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Fighting on the Moral Ground

A contributor to the debate 
(Picture courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London)
A contributor to the debate (Picture courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London)

The Royal Navy’s early success in suppressing the British slave trade was quick and dramatic, but the slave trade was hydra-headed. As British ships withdrew from the trade, others were quick to take their place – first the French, and then the Spanish and the Portuguese.  As one slave depot on the coast of Africa was driven out of business, another would spring up a little further away. By the end of the 1830s the Navy found itself facing opposition in Parliament as well as at sea.  Those opponents were not now slave owners or slave traders, but philanthropists, who feared that the use of force might be rescuing a few slaves, but was increasing the suffering of many more, with little hope of ultimate victory. 

In 1839 Joseph Sturge founded the British & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, opposing the use of force in suppressing the traffic.  Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, who had succeeded William Wilberforce as leader of the anti-slavery movement in the House of Commons, was also Anti-Coercionist (a useful term coined by a historian named Mathieson), having come to believe that only establishing alternative legitimate trades and spreading western ideas of civilisation would cut off the supply of slaves from the interior of Africa.  Buxton's scheme of starting settlements on the Niger proved a failure, but helped rouse opposition to the naval campaign, on the highest of moral grounds.

Naval surgeon Alexander Bryson summed up the problem:
"It is a consideration of even more unqualified regret, that, notwithstanding all that has been done, notwithstanding the vast loss of health and life, years of banishment, and mental waste endured by a large proportion of the naval service, it is clearly evident that we have only added to its horrors, and rendered not only the 'horrors of the middle passage' more dreadful, but have made, within the last ten years, the period of detention one of indescribable suffering also; for since the treaty authorizing the capture of vessels fitted for the trade came into operation, together with the increase of the squadron, and the employment of steam, whole cargoes of these unfortunate creatures have actually been so long detained on the beach, that the provisions destined for their support having become exhausted, they have been left to die of starvation and disease, or, as it is reported, have been shot down, if compelled by hunger to straggle into the bush.  In addition to all these miseries, it not unfrequently happens that they are hurriedly driven from place to place along the coast during the night as the cruisers shift their ground, or as opportunities offer for their embarkation, by which they suffer the greatest privations and no small amount of diabolical treatment from their inhuman masters, while they contract diseases which subsequently carry them off in vast numbers during the voyage.  What between their vendors, buyers, and protectors, their case is indeed much to be pitied."

It was notable during the debate that although few people saw the sufferings of the slaves at closer quarters than the officers of the African Squadron, their reaction was not that it would be better to withdraw.  It made them more determined to succeed in stamping out the trade. 

John Bright, a Quaker and a forceful opponent of slavery, nevertheless referred to the campaign against the slave trade as a ‘benevolent crotchet’.  It was costing diplomatic capital – very early in the long campaign Castlereagh remarked bitterly: “Nothing effectual will be done [towards suppressing the slave trade], which Great Britain does not pay for, so strongly is this expectation of turning it to profit with us gone abroad.”  It was costing financial capital – Britain did indeed pay heavily in ‘subsidies’ to other European countries to induce them to give up or at least curtail their trade in slaves; somewhat less to numerous chiefs on the African coast for the same purpose; vast sums to its own slave-owners in the West Indies to purchase the freedom of their slaves in 1833; more again to meet the costs of maintaining a squadron on the coast of Africa.  It has been estimated that great as was the wealth generated by the slave trade  in the half century before 1807, the costs of suppressing it added up to a similar sum:¹ “.. by any more reasonable assessment of profits and direct costs, the nineteenth-century costs of suppression were certainly bigger than the eighteenth-century benefits.”  Above all, the campaign was costing the lives of British seamen: a sacrifice that might be worth making to put an end to the slave trade, but a sacrifice wasted if the only result was further suffering for many of the trade’s victims. 

Nevertheless, when the evidence had all been taken, the arguments heard, and the debating finished, Parliament’s final decision was clear and definite: the campaign should continue.  No one then could have known how close they were to success.

¹Economic growth and the ending of the transatlantic slave trade by David Eltis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)  ISBN 0-19-504135-6 
An exceptional account of the economic history, vital to understanding the naval history, and showing the immense financial cost entailed in suppressing the slave trade.  Builds on and to some extent revises earlier statistical studies.