Modern history


The Gauntlet Had Been Thrown Down

“The matter had now become serious. The gauntlet had been thrown down and accepted. The combatants had taken their station, and the contest was to be renewed, which was on the great theatre of the nation.”

Thomas Clarkson, History, vol. II

THE PEACE CONFERENCE between the new United States and Britain was held in Paris. Benjamin Franklin was the first United States negotiator. Though he was much involved in business throughout his life, and though he once advertised the sale of slaves in his newspaper, he had become a firm opponent of the slave trade, if not yet of slavery itself.I His British counterpart was David Hartley, the dull member of Parliament who had first raised the matter of the abolition of the slave trade in the House of Commons. But the deputies of these negotiators included two old partners in the slave trade, Henry Laurens of Charleston, and Richard Oswald of London (and Bence Island). Since his withdrawal from the slave trade, Laurens had been president of the Continental Congress. Oswald, chosen for his riches and knowledge of America, was a merchant with whom Laurens had often traded slaves, and had become the intimate adviser of the prime minister, Lord Shelburne (to whom, curiously enough, he had been presented by his fellow Glaswegian, Adam Smith). Oswald had looked after Laurens’s children when they boarded in London, had worked for Laurens’s release when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1781, and had even speculated in land in east Florida with Franklin (to whom he seemed a “truly good man”).1

The association between Laurens and Oswald at opposite sides of the table at the famous peace conference of 1783 in Paris is a symbolic association in the history of the eighteenth century. Both men were Atlantic dealers, men whose activity was not limited to one country, and both had much to lose from a separation of North America from Britain, and even more from a bad peace marking that separation.

With this sponsorship of the peace, it is scarcely surprising that the slave trade should afterwards revive as if nothing had happened. A member of a large firm in Nantes, Chaurand Frères (it fitted out eleven slavers between 1778 and 1790), understandably wrote, in 1782: “The slave trade is the only branch of commerce which presents perspectives of profit. The need of the colonies for slaves is so great that they will always be received with pleasure.”2

The new Otaheite cane from the South Seas seemed a prescription for revived success even in old sugar plantations, and there was already talk of how James Watt and Matthew Boulton’s new Birmingham-made steam engines could simplify the business of boiling the sugar. This trade in slaves led to the production not just of sugar, but also of coffee. Saint-Domingue exported about twelve million tons of those benign beans a year in the late 1760s, and was selling over seventy-two million by 1789. In the 1780s, the consumption of coffee by the French increased in proportion to their interest in political freedom.

British business and British politicians, too, seem to have had no doubt about the importance of the slave traffic. In 1787, the Board of Trade would be told that the British probably carried thirty-eight thousand slaves from Africa that year.

In North America, despite disapproving legislation, merchants were dealing in slaves with more energy than ever. This was the era in particular of the rise of Bristol, Rhode Island, which began to replace the old dominating harbor, Newport, which took some time to recover from occupation by the British for two years. Several slave ships also left Boston in these years for Africa with “positive orders to take slaves only.” The tall figure of Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins of that city had recently established a good business selling slaves in Saint-Domingue. Baltimore merchants (Samuel and John Smith, William van Wyck, John Hollins, Stewart and Plunkett) were also all busy buying (and selling) slaves in the West Indies, as well as landing cargoes in Charleston.

It is true that, in all the big slaving nations, people had begun to talk of abolition, but the concern seemed confined to unorthodox sects, such as the Quakers in Britain and North America, and intellectuals in France. Few anxieties troubled the slaving princes in Madrid, Lisbon, and Rio de Janeiro. Still, there were some disquieting signs. The success of the Abbé Raynal’s book was disturbing; and even in New England, Moses Brown of Providence, as a young man himself active in the family firm of Nicholas Brown, which had sent ships to Africa for slaves, wrote discouraging words to the merchants Clarke and Nightingale, of the same city, after he had heard that they were thinking of moving into the promising new slave trade with Cuba. He wanted them not to do so: “As I have entertained a respectful opinion of your humanity . . . and remembering how it was for me, when our company were engaging in that traffic that, altho’ the convictions of my own conscience were such as to be averse to the voyage, yet in reasoning on that subject with those who were for pursuing it, my holding slaves [myself] . . . weakened the arguments [he had since freed his slaves], that I suffered myself, rather than break my connexions, to be concerned but, as I have many times since thought that, if I had known the sentiments of others, or had their concurring testimonies to those scruples [which] I then had, I should have been preserved from an evil, which has given me the most uneasiness, and has left the greatest impression and stain upon my own mind of any, if not all my other conduct in life. . . . Under these considerations, I felt some engagement for your preservation from so great an evil as I have found that trade to be. . . . You are men of feelings, and abilities to live without this trade, why then should you be concerned in it against your own—against the feelings of your friends . . . ?”3

