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Suppressing the Slave Trade

The medallion that became an icon of the antislavery movement.
(Picture courtesy of the Wedgwood Museum Trust, Barlaston, Staffordshire)
The medallion that became an icon of the antislavery movement. (Picture courtesy of the Wedgwood Museum Trust, Barlaston, Staffordshire)

Introduction

In 1807, Great Britain abolished its slave trade. Parliament’s decision was made in response to strong public feeling, at a time when Britain had by far the largest share of what was an extremely profitable trade, and in spite of fears of the damage that might be done to the prosperity of cities like Bristol and Liverpool, and to British colonies in the West Indies.  It was also a time when Britain possessed the largest and most powerful navy in the world, fresh from the Battle of Trafalgar, practised and efficient. 

Within three years, the slave trade under the British flag had been effectively suppressed; and the resilience of the British economy was proving itself as traders quickly adapted to a changing world.  If one trade was closed to them, Britain now commanded the seas, and the ending of the Napoleonic Wars opened up ample markets for British enterprise.

The withdrawal of Britain from the slave trade was not enough to halt it, or even substantially reduce its volume, since other countries were quick to step in. Public opinion demanded stronger action, and it became the settled policy of the British government to bring an end to the slave trade worldwide.  The Royal Navy was to be its principal instrument in this campaign, but the Navy had no legal right in peacetime to intercept the ships of any other nation. Only piracy put a ship outside the protection of international law, for pirates were ‘hostis humani generis’ - at war with all mankind.  With many nations agreeing on the evils of the slave trade, if not necessarily of slavery itself, the obvious solution was to obtain an international convention equating slave trading with piracy, allowing the warships of any nation to attack slave traders, or stop and search suspected ships. 

Britain made the slave trade a major issue at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but some countries were unwilling to give up the slave trade and others were suspicious of British motives in desiring the right of search, fearing that Britain would use it to confirm her maritime supremacy, harass traders of others nations and give advantage to her own. 

British diplomats began the long process of negotiating individual treaties with other European powers and with local rulers in Africa, which would give the Royal Navy the authority to intercept suspected slavers; and the Royal Navy settled into one of the longest and hardest campaigns in its history.  It would take two generations, much effort, and much suffering to put an end to the transatlantic slave trade, and considerably longer to all but eradicate it worldwide.