The Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade

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An essay on the Subject of Slavery

Submitted: March 17, 2010

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Submitted: March 17, 2010



Slavery: The state of being a slave, the ownership of one person by another or the practice of owning slaves.
Freedom: The right to act, think and speak freely.
But what was it that brought these two things together, things that seemed so far apart to the slaves? What was it that made people unite and abolish slavery? In this essay, I intend to explain...
The practice of Slavery goes back to ancient times, when the Sumerians, Egyptians, Romans and Greeks kept slaves. From the 15th century, a huge slave trade developed, when Europeans began capturing Africans for profit, and shipping them across the sea to work in European colonies. This trade in human beings lasted until the 19th Century, and greatly affected African and American Cultures. Today, slavery is illegal, although it still exists in some parts of the world.
Firstly though, I shall start by answering the question ‘What was the Slave Trade?’ The Slave Trade was a ‘business’ during the 16th and 17th Century, which involved the importation of slaves to be used in the plantations in the West Indies. This trade was called ‘The Trade Triangle’, and went in this order: Britain, Africa, West Indies, Britain, Africa...etc. A diagram is shown below.
As can be seen, firearms, cloth, salt and many other items were shipped from the West Indies to Africa, where they were swapped, or traded, for slaves, sometimes handed over by the chief of the tribe himself, who were then taken along the ‘Middle Passage’, which stretches across the Atlantic Ocean. After the Middle Passage, the slave ships reached the West Indies, where the slaves were traded for exotic goods like rum and sugar. These were then taken back to Britain, completing the triangle.
It all sounds all cosy and adventurous, but don’t be fooled. The slaves weren’t treated as human beings, but like goods. In one case of a slave ship called Zong, some ill slaves were thrown overboard...still alive. When the slaves arrived in the West Indies, things didn’t get much better. Their old name was taken away, and they were given a new first name and their surname was changed to the company’s name (So if a firm was called Smith’s, the slave would have the surname Smith). Slaves, once bought, were worked as much as possible, and worked from 5:30 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening...unless it was harvest season, in which case they were worked through the night. (To see a diary-style account of a day in the life of a slave, turn to the back page).
So now I move onto the main subject, which is stated in the title. How and why was slavery abolished? There are four main reasons that Historians can agree on- white middle-class protests, white working-class protests, black protests and economic reasons. I shall attempt to cover these in the next few paragraphs.
White Middle-Class Protesters
The white middle-class protesters consisted of many different people, some in Parliament, and some with other high positions. There is one in particular who is recognised, called William Wilberforce, who campaigned against slavery in Parliament, but he wasn’t the only one. Many other middle-class people fought to abolish slavery, such as Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp, who together persuaded Wilberforce to bring up the matter in Parliament. Granville Sharp first began his fight against slavery in 1765, when he befriended an escaped slave named Jonathan Strong. Strong unfortunately was spotted by his former slave owner, who tried to sell him back to the West Indies’ plantations. Sharp took the case to court, and won, meaning Strong was free. This inspired Granville Sharp to continue to fight for slaves in court, and the number of wins piled up. He then continued aiding slaves until 1787, when he met Thomas Clarkson, who had published a prize-winning essay on whether it was lawful or not to make slaves of humans or not, in 1786. Together, they formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which not only persuaded William Wilberforce to bring up slavery in Parliament, but persuaded other governments to as well. Thomas Clarkson went around the country, gathering evidence from sailors, and collecting visual aids such as handcuffs and branding irons.
White Working-Class Protesters
These unfortunate people are usually forgotten, but it is worthwhile to remember that these people, although paid, were paid very little, worked in terrible conditions, and were no better off than slaves. This therefore gave the white working-class peoples of Britain something to relate to, and therefore took the opportunity to protest. Their bosses couldn’t do anything about it, as the protests were not about their own working conditions, so therefore they couldn’t affect him.
Black Protesters
It wasn’t just white people that struggled for the abolishment of Slavery-believe it or not, the enslaved had a go as well! One person stood out above the rest for me, though: Olaudah Equiano. Life started off for Olaudah in the Eboe Province (South Nigeria), where he and his sister were kidnapped and sold into slavery when they were 11 years old. They were then taken across the Atlantic Ocean to Barbados, and then to Virginia. While there, he was sold to Michael Pascal, a Navy Officer who after renaming Olaudah ‘Gustavus Vassa’ (16th Century Swedish King), teaching him to read and write, and spending eight years sailing with him, sold him on to the prominent merchant Robert King. Equiano then managed to buy his own freedom, by trading alongside King. After travelling the world as a free man for twenty years, Olaudah became involved in the protests against slavery. He also became a member of the ‘Sons of Africa’, who were 12 black former slaves campaigning against slavery. In 1789, he published his autobiography, which was ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African' which, I think you’ll agree, is short, snappy and to the point. (!) His example encouraged many other slaves to revolt, especially in Haiti, where they managed to completely overthrow the plantation there. Other plantation owners, who had heard the news, lived in fear that their slaves may have got the same idea.
Economic Reasons
Finally, I come to the economic reasons of why slavery was abolished. A simple fact loomed over the slave traders, one which happens to all businesses. It simply wasn’t bringing in the money that it used to. Sugar, for example, could be bought for a cheaper price in Brazil, and other exotic goods had befallen the same fate. It was also cheaper to get goods straight, without having to go to Africa, then the West Indies, then back to Britain again. It was simply cheaper without the slaves.
So there you have it. Thanks to all the people stated in this piece, and more, the slave trade was abolished in 1807, and slavery itself a little while after that. Some slaves chose to stay in Britain, some journeyed back to their homelands...either way, it was over. Slavery was dead. This is the exact message that a priest in Britain preached at midnight mass on the night of the abolishment of the slave trade. He held an outdoor funeral service for ‘the beast’ (slavery). At around half past eleven, he announced, “The beast is dying”. When the clock struck twelve, he announced, “The beast is dead!”. The congregation then tossed into the grave hand-cuffs, chains and branding irons...all things linked with slavery. The implements were then buried, still buried underground to this day.
Unfortunately, although slavery was abolished back then, things as near to slavery as makes no difference are still going on throughout the world. An example of this is the sweatshops of India, where children are forced to work in hot, dangerous conditions for long hours, forced not by the manufacturer, but by the fact that the money is needed to be able to buy food. The children, therefore, have no choice but to go to work in these sweatshops, meaning that they cannot go to school to get an education, which would mean a better job. This traps the family in a vicious circle, from which there is no escape.
From this information, I believe that slavery hasn’t been thwarted just yet, but we must look at the progress that we have made. For example, we now have a black person as the most powerful man in the world (President of the USA, in case you hadn’t realised), something which would have given most people a heart attack if even thought of back in the days of the slave trade.
In Britain today the government continues to take forward a range of actions to address the legacy of and contemporary issues associated with slavery.
There are clear links between the concerns for justice that were present 200 years ago, and our ongoing concerns to tackle present-day discrimination in Britain and forms of slavery - such as people trafficking, recruitment of child soldiers and bonded labour - which persist in many parts of the world. Although many black and minority ethnic communities are thriving in Britain today, inequalities in terms of racism and discrimination, social exclusion and lack of opportunities still exist. Poverty and inequality in the African continent, the Caribbean and elsewhere continue to make people vulnerable to slavery and exploitation. 
It is therefore necessary to not only ‘look back with pride, but to also look forward with ambition’(James Aston-5th February 2010)-the ambition to end slavery for good.

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