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Beginning in the last decades of the s, we see African people kidnapped from their families, crammed into the dark pits of slave forts, and then piled into the bowels of ships. We see voyagers and traders, such as John Hawkins in the s, becoming some of the first British men to make massive fortunes from this trade in kidnapped Africans.

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By the late 17th century, we see the British coming to dominate the slave trade, having overtaken the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. Half of all the Africans transported into slavery during the 18th century were carried in the holds of British ships.

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From the 15th to the 19th centuries, more than 11 million shackled black captives were forcibly transported to the Americas, and unknown multitudes were lost at sea. Captives were often thrown overboard when they were too sick, or too strong-willed, or too numerous to feed. Those who survived the journey were dumped on the shores and sold to the highest bidder, then sold on again and again like financial assets.

Mothers were separated from children, and husbands from wives, as persons were turned into property. Slaves were raped and lynched; their bodies were branded, flayed and mutilated. Many slave owners, in their diaries, manuals, newspaper writings and correspondence, readily admitted the punishments and violations they exacted on black people on the cane fields and in their homes. Take, for example, the unapologetic recollections of violence and predation that comprise the diary of Thomas Thistlewood , a British slave owner in Jamaica in the mids.

Thistlewood recorded 3, acts of sexual intercourse with enslaved women in his 37 years in Jamaica.


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In Barbados, the British established one of the first modern slave societies. Slavery had certainly been practised in many parts of the world since ancient times. Beginning in , the enslaved were put to work in the intense cultivation of sugar cane, working in chain gangs in shifts that covered a hour production cycle.

In one of the greatest experiments in human terror the world has ever known, this system of plantation slavery expanded over the following centuries across the Caribbean, South America and the southern United States. The trade in slaves, and the goods they were forced to produce — sugar, tobacco and eventually cotton — created the first lords of modern capitalism. Britain could not have become the most powerful economic force on earth by the turn of the 19th century without commanding the largest slave plantation economies on earth, with more than , people enslaved.

And the legacy of such large-scale, prolonged slavery touches everything that is familiar in Britain today, including buildings named after slave owners such as Colston Hall in Bristol; streets named after slave owners such as Buchanan and Dunlop Streets in Glasgow; and whole parts of cities built for slave owners, such as the West India Docks in London.

The cultural legacy of slavery also infuses British tastes, from sweetened tea, to silver service, to cotton clothwork, to the endemic race and class inequalities that characterise everyday life. This narrative often begins in the pews of Holy Trinity Church in Clapham, where the cherubic William Wilberforce worshipped. Today, he can be seen on the stained glass above the altar of that church, giving the news of the abolition of the slave trade to a black woman who kneels before him.

Around Wilberforce coalesced a group of Church of England social reformers, known as the Clapham Saints, who led the campaign against the slave trade, and then pressed onward to fight for the abolition of plantation slavery in Over the past few decades, scholars have also stressed the ways in which the antislavery movement depended on expanding democratic participation in civic debate, with British women and the working classes playing a crucial role in the abolitionist ranks.


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British parliamentarians were inundated with thousands of petitions from ordinary people pressing them to pass laws that eventually brought slavery to an end. To encourage their fellow citizens to look into the face of the enslaved and see fellow human beings, British abolitionists distributed autobiographies of people who had experienced slavery, such as works by Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince. If only the British public could hear the voices of black people through their writing, then they could empathise with their oppression.

It would then become possible to look into the eyes of the enslaved and see a person staring back. But narratives of abolition cannot be reduced to a story of angelic white benefactors gifting freedom to their black wards. There are 32 images of William Wilberforce in the National Portrait Gallery, but just four images of black abolitionists and antislavery activists from the same period. In Britain, the popular narrative too often ignores the fact that blacks on the plantations were convinced of their own personhood long before anyone else.

Rebellions were endemic to slavery, and by the s and 20s, many slave societies in the British Caribbean were experiencing insurgencies. Shortly after Christmas , an audacious rebellion broke out in Jamaica. Some 60, enslaved people went on strike. They burned the sugar cane in the fields and used their tools to smash up sugar mills.

The rebels also showed remarkable discipline, imprisoning slave owners on their estates without physically harming them. The British Jamaican government responded by violently stamping out the rebellion, killing more than black people in combat, and later with firing squads and on the gallows.

The uprising sent shockwaves through the British parliament and accelerated the push for the abolition of slavery. Not only did blacks mobilise for their own liberation, but by the s slavery was also beginning to clash with an economic principle that was becoming an article of faith for British capitalists: free trade.

