The transatlantic slave trade

Why did it take until 1833 for the British government to illegalise the transatlantic slave trade? The transatlantic slave trade bean in the British empire in 1562 by John Hawkins who "being amongst other particulars assured, that Negro's were very good merchandise in Hispaniola, and that store of Negro's might easily bee had upon the coast of Guinea resolved with himself to make triall" (1) Soon after Hawkins success in the trade other companies were set up to enter the trade.

The trade itself resolved around three separate strands of a complete voyage. The first being the Outward passage that consisted of Bristol (the leading city in the British slave due to its l9cation on the Atlantic side of Britain) merchants, exporting goods of "cloth…muskets…pistols…lead…iron…copper rods…brandy…and pipe beads…" (2) To Africa where they would be exchanged for slave. Once the saves had been loaded onto the ships they set sail for the Americas or the Caribbean, the strand of the journey became known as the middle passage. 

Many historians have described the middle passage has being horrific and Brutal as according to Mannix and Cowley (1962) "the cargo of a vessel of a hundred tons or little more is calculated to purchase 220 to 250 slaves. Their lodging rooms below the deck, which are three, beside a place for the sick, are sometimes more than feet high and sometimes less; and his height divided toward the middle for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other on each side of the ship" (3). The horrors of the middle passage were described by the Wilberforce committee (abolitionists) in a plan of the slaving Brookes (4) "to every man slave six feet by one foot four inches for room, to every women five feet by one foot four, to every boy six feet by one foot two, and two every girl four feet six by one foot.

They then stowed them and found that only four hundred and fifty could be stowed in her." When the committee enquired into how many slaves were actually carried on the ship they found that "they found it allowed her to carry four more than could be put in without trespassing upon the room allotted to the rest…" From the description of the 'Brookes' it is not surprising to find that the death rate was "1/8 of all slaves"(5). Once the ships entered the Caribbean auctions were held to sell the slaves. The captains used the profits from the slave auctions to buy "colonial produce" such as "sugar, tobacco and rum" (5). 

The final strand o0f the voyage; the return passage involved the shipment of "colonial produce" to Bristol where the profits from them would be used to finance new transatlantic slave trips. In 1792 the Prime Minister William Pitt declared the transatlantic slave trade as an "incurable injustice" (6), so the question to ask is if the leader of the British government called it an "incurable injustice", then why did it take until 1833 for the British government to illegalise the trade?

Religion was one of the reasons why it took until 1807 for the British government to abolish the slave trade. Exodus 21: 2 states that "If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing" (7). Even though this as never actually implied in the transatlantic slave trade, it does indicate a support for slavery, because it doesn't condemn it.

This idea of the Bible supporting the slavery is echoed in Turley (2000) (7) were he states that "scholars have speculated that from the early church fathers onwards the metaphoric contrast between the darkness of sin and ignorance and the light of Christian knowledge, with its possibility of redemption [Genesis 9], may have inflected Christian knowledge towards black Africans." (7).

So, according to Turley scholars have alleged that Christians have seen the Christian Knowledge as a source of light and redemption for black Africans. This concept is one of the leading arguments put forward in the support of the transatlantic slave trade. The reasons being that people thought Africans to be "like beasts. The farther has knowledge of his daughter, the son of his sister. They breed greatly, for a women bears up to five at birth. Nor can it be doubted that they are eaters of human flesh" (8) which implied there were inferior and savage people.

A 1550's English explorer who declared that Africans were "without god, law, religion or commonwealth" supports the concept Africa being inferior. This attitude therefore led to Christians as well as traders as a whole believing that the trade was helping these inferior beings. This attitude is mirrored by Harry Johnston writing in 1910 that the slave trade "to some extent mitigated the suffering of the Negro in his own home; for once his trade was set on foot and it was profitable to sell human being, many a man, woman or child who might otherwise have been killed for mere caprice, or for the love of seeing blood flow, or a toothsome ingredient of a banquet, was sold to a slave trader."(9)

It was this argument over the black African being the inferior being and the slave trade/Christianity redeeming them is one of the key arguments that supporters of the transatlantic slave trade used when attempting to be keep it legal as R Coupland wrote in 1923 that "It is well known that the eastern and western coasts of Africa are inhabited by stupid and unlighted hordes immersed in the most grass an impenetrable gloom of barbarianism…The traffic [slave trade] has proved a fortunate event for their miserable captives"(10). 

It was this attitude that led to it taking until 1807 for the British government to illegalise slavery in her empire. However, even though supporters of the trade used religion and the concept of Africans being inferior they were not the sole reasons why it took until 1833 for the British government to illegalise the transatlantic slave trade, there is also the economic success of the trade.