But, despite this appeal, Clarke and Nightingale entered the trade, believing, like many other established firms, that the high risks were acceptable, especially if they carried slaves bought in Africa direct to Havana; and the beautiful yellow-painted clapboard house which Nightingale built in Ower Street, next to John Brown’s brick mansion, remains to remind the modern visitor of his financial success. John Brown himself was engaged in a ferocious argument with his brother and others on behalf of the slave traders; and it was no secret that the anonymous polemicist in favor of the slave trade, “A Citizen,” was none other than that substantial merchant.

Still, the intellectual preparation for abolition continued. Among some in England, after the loss of the American colonies, antislavery became a “means to redeem the nation, a patriotic act.” In 1781, for example, William Cowper published his poem “Charity,” which, inspired by his friend John Newton—the repentant slave captain, by then vicar of Saint Mary’s Woolnoth, in London—denounced the slave merchant who “grows rich on cargoes of despair”:

Canst thou, and honour’d with a Christian name,

Buy what is woman-born, and feel no shame?

Trade in the blood of innocence, and plead

Expedience as a warrant for the deed . . . ?

Cowper at that time had, however, little renown, though later the wide distribution of his works would make him almost as well known as the once ultra-popular James Thomson.

When peace returned after 1783, the persistent though now septuagenarian Anthony Benezet revived his campaign by correspondence. He had some remarkable successes. For example, he persuaded Benjamin West, the fashionable American painter who was president of the Royal Academy in England, to present a letter on the subject, with some pamphlets, to Queen Charlotte, though what that solid Mecklenburg matron made of the documents is apparently unrecorded. No doubt she passed them on to her husband, the king, who never permitted sentiment to hamper his support of the trade.

Opinion in both Britain and North America was next affected by the case brought in 1783 relating to the Liverpool slaveship Zong. The Zong’s master was Luke Collingwood, and it was owned by William Gregson and George Case, who were well-known merchants of Liverpool (of which city both partners had been mayors).II This ship sailed in September 1781 with 442 slaves from São Tomé. Collingwood mistook Jamaica for Saint-Domingue. Once they had lost the way, water became short. Many slaves died or became ill. Collingwood called together his officers and said that, if the slaves on board were to die naturally, the loss would be that of the owners of the ship; but if, on some pretext affecting the safety of the crew, “they were thrown alive into the sea, it would be the loss of the underwriters.” The first mate, a certain Kelsall, thought that “there was no present want of water to justify such a measure.” But the opinion of Collingwood prevailed, and 133 slaves, most of whom were sick and not likely to live, were flung into the sea. Fifty-four were thrown overboard on November 29, forty-two the next day and, despite the coming of rain (which alleviated the shortage of water), twenty-six on December 1; while another ten jumped of their own accord.

A case deriving from this scandal came to court in 1783, since the insurers (Gilbert et al.) disagreed with the captain’s judgments about the finances, and refused to pay anything to the owners. The latter brought a suit against the insurers, demanding to be paid thirty pounds for each slave, and were backed by the King’s Bench, whereupon the underwriters petitioned the Court of Exchequer. Lord Mansfield, still lord chief justice, allowing a second trial, remarked: “The matter left to the jury was whether it was from necessity [that the slaves were thrown into the sea]; for they had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” By the time of the trial, Captain Collingwood was dead. The barrister for the owners argued, “So far from a charge of murder lying against these people, there is not the least imputation—of cruelty, I will not say—but [even] of impropriety.” The persistent Granville Sharp, all the same, tried to “prose cute the murders” before the Court of Admiralty, but failed: the solicitor-general John Lee deplored his “pretended appeal to humanity,” and declared that a master could drown slaves without “a surmise of impropriety.”4, III

By then Sharp was considered a person of consequence and, as a result of his and Benezet’s fruitful correspondence, he had by now the support of most of the bishops of England in his campaign against slavery. He accordingly sent a copy of the proceedings of this trial to both the new (short-lived) prime minister, the duke of Portland, and the Lords of the Admiralty. Sharp heard nothing from these grandees but, as usual, he was not cast down by the apparent setback.

