy was already moving away from that model and the tide had pretty clearly turned in terms of opinions. The Haitian Revolution had frightened a lot of the slave powers about the results of importing new slaves and the Caribbean War had poisoned the well with the Army. You can stack the deck against the abolitionists in Britain by not having Napoleon backslide on slavery meaning the Haitians fight for the French rather than against them in post 1802 wars and by avoiding the union with Ireland etc, but only 16 votes speaks for itself and, outside of parliament, abolitionism was the dominant passion of the chattering classes, over 400,000 people signed petitions against it. You'd probably have to see a POD prior to 1795 to delay it significantly.

But, for arguments sake, let’s say it is delayed or avoided. Without Britain where is abolitionism emerging from? Within Africa, there's no obvious candidates in the short or medium term. There were Inland Africans quite happy to give up on slaves because it wasn’t a major part of their economies or culture but for those who had been trading slaves for centuries it was hugely important that the trade remained. Coastal Africans who wanted to reduce the slave trade did exist but they tended to be deposed pretty quickly by the merchant elite who owed their riches to selling slaves. The economic reality was that European goods were treasured and slaves were the easiest way to get that, again and again British diplomats were told by African rulers that banning slavery would get them overthrown and evidence suggests they were right. This was especially true in Kingdoms like Dahomey where ritual sacrifice of slaves was also an important religious ritual, meaning both the priests and the merchants were in favour of it.

Attempts by the British to solve this by rearranging the economics of the African nations were often ineffective, the attempts to turn Madagascar into an exporter of goods ran up against a poor infrastructure in terms of roads and their support of the palm oil trade in West Africa merely resulted in slave plantations being built on home soil. African rulers were often willing to go along with these attempts, seeing the wisdom in diversifying from a dying trade but they understood the challenges involved and without British support, it’s almost certain the attempt would not have been made. African Americans and Afro-Brazillians who did travel to Africa in significant numbers in the 19th century might attempt to encourage this but they'd have much less power and resources to do so, even if they were inclined to try, which is not a given.

Within Europe, French abolitionism still existed but abolitionism was much less of a powerful current in most other European countries. Without British pressure it wouldn’t have been a cornerstone of the Congress of Vienna and the trade would have certainly continued for longer in both Portugal and Spain, the former in particular received money in return for banning it and Portuguese colonies were notorious for still dealing slaves decades after the ban.

In the New World however, the British pressure was less important. The USA had a strong slaving lobby but they had also had an existing abolitionist movement since before independence and the bill to ban the import of slaves in 1808 was something the Americans had been working towards for decades rather than something spurred on by 1807. And the success of the abolitionist movements in the independent countries of Spanish America owed more to the support they received from Haiti than anything else. It is probable that even without Britain, the amount of buyers in the New World would still diminish, all other things still being equal.

Though as long as the European empires remained slave trading that still leaves Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba and the Sugar Islands as slave colonies which is enough to keep the Atlantic slave trade going as those slaves worked under the worst conditions and so died the quickest. And the question of the future Confederate states is of course an open one, they mostly had a self-sustaining slave population in a way the rest of the New World didn't but illegal importation of slaves still occurred.

The Scramble for Africa might well be delayed in this world, there's still the desire for conquest but there's more economic incentive to leave the slaving Kingdoms in place and no moral pressure to tackle African slavery. It would be delayed however at the cost of a continuing Atlantic Slave Trade.

So let us look instead at the possibility of Wilberforce not getting ill and the abolitionists tabling the bill in 1788. Would they have actually won? Possibly not, we know they thought they could have won and we know the slavery lobby was worried they might have done but given how heavily they lost three years later they might still have lost here and there is still the Lords to reckon with and the possibility of the King withholding assent. But if they did win you’d see the timetable moved up 20 years which is significant.

The main consequences of this would almost certainly be outside of the scope of this series. Within British internal politics, a shorter abolitionist campaign means weaker alliances between the societies devoted to it which would later become the bases of other progressive movements. The MPs championing abolitionism were often deeply conservative but their non voting supporters generally weren't and radicals who wanted increased suffrage at home often first organised within the abolitionist movement. And the French Revolutionary Wars could be very different if Britain made different choices in the Caribbean, allying with the slaves rather than the slave owners in French Islands for instance. In terms of this series the main effect would be a 20 year longer blockade of Africa and so less slaves making the crossing in total (though the British Navy might not commit to it until after an equivalent of the Battle of Trafalgar removes the threat of French invasion), this would obviously have a huge effect on the African slave selling kingdoms and on the slaves themselves. The numbers of slaves saved by an earlier blockade or killed by a later one are not insignificant.

There is one other consequence of an abolition in 1788. The historiography of it, how the British would talk about that law. After all in this timeline, it would be a lot more justified to take a more simplistic triumphalist view, there would be no war for slavery in 1796 with hundreds of thousands dead, no France beating the British to it in 1794 with a much more radical law, no West India Lobby delaying progress for decades, no shame to be mixed in with pride. Instead you would simply have the people saying 'this is bad' and the government promptly acting on their concerns to ban it at cost to their own fortunes. The problem with analysing the difference that would make, of course is popular memory of progressive laws tends to forget those inconvenient details and assume that's what happened anyway.



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