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Eric Williams, a historian of slavery who also became the first prime minister of independent Trinidad in , has argued that slavery in the British empire was only abolished after it had ceased to be economically useful. Many British merchants involved in selling Cuban, Brazilian and East Indian sugar in Britain wanted to see an end to all duties and protections that safeguarded the West Indian sugar monopoly.

British capitalists also saw fresh possibilities for profit across the globe, from South America to Australia, as new transportation and military technologies — steamships, gunboats and railways — made it possible for European settlers to penetrate new frontiers. The economic system of British slavery was moribund by , but it still needed to be officially slain. B y , debates were raging in the British parliament, and in the public sphere, about ending slavery. The powerful West India interest — a group of around 80 MPs who had ties to Caribbean slavery — opposed abolition.

Beyond parliament, many thousands of Britons across the country — slave owners, West India merchants, sugar refiners, trade brokers, ship owners, bankers, military men, members of the gentry and clergymen — actively championed the principle of compensation by attending public rallies organised by various West India Committees. When slaves were emancipated in northern US states in the years before , no compensation to their owners was paid.

Publications from the early years of the Batavian Revolution show at least lingering expectations within enlightened circles that the advent of a new order would also ring the dead-knell for slavery. On 22 February , the provisional government of the province of Holland discussed a request from the representatives of twelve boroughs surrounding the textile-producing center Leiden. Gathered at or near the meeting-place of the notoriously radical 'Citizens' Assembly of the Marekerk', they demanded the prohibition of the public sale of 'human beings, under the despicable name of Slaves' of a coffee plantation in Berbice.

Stating that the sale of slaves served 'the dishonor of humanity', they added that at the very least the auction should be held off until the National Assembly had given its verdict over the fate of 'those unhappy inhabitants of the Colonies'. However, it should be noted that it was the leading radical from Leiden Pieter Vreede who a year later raised the issue to the level of a national debate.

The National Assembly discussed the question of slavery and the slave trade in two sessions on 22 April and 22 May These deliberations formed part of the intense political conflict over the text of the Batavian Constitution, that held radicals and moderates in a deadlock for the entire year. The same party-divisions influenced the debate on the question whether or not the section on colonies of the Constitution should contain a paragraph on the abolition of slavery and the slave-trade. Pieter Vreede, who led the radical fraction in the National Assembly, was the most outspoken advocate of adopting abolition in the Constitution, while the arch-moderate Schimmelpenninck played a prominent role in opposing Vreede's call.

While Vreede received much support in both sessions, in the end the session of 22 April only sanctioned the erection of a committee that should investigate whether slavery deserved any mention in the Constitution at all, and in the second session one month later a majority of the Assembly voted in line with the report of the committee, that it should not. In contrast to the blunt defense of the slave-trade of , almost to a man those who spoke in the Assembly embraced the call for eventual abolition in theory, while arguing that it was inopportune in practice.

At the end of the second session, the Pieter Vreede exclaimed in frustration 'that shrewd Syrens trumpet the humanity of their hearts, their tender pity, their virtue and love for Religion, but at the same time drown the certainty that the unhappy Slaves will once be free in a sea of political and commercial objections.

The framework of the debate on 22 April was provided by the report of a commission under the leadership of the delegate J. Floh, that had investigated the place that the colonies should have in the new Constitution. The report was representative of the new form in which the state considered colonial policy.

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Of course, within the old Dutch Republic, the possessions in the East- and West-Indies had already been considered as constituting part of the core interests of 'patria', 'the United Provinces' or 'the Commonwealth'. However, colonial policy for the States General had always been primarily a matter of supporting the chartered companies responsible for the management of daily affairs overseas, or of the merchants who depended on the trade in colonial goods.

Direct rule opened up the possibility to consider the long-term development of the colonies as the unmediated concern of the Dutch state, the profits of colonial trade as part of the national fund, and the inhabitants of the colonies - or at least the free part of the population 34 - as citizens with equal rights and obligations. In line with this new approach, the first article of Floh's report stated that the 'agricultural and trading Colonies in the West-Indies are Possessions of the State, Within this framework, the delegates proceeded to discuss the complete silence of Floh's report on slavery and the slave-trade.

Pieter Vreede's statement made clear how much the different parties in the National Assembly shared, despite the concrete difference on the inclusion of a paragraph on slavery in the constitution and the market discrepancy in temperaments. He praised the general principles underlying Floh's report, and its spirit of 'moderation, prudence and healthy statecraft'.