Such events as the massacre on the Zong had occurred before, but now there was much more concern about the question of slavery. Thomas Day, the eccentric rationalist, had already composed a poem, The Dying Negro, which denounced the inconsistency of the North Americans in fighting for liberty while maintaining slavery. Now he wrote a “Letter on the Slavery of the Negroes,” making the same point in a more coherent way.5 The bishop of Chester, Dr. Beilby Porteus, preached a sermon before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel adjuring them to free the slaves on the Codrington properties.IV (The bishop knew what he was talking about, having been the eighteenth child of a Virginia planter who had returned to England.) A famous polemical divine, Dr. George Gregory, also included a bitter denunciation of the slave trade, in the manner of Raynal, in his Essays Historical and Moral. (He, too, wrote from experience, having been a clerk to the Liverpool alderman and merchant A. Gore.)

From then on, the case against the slave trade came to be stated in England with ever-greater effectiveness, by a whole new school of active polemicists and theologians. The enemies of slavery were in touch with one another, and could boast of some successes. Thus, in 1783, a bill was introduced into the House of Commons forbidding officials of the Royal African Company from selling slaves—a motion which caused the ever-active Society of Friends to submit a passionate appeal for a general prohibition on the commerce (Sir Cecil Wray introduced the appeal). Lord North, the amiable home secretary at this time, accepted the spirit in which this document was presented, but said that it was impossible to abolish the trade, since it was “necessary to every country in Europe.”6 That year, 1783, was the last in which the Liverpool Quaker timber firm of Rathbone and Son supplied timber for the Africa trade—for the third voyage of Thomas and William Earle’s ship, the Preston. The Rathbones thereafter became one of a small group of abolitionists in Liverpool.

Next year, 1784, the first petition to the House of Commons was presented by a municipality, the city of Bridgwater, in favor of an end of the slave trade. At about the same time, Dr. James Ramsay published two pamphlets, first, the Essay on the Conversion and Treatment of the African Slaves and, second, An Enquiry into the Effects of the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Ramsay, born near Aberdeen, had been a naval surgeon; his vessel encountered a slave ship on which an epidemic of plague was raging. Ramsay went on board, saw the terrible conditions in which the slaves were living, and resolved to do what he could for them. Injury obliged him to seek work onshore, and he became a clergyman on the tiny but prosperous island of Saint Kitts, where several thousand slaves were at work making sugar. Ramsay spent nineteen years there, in the course of which he made himself hated by the planters because of his sermons (an echo of Fray Antonio de Montesinos so long before in Santo Domingo) which denounced both slavery and the slave trade. He then returned to England, to take up a living in Kent, at the village of Teston, where his old naval captain—Sir Charles Middleton, now a retired admiral, a member of Parliament and an agriculturalist (an innovator in the cultivation of hops)—had a property.

Ramsay’s arguments were curious, since he admired the discipline of sugar plantations, such as those he had seen on Saint Kitts, and liked the relation of master and servant which had often marked them. But he thought that slavery inspired a society “where power becomes right.” His support for the cause of abolition was important for, up till then, the most active opponents of slavery, such as Sharp or Benezet, had had no personal experience of the West Indies.

Publications in France, where there was no censorship on matters relating to slavery (even if there was in respect of criticisms of the Church), were making much the same points. The Swiss economist Jacques Necker, just dismissed as minister of finance in France, included, in his highly successful study of the country’s finances, a scathing account of “how we preach humanity yet go every year to bind in chains twenty thousand natives of Africa.” That essay sold twenty-four thousand copies in a very short time.7(All the same, a slave ship bearing that minister’s name would go to Africa from Nantes in 1789, and two others also named Necker left Le Havre and Bordeaux in 1790.)

Benezet—now old, his work of bringing the enemies of slavery together in a working alliance almost done—published yet another pamphlet, The Case of Our Fellow Creatures, the Oppressed Africans. Over ten thousand copies of this were published, and the English Quakers, who had by now formed a special committee to discuss ways of enlightening the public mind about the slave trade, distributed copies to members of the House of Commons.V Whenever Quakers met, they now talked of the iniquity of the trade; and, profiting from the general mood of tolerance in Britain, they made it their business to lecture at influential schools: Westminster, Winchester, Harrow, Charterhouse, Saint Paul’s, and Eton, for example.

