I have just located the research I carried out as an antidote to the moanathon and misinformation of the celebrations for the Abolition of the Slave trade in Britain in 2007. I thought I had lost all this information but have just located it so will be including the work on this blog.
At the same time that Africans were being kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic in chains, the poor of Britain were being transported to the colonies, first the Americas, and then Australia. So calls for the abolition of the slave trade were in parallel with those for penal reform, and to improve the conditions and rights of workers, women and children.
Many campaigners for abolition were active campaigners for other causes. Many male abolitionists failed to back their female supporters in their calls for women’s rights, so the women turned to their own campaigns instead. As such, the campaign for abolition was not just a training ground for other human rights battles, it actively created them.
Also missing from many discussions is the role that explorers apart from Columbus played in abolition. Whilst it can be claimed that without them, the slave colonies would not have been founded, the descriptions written by the likes of TE Bowditch were later used by abolitionists to make the case for African civilizations and the humanity of Africans. The Pilgrim fathers used maps by Bristol’s Martin Pring, so this settlement can make a claim for a starting point for the later abolition campaigns.
Seldom mentioned is the massive cost in money and the lives of Royal Navy Servicemen who policed the seas, often in breach of international law, attempting to suppress the trade in human flesh. Abolition was the issue that made Britain the world’s police before there was a domestic force. The navy had long resisted investing in steamships, but pursuing slavers up rivers made this necessary. The North Americans improved the speed and agility of their slave ships to avoid being captured, so abolition led to improvements in shipping. Scores of administrators and diplomats investigated and reported on conditions of the trade and the colonies which helped the government to support abolition. When the navy managed to capture slave ships, it was largely British judges who tried the crews.
When Wilberforce managed to steer the act to abolish the slave trade, it was only punishable as a misdemeanor, ie punished only by a fine. So campaigning continued to make it a more serious offence, and to outlaw slavery in the colonies and elsewhere. Abolitionists travelled widely and reported on conditions in the colonies, some were involved in the establishment of a slave state in Sierra Leone, and there was much support for abolition groups in the United States and elsewhere.
A particular complaint I have is the frequent use of the song Amazing Grace as the anthem for abolition and for slaves. It was famously written by the captain of a slave ship.
But I would suggest a far more suitable one is ‘I wish I knew How It Would Feel to be Free’. It was written by an unknown former slave. Here is Nina Simone’s version of it. It is a brilliant song, devoid of religious overtones, expressed ideas we can all relate to and utterly appropriate.
True freedom is a myth.