Instead, a commission should formulate a long-term plan to ensure that slavery and the slave trade would 'once' come to an end. During the remainder of the session of 22 April, one opponent of Vreede's proposition after the other started their speeches with a glowing affirmation of his abolitionist sentiments, only to insist that any hint of putting this in a concrete statement of intent would lead to another St.

Domingue, and should therefore be avoided.

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As for me, no-one wishes more ardently than I, that the fate of this unhappy part of humanity in which, despite the difference in color, we recognize our fellow creatures of nature, in all ways should be relieved The name St. Domingo alone should make you think twice. Several other delegates spoke in favor of Vreede's proposal. One of the most noticeable was a representative from the region Brabant, who insisted that since the people of Brabant under the old regime had suffered conditions almost as worst as colonial slavery, they supported this cause with special ardor.

The real crunch of the debate came a month later, when Floh's committee came back with a second report that specifically dealt with the question whether or not the future Constitution should contain any mention of slavery or the slave-trade. Floh, in his opening statement, again emphasized the international aspects of abolition. Interestingly enough, he speculated that abolition of the slave-trade would be a possibility, as long as it would not be done unilaterally.

The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery

However, as long as the British state did not embrace it, prohibiting the import of African slaves in the Dutch colonies would only enhance the present danger of a British take-over of the West-Indian possessions. Domingue, he ended on the conclusion that 'a deliberate silence' would be the best 'middle road' between embracing practical steps towards abolition and explicitly sanctioning the inhumane institution of slavery.

Floh's strategy of not confronting the abolitionist case directly, but embracing it in principle while rejecting any immediate practical consequences proved highly effective. Faced with the salving assurances of the 'shrewd sirens', Vreede launched into a speech that was far more revolutionary than the one with which he had originally raised the issue.

In direct contradiction of his own remarks of 22 April, and of the position of almost all the abolitionists from ruling class circles then and later, he argued that a St. Domingue-type of revolution would be preferable to a continuation of slavery. Although he again repeated that the Danish gradual and highly limited process of abolition was better than the tumultuous French one, he also warned that fear of 'well-deserved retribution' of the white planters could never justify the continuation of the oppression of the far larger black slave population.


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He even quoted Abbey Reynal, saying that 'those who defend Slavery, deserve from the philosopher only deep contempt, and from the negro the thrust of a dagger. More representative of the middle ground that emerged was the position of the influential representative Hahn, who repeated the possibility of abolishing the slave-trade only, after which a long period of education through labor should prepare the African slaves for freedom at an unspecified future date. While historians have rightly taken the disappointing outcome of this debate as proof of the weakness and ineffectiveness of Dutch abolitionism at the time, they have largely left the content of the debate unexamined.

This is unfortunate, since the way in which the moderates of various hues withstood Vreede's charge gives us some important keys to understanding the nature of pro-slavery policies in the decades that followed. Most importantly, this was the first occasion in which Dutch policy makers showed that in the absence of considerable physical force pushing towards abolition 'from below' - such as successful slave-revolution in the French or mass popular mobilization in the British case - Atlantic ruling classes were well capable of absorbing the moral rhetoric of abolitionism in a way that remained completely unthreatening for the institution of slavery itself.

Both as a result of the defeat suffered by the few real advocates of abolition in the National Assembly, and of international events that repeatedly cut off relations between the Dutch state and the West-Indian colonies, the question of slavery ostensibly disappeared from the political agenda after Between and , all the Dutch colonies on the Guyana coast and in the Dutch Antilles were taken over by the British.

For the years , the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database lists the arrival of 24, slaves on ships with Suriname as the principal destination, of which 22, came on non-Dutch mostly British, but also North-American and Danish vessels. The lack of realism of proposals to restore the Dutch slave trade given the new international power-relations, did not stop pro-slavery conservatives from formulating them at various points in the run up to the Royal decree. In , the Batavian executive discussed several requests from slave-traders to make possible the resumption of the trade.

The first secretary in Elmina on the Gold Coast sent a long treatise to the Ministry of the Colonies to argue that the slave-trade was indispensable for the maintenance of the West-Indian possessions. His apology of the trade was formulated in terms that hardly differed from those that he had entertained in the late s. He further expressed great confidence, based on North-American and British precedents, that a substantial illegal trade would continue unabated after abolition.

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Another group of colonial advisers, however, formulated proposals that were more in tune with the spirit of the times. These 'modernizers' accepted the inevitability of the abolition of the slave-trade and even the eventual abolition of slavery itself, but argued that in the meantime slavery should be reorganized in a way that would be profitable both for the planters in the colonies and for the mother country.