The climate in Britain with respect to the slave trade was now transformed in a special way. In 1785, the eminent divine Dr. William Paley published his Moral Philosophy, based on his lectures at Cambridge, which included a condemnation of the slave trade in severe terms. As with Dr. Gregory’s pamphlet on the matter, the tone was that of the violent Abbé Raynal, not the ironic Montesquieu. This book, as Thomas Clarkson later wrote, “was adopted early by some of the colleges in our universities into the system of their education . . . [and] found its way also into most of the private libraries of the kingdom.”8 That same year, Clarkson himself, son of a headmaster at Wisbech in the Isle of Ely, a clever and determined graduate of Cambridge, then aged twenty-four, and intended for the Church (his prospects were brilliant, he himself recalled later), won a famous Latin essay prize at his university on the subject of whether it was lawful to make men slaves against their will. The subject (“Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?”)had been chosen by the vice-chancellor, Dr. Peter Peckard, a Whig theologian who, in a recent sermon at Saint Mary’s Church, had talked of slavery as a crime. To prepare for the essay, Clarkson read Benezet’s Historical Account of Guinea and papers made available by a recently deceased slave trader whom he had known. Seeking to get the prize essay published in English, Clarkson went to London. On the way, at Wades Mill—near Ware, in Hertfordshire—he experienced a revelation: “If the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” Clarkson took the essay to a Quaker bookshop run in London by James Phillips. Phillips (whose mother, Catherine, had preached the Quaker message throughout the unpromising territory of Carolina) published Clarkson’s work, as An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species; and he introduced Clarkson to many others (such as Dr. Ramsay; William Dillwyn, Benezet’s pupil; and Granville Sharp) who, from different perspectives, were determined to destroy slavery. Clarkson was surprised to learn of the work on the subject close to his heart which had been done by these men. With this meeting, inspired by a Quaker bookseller, of the disparate members of the abolitionist movement in London, the campaign against the commerce in slaves began in earnest. Clarkson determined to “devote myself to the cause,” even dropping his plans to enter the Church, after talking at length to Dr. Ramsay at Admiral Middleton’s dining table in Kent in the summer of 1786.9

In 1787, a Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in London; Clarkson and his Quaker friends took the lead. Granville Sharp and Ramsay disagreed with the emphasis on the abolition of the trade: they wanted the campaign to deal with slavery too. But the younger, now more energetic, and dedicated Clarkson thought that an end to either the trade or to slavery would finish the other, and his ideas prevailed. He assumed that, if the trade were abolished, planters would immediately take care to look after the slaves well. The abolition of slavery itself would have threatened the institution of property and perhaps, if one remembered how the North American rebellion had begun over taxes, would risk the loss of the British West Indies. This decision was in keeping with the mood of the times; Charles James Fox would tell the House of Commons in 1806, “Slavery itself, odious as it is, is not nearly [so] bad a thing as the slave trade.”10 Further, it was thought open to question whether the British Parliament could legally act on the issue of slavery in the West Indian colonies, each of which had its independent legislature; but it could certainly act with regard to any branch of commerce. The journey of the slave in the trade was rightly seen as the part of his life where he suffered the most.

In retrospect, this plan seems to have been flawed: if the principle of slavery was accepted, the idea of buying slaves could be made to seem logical.

The establishment of Clarkson’s committee marked the transition of what had hitherto been the Quaker cause of abolition into a national, even an international, movement. The emblem of the campaign—skillfully made use of by the master potter Josiah Wedgwood, a committed supporter—was an inspired piece of propaganda, worthy of the Roman Church, or of a modern political party. It consisted of a picture of a chained Negro on bended knee with as legend the question: “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Clarkson was the right man to inspire this movement. He had a nose for both the telling piece of information and for finding the right backing. Thus he gained support in all sorts of circumstances: from the socially influential dandy Benet Langton to the bishop of Chester. Through Ramsay, he had the support of Sir Charles Middleton, who had become Lord Barham and controller of the navy. As a result of the committee’s activity, letters poured in from all parts of the country. Deans and doctors, majors and great businessmen, tutors of colleges, bishops and squires, prebendaries and archdeacons, not to speak of backwoods members of Parliament, such as William Smith of Sudbury, testified their interest.

