Friday, April 5, 2024

A moral imperative

On slavery, and the campaign against it:
...[T]he country that led the world in the rebellion against this barbarism – and played a bigger role than perhaps anyone else in its eradication – was the United Kingdom.

Britain did not invent slavery. Slaves were kept in Egypt since at least the Old Kingdom period and in China from at least the 7th century AD, followed by Japan and Korea. It was part of the Islamic world from its beginnings in the 7th century. Native tribes in North America practised slavery, as did the Aztecs and Incas farther south. African traders supplied slaves to the Roman empire and to the Arab world. Scottish clan chiefs sold their men to traders.

Barbary pirates from north Africa practised the trade too, seizing around a million white Europeans – including some from Cornish villages – between the 16th and 18th centuries. It was in fear of such pirates that the song ‘Rule Britannia’ was written: hence the line that ‘Britons never ever ever shall be slaves’. Even slaves who escaped their masters in the Caribbean went on to take their own slaves. The most concerted campaign against all this was started by Christian groups in London in the 1770s who eventually recruited William Wilberforce to their campaign, and parliament went on to outlaw the slave trade in 1807. British sea power was then deployed to stamp it out.

The largely successful British effort to eradicate the transatlantic slave trade did not grow out of any kind of self-interest. It was driven by moral imperative and at considerable cost to Britain and the Empire. At its peak, Britain’s battle against the slave trade involved 36 naval ships and cost some 2,000 British lives. In 1845, the Aberdeen Act expanded the Navy’s mission to intercept Brazilian ships suspected of carrying slaves.

Much is made about how Britain profited from the slave trade, but we tend not to hear about the extraordinary cost of fighting it. In a 1999 paper US historians Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape estimated that, taking into account the loss of business and trade, suppression of the slave trade cost Britain 1.8 per cent of GDP between 1808 and 1867. It was, they said, the most expensive piece of moral action in modern history. .... (more)
The portrait is of Wilberforce.

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