In doing so, they could build on a growing literature stemming from the West Indies that discussed improvements in plantation management that could render slavery more sustainable and increase production levels. The most influential among the modernizers were Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, a key figure in the restauration of the Kingdom with strong colonial antecedents, and Johannes van den Bosch, who in the late s would become the Commissary-General of the Dutch West-Indies and also helped to design the forced-labor based Cultivation System for the East-Indies.

Of these two, Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp had the most favorable predisposition towards the abolition of slavery itself. In an advise on the slave trade presented by him in Parliament in December , he argued that the decline of the slave trade had forced planters in Mexico, New-Granada, Venezuela and other Caribbean countries to find new and more productive ways to produce despite a declining number of slaves. He also pointed to the increases of production in Dutch Java, were no field-slaves were used. On the basis of these experiences, he argued that although many of the slave plantations in Suriname suffered from declining profitability, it would be possible to revive production by concentrating the existing slave-force in newly colonized areas along the coast.

In combination with policies to discourage planters to 'work the negroes to death', he speculated that the slave population could even increase through natural growth. Whereas Van Hogendorp sought the answer to the problem of a declining slave-population within Suriname itself, Van den Bosch sought to counter it through a grant imperial vision. In his global overview of the state of the Dutch colonialism, also published in , he compiled an impressive number of statistics to prove the increased importance of the colonies, including those in the Guyanas, for the Dutch state and economy.

This would serve the dual purpose of stimulating 'natural growth' of the slave-population to compensate for the abolition of the slave-trade, and 'preparing' the slaves for a gradual abolition of slavery if circumstances would make this inevitable. One of the elements of this was to transplant unprofitable sectors of colonial production across the globe, from Suriname to Java. More creatively, however, he also suggested another form of transplantation in the opposite direction: the mass transportation of Javanese prisoners to work on Surinamese plantations. According to Van den Bosch, the 'natural inclination' of the Asians to theft would provide the Dutch state with about thousand people yearly, who could be forced to work on the plantations for several years on end.

This would have the dual advantage of removing unruly elements from Java, while supplying hands that were 'very suitable for the sugar and coffee culture' of Suriname. The plantation regime would prevent them from returning to their former defiant behavior. In their actual policies towards the implementation of slave-trade abolition, the Dutch crown and colonial ministry steered a middle course between the demands of the conservatives and the visions of the modernizers.

William I published his decree without a hint of protest, but his government then continued at an excruciatingly slow pace to take the measures that should ensure that the ban on the trade became effective. Van Stipriaan calculated that between and , Throughout the twists and turns created by the delaying tactics of the anti-slave trade policies pursued by the Dutch King and colonial ministry after , there never was a lack of 'shrewd sirens' to sing their praises. Only five representatives voted against the abolition Law when it was finally brought to the floor in November One of those, the representative Nagelmaekers, opened his speech with the following glowing endorsement of the spirit of the time:.

Je l'adopte avec un sentiment bien vif de reconnaissance envers S. While Dutch historians have generally recognized the lack of genuine abolitionist sentiments behind such utterances, they have so far failed to note the underlying shift that took place in the nature of pro-slavery arguments in the quarter century between the debate on slave-trade protection of and the King's abolition decree of No grassroots abolitionist movement emerged in the Netherlands during those years, but the rhetoric employed in discussing the matter of slavery and the slave-trade still deeply reflected the advances made by anti-slavery campaigning internationally.

This became most visible during the debates in the National Assembly, where largely anti-abolitionist representatives fully embraced the moral righteousness of the anti-slavery cause, only to emphasize the dangers of acknowledging this in even the most vague terms in the future Constitution. Dutch anti-slavery sentiments in these years thus represented not so much a dog that did not bark, but one that did not bite. Left to work out the consequences of the increasing international pressures to abolish the slave trade without 'interference' of mass protests, conservative proponents of slavery pushed their tactics to slow down and undermine the process, while modernizers thought out ways to keep the slave-colonies profitable once the trade ended.

In many ways, it was the 'modernizers' of , not the colonial conservatives, who were the real heirs of the majority. They considered the question of slavery not primarily as one of protection of a narrow West-Indian interest, but as integral part of a wider colonial policy in the interest of the national economy of the mother country.

They engaged intensely with international developments and carefully studied the experiences of other slave-based colonies. On this basis, they proved fully capable of combining acceptance of the paternalist humanitarianism of abolitionism from above with a practical perspective geared towards increasing the long-term viability of slavery. That under such intellectual guidance the Dutch government in the decades following the abolition of the slave-trade exhibited little interest in moving towards the abolition of slavery itself was not the result of neglect, but of intent.

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