In May 1787, Clarkson, then aged twenty-seven, met the politician William Wilberforce, a year older than he and, on the urging of Lord Barham, and through the mediation of Benet Langton, asked him to assume the political leadership of the movement for abolition.

Wilberforce, member of Parliament for Hull, where he had a property, was, like Clarkson, a Cambridge graduate, as was his equally young intimate friend, the prime minister, William Pitt.

Wilberforce came from a mercantile family long settled in Hull. That city was not quite unknown as a port in the slave trade, but Wilberforce’s forebears were involved in Baltic commerce. Wilberforce himself was a well-educated and independent man, eloquent, charming, and rich. Madame de Staël once called him “the wittiest converser in England.” Most remarkable, he was as religious in temperament as he was socially successful. On a continental holiday in 1784-85, with a clever divine, Dr. Isaac Milner, president of Queens’ College, Cambridge, he had had a spiritual conversion, prompted by reading the nonconformist Philip Doddridge’s On the Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, one of those influential works whose contemporary success baffles a later age. In 1787, Wilberforce was already a leader of evangelical thought.

Wilberforce had the advantage of a most agreeable voice, for which he was known as “the nightingale of the House of Commons.” He had read Ramsay’s pamphlets, had met the Reverend John Newton, knew Hannah More (the Bristol-born philanthropic playwright), and had concerned himself, if in a superficial way, with the question of slavery. After some hesitation, he agreed to lead the parliamentary side of the abolitionist movement, though not without having consulted Pitt who, with the best brain that has ever graced English politics, became equally convinced of the evil of the slave trade and the desirability of ending it speedily. (Clarkson thought that Wilberforce, before he talked to Pitt in February 1787, had “had but little knowledge of it.”) The critical conversation between the two—the statesman and the parliamentarian, old Cambridge friends, both young men still under thirty—was “at the root of an old tree at Holwood, just above the steep descent into the vale of Keston,” near Croydon. Many serene and pastoral scenes in England had been financed by the efforts of slaves on sugar plantations in the West Indies. Now a tranquil place would in return ultimately inspire a transformation in those islands.

Pitt’s support for the cause may need some explanation. Was it, as was argued by Dr. Eric Williams, that Britain’s economic interests were now concerned with the East, not the West, Indies? Could it be that the West Indies were in decline, after the American War of Independence? Those economic arguments neglect the fact that statesmen are as often influenced by idealism as by ambition. Nor were the West Indies in a poor condition: both imports to, and exports from, the British West Indies were increasing during the 1780s. The British Africa trade was also at its apogee. The British share of the European slave traffic was higher than ever, and many merchants were doing well. Then the portfolios of several outstanding opponents of abolition, such as Pitt’s dear friend Henry Dundas, as well as Alderman Newman, and William Devyanes, included shares in East, not West, Indies trade. All three, indeed, were directors of the East India Company, and the last-named became its chairman. Moral conviction was the determining element in the unusual chapter of British parliamentary history about to begin.

When, on May 24, 1787, Clarkson, the heart and soul of the campaign for abolition, presented the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade with evidence on the unprofitability of the business, he used rational arguments: an end of the traffic would save the lives of seamen (he had obtained much detail from a scrutiny of Liverpool customs records), encourage cheap markets for the raw materials needed by industry, open new opportunities for British goods, eliminate a wasteful drain of capital, and inspire in the colonies a self-sustaining labor force, which in time would want to import more British produce.

Clarkson set himself to gathering further information and spent the autumn of 1787 doing so. Though no one thought that the government would in the foreseeable future introduce a bill for the abolition of the trade, individual members, including officials, were (thanks to the help of Pitt) encouraging, and gave him access to invaluable state documents, including customs papers of the main ports. Clarkson went to Bristol. He described how, on coming within sight of the city, just as night was falling, with the bells of the city’s churches ringing, he “began now to tremble at the arduous task I had undertaken, of attempting to subvert one of the branches of the commerce of the great place which was then before me.” But his despondency lessened, and he entered the streets “with an undaunted spirit.”11 He inspected a slave ship, he talked to seamen, and he met Harry Gandy, a retired (and repentant) sailor who had been on a slave ship; but all retired captains avoided him as if he “had been a mad dog.” The deputy town clerk of Bristol obligingly told him, however, that “he only knew of one captain from the port in the slave trade who did not deserve to be hanged.” Clarkson followed up the case of the murder of a sailor, William Lines, by his own captain. From Quaker informants, Clarkson found evidence of the brutalities committed on a recently returning slaver, the Brothers, whose captain had tortured a free black sailor, John Dean. He received the testimony of a surgeon named Gardiner, about to sail to Africa on the ship Pilgrim. He talked to a surgeon’s mate who had been brutally used on board the slave ship Alfred; and he gained information at first hand of the terrible affair of the Calabar River in 1767.VI He also saw the inns where young men were made drunk, indebted, or both, and then lured to serve as sailors on slavers.

