Slavery – the ownership and (or) control of one human being by another, to the point of total obedience – is one of the grimmest phases of history but things changed from bad to good when it ended.
The rise and rise of the Atlantic Slave Trade:
An Atlantic trade in African slaves began in 1444, when the Portuguese began to ship slaves from West Africa to Europe. For the next century, the main markets for these slaves were in Europe and the Atlantic islands owned by Portugal and Spain.
This discovery led to the creation of new colonies and a great need for cheap labour. Therefore, from the mid-sixteenth century, European ships were carrying humans from Africa as slaves to Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America, in steadily increasing quantities.
At first the Portuguese and the Spanish were the main organisers of the trade, but by the second half of the seventeenth century, the countries of northwest Europe were gaining ground. During the eighteenth century, Britain overtook and became the foremost slave-trading power, followed by the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the Spanish, all of whom ran to Africa to form colonies.
During that time “triangular trade” operated. This is when ships carried European manufactures to Africa and exchanged them for slaves, who were then taken to the Americas, where they were traded for sugar, molasses, cotton, tobacco, indigo and other goods, which were brought back to Europe.
It is estimated that, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, over twelve million Africans were transported across the Atlantic, mostly from West Africa.
Stages of the slave journey:
In Each of the slaves’ journeys from Africa to their destination, they faced great dangers and possible death.
The first stage was the capture of people usually organised by local African potentates, that is their local rulers.
African rulers had been engaged in slavery for many centuries already, capturing slaves for their own use or for sale to the Middle East; but the Atlantic trademarked a profound expansion of African slave dealings.
In the second stage, those slaves who survived capture and the journey to the coast would then face the Atlantic crossing, which was every bit as terrible as oral and written history holds, although some attempts were made to improve conditions during the latter years of the trade. Usually, due to dehydration, between ten and twenty-five per cent of the slaves would die routinely before the end of the voyage.
In the next stage, upon reaching the Americas, those who survived the crossing faced a life of slavery on colonial plantations. Here, they were denied their freedom and dignity and were treated with considerable brutality by their masters. Any attempt by slaves to run away, and on occasion to revolt, brought continued suffering. Many died within a few years in the plantations where they laboured for hours because of disease, with Brazil having an especially tragic record of high mortality. The deaths of slaves in the Americas, and the low birth rate of slave communities, meant that a continual influx of new slaves from Africa was demanded by the plantation owners.
Although Britain did not create the Atlantic slave trade, it was heavily involved with the trade at its height during the eighteenth century. The ports of Bristol, Liverpool and London drew great wealth from the trade, and the British public benefited from large quantities of cheap slave-produced imports.
The Decline of the Slave Trade:
After much profiteering from the heinous act, in the nineteenth century, Britain began to play a leading role in the abolition of the slave trade. Its Parliament passed laws to abolish the trade in 1807 and to stop the use of slaves in British territories in 1833, although it still granted slave-owners twenty million pounds in compensation to stop the use of slaves. Britain stood out for its strict enforcement of abolition by going ahead to create a permanent naval patrol off the West African coast to act against slave ships, and for its repeated diplomatic efforts to encourage the other major slave-trading powers to follow suit.
France followed in 1815, while Portugal and Spain continued to export Africans on a large scale to Brazil and Cuba until the mid-nineteenth century, but when it was brought to a halt, the Atlantic slave trade was effectively at an end.
What made them stop?:
With the Atlantic trade’s long existence, its abolition was a remarkable change. Some factors converted Britain and others to such vehement anti-slavery policies.
The starting point is the campaigns of Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and their fellow evangelical Christians from the 1780s. At the level of parliamentary politics, Wilberforce was the spearhead of anti-slavery for several years. But this was not the whole story of anti-slavery.
Of vital recognition was the large popular protest movement against slavery that emerged across Britain between the 1780s and 1830s, which created a series of petitions that contained hundreds of thousands of signatures. The sustained pressure from this movement had a lasting impact on the political elite and made it impossible for the issue to be easily dismissed. The basis of this movement reflected a new wave of popular ideas, especially a re-interpretation of the Christian duty towards the oppressed, as well as a conviction that restricting the freedom of labour was at odds with economic success. Such a wave of ideas was, in turn, enabled by the emergence of a national “public opinion”, via the growth of newspapers and other types of printed matter, and relatively high levels of literacy. Anti-slavery was striking for the way in which, before modern electronic communications, a mass audience became rapt in events in other parts of the world.
One other crucial factor was the struggle of black people (The slaves and their descendants) to gain their own liberation. In England, activists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano campaigned against slavery, as part of a community of freed black people in London that already numbered in the tens of thousands. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, there were recorded slave uprisings. This culminated in 1831-2 with the Sam Sharpe rebellion in Jamaica, reports of which had a direct impact on Parliament’s decision to end colonial slavery.
The end of the Atlantic slave trade was not the end of slavery itself. In the Americas, slavery was outlawed finally by all the major states by the late 1880s, with Brazil being the last to act in 1888, but it continued in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean up to the 1900s, and persisted in sub-Saharan Africa during the early twentieth century.
There is bad news. Instances of slavery still remain, rearing its ugly head in Child Labour, Human Trafficking, Sex Trafficking and the likes.
The anti-slavery movement was only able to make progress in its goals over a number of generations but that’s not enough. In our present day, through repeated campaigns, it will be possible to take the invisible shackles off the feet of those who are still affected by all forms of crime against them.
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