Clarkson went to Liverpool, too. In contrast to his experience in Bristol, Ambrose Lace and Robert Norris, both retired slave captains, did talk to him; the former had commanded the Edgar at the massacre at Calabar twenty years before. Clarkson talked to slave merchants. He held a curious court in his inn, the King’s Arms, at which, by now well informed, he engaged in argument with practitioners of the trade. Here, too, he pursued a murder case: in this instance, the affair of the steward, Peter Green, a flute-player, who had been whipped to death by his captain in the Bonny River with a rope, for no good cause. Clarkson was once threatened with assault on the quay, but his foresight in hiring a retired slave-ship surgeon from Bristol, Alexander Falconbridge, as his assistant and bodyguard preserved him from death.

The activities of these abolitionists secured an interest in France. The worthy Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville—the celebrated writer into whose hands the attackers of the Bastille would deliver the keys of that prison—and Etienne Clavière, who had much money at his disposal from speculation, announced their intention of establishing a society similar to that existing in England, even though, they explained, it might take some time. But Marshal Lafayette, then at the summit of his reputation, gave his support and suggested that a French committee should be formed there and then. Within months, the Société des Amis des Noirs was indeed set up; the enlightened aristocrats, the duke de La Rochefoucauld and the marquis de Condorcet, the traveler Volney, the chemist Lavoisier, and the two most famous radical priests, the Abbé Sieyès and Père Grégoire, all became members. The Swiss pastor of Lyons, Benjamin Frossard, echoing Adam Smith, wrote in a book, La Cause des esclaves nègres, published in 1789, that the slave produced less than the free man, “despite the whip.” But these men did little till visited by Clarkson.VII

The consequence of Clarkson’s agitation in London was that, in February 1788, a committee of the Privy Council was set up to investigate the slave trade. To secure such a committee was a great victory, and Clarkson himself prepared the case for the abolitionists, working with both Pitt and Wilberforce. Some witnesses testified in favor of the trade, several describing at length the benefits to the Africans, while one witness even described the holds of slave ships as “redolent with frankincense.” To Clarkson’s astonishment, one of those whom he had interviewed extensively in Liverpool, and expected to speak on his behalf, the captain and merchant Robert Norris, testified in favor of the trade; no doubt he had been bribed to change his attitude. The main thrust of his argument was the same as had been used so often through the centuries: that the slave trade saved Africans from a worse fate in their own countries. Another witness—Samuel Taylor, one of the biggest Manchester cotton manufacturers—claimed that the value of the goods, principally cotton checks and other East Indian imitations, supplied by his city “for the purchase of Negroes only,” accounted for £180,000 and “employed immediately about 18,000 of His Majesty’s subjects. . . . This manufacture employs a capital of at least £300,000.” He added that about three-fourths of his own trade was in goods for Africa and, with the profits from it, he had “raised and supported a family of ten children.”12 Meantime, the Boston Gazette commented, a little prematurely: “The African trade is come into the House of Commons, it is, of course, to go as soon as come. For to those who make a comprehensive judgement on the subject, how is the argument for the abolition of the slave trade to be maintained?”13 Clarkson, for his part, devoted much attention to the sufferings of the crews on slave ships which, with a sure ear for politics, he believed would be the best argument to move the imagination of the members of both the House of Commons and the Lords.

Simultaneously, the Committee for Abolition began further to arouse “the general moral feeling of the nation” by a wide distribution of pamphlets and books by Benezet, Clarkson, and Ramsay and a study of the slave trade by the Reverend John Newton, as well as the poems The Black Slave Trade by Hannah More, and Cowper’s The Negro’s Complaint. Local abolitionist committees were founded, innumerable high-minded men recruited, and remarkable journeys of inquiry carried out. This was the first major public campaign in any country for a philanthropic cause. That it coincided with celebrations of the centenary of the Glorious Revolution gave a happy sense of good timing.

A proposal was made that a new African colony should be founded to receive some of the freed slaves to be seen in London. These constituted a serious concern, for the West Indian planters would not accept them: they thought that they would stimulate rebellion. Nova Scotia was tried out, but most of the slaves who had been sent there, because they had fought on the side of Britain during the American Revolution, hated the climate. A botanist, Dr. Henry Smeathman, who had spent three years on the islands off the estuary of Sierra Leone, as the guest of Richard Oswald and his associates, proposed that the rivers there, with “their extraordinary temperature and salubrity of the climate,” rendered the place ideal for a colony of freed slaves. A year before, incongruously, he had pronounced the unsuitability of the place as a penal colony: the convicts would die, he thought, at the rate of a hundred a month.

The discrepancy between these two judgments did not disturb Granville Sharp, the most enthusiastic friend of the idea of such a colony, who hoped to found a society free of the evils of a monetary economy. The government agreed to give support. In 1787, just as Clarkson was beginning his campaign, “the Sierra Leone plan” was, therefore, launched: the government gave £12 per African towards the cost of transport, a ship was chartered, the war sloop Nautilus was commissioned as a convoy and, on April 8, the first 290 free black men and forty-one black women, with seventy white women, including sixty prostitutes from London (women “of the lowest sort in ill health and of bad character”), left for Sierra Leone under the command of Captain Thomas Boulden Thompson of the Royal Navy.VIII A stretch of about nine or ten miles by twenty miles, “a fine tract of mountainous country covered with trees of all kinds” between the famous slaving rivers Sherbro and Sierra Leone, in the words of Sharp, was bought for about £60 in goods from the local overlord of the Bulom shore, a Temne chief known to the English as “Tom.” Here, in the expectation of the ever-idealistic Sharp, would be set up a “free settlement,” where “the ancient English frankpledge”IX would be the basis of all regulation. There would be nothing so imperial as a governor: the ruler would be selected by free vote.

Adam Smith had insisted that freemen would work better than slaves. But he was confounded, for malaria, drink, idleness, war with the local Africans, and above all rain ruined this high-minded enterprise. Half the settlers died in the first year. Frankpledge or no, settlers deserted and, worst of all, some went to work for nearby slave dealers. Agriculture did not flourish. From London, Sharp wrote to the settlers: “I could not have conceived that men who were well aware of the wickedness of slave dealing, and had themselves been sufferers (or at least many of them) under the galling yoke of bondage to slave-holders . . . should become so basely depraved as to yield themselves instruments to promote, and extend, the same detestable oppression over their brethren.”14Even Henry Demane, one of the Africans whom Sharp had rescued from slavery by sending a writ of habeas corpus to a vessel already under sail from Portsmouth to Jamaica, became a dealer in slaves.

Worse was to follow. Voltaire, not Burke, would have felt justified. Encouraged by slave traders, who resented the new settlement, King Tom’s successor, “King Jemmy,” gave the settlers three days to leave their town, and then burned down the place (the quarrel occurred because an American slave captain had kidnapped a number of Temnes). The colonists fled and re-established themselves at a new “Granville Town.” A Sierra Leone Company was founded, the directors being leading abolitionists (such as the benign host of the “Clapham Sect,” Henry Thornton, and Wilberforce, Admiral Sir George Young, and Clarkson, as well as Sharp). Over a thousand of the blacks who had been quartered in Nova Scotia went out to Sierra Leone in 1792, with another hundred white people, under the leadership of Lieutenant John Clarkson, a brother of the philanthropist.

Sierra Leone now ceased to be a “province of Freedom” and became a colony under a governor, even if one appointed by Sharp’s committee. Of course, the personality of this official counted for everything. The first to be named was William Dawes, who had been a subaltern of marines at Botany Bay—an experience which suggested somewhat gloomy conclusions for the “hundredors and tithingmen” who, by Granville Sharp’s inspiration still constituted the free society of the frankpledge. But matters changed for the better when, in 1794, Zachary Macaulay—the pompous yet effective and humane son of the minister at Inverary, Argyll, a bookkeeper when young, afterwards a manager on a sugar estate in Jamaica—took command in Sierra Leone, which he enthusiastically reported to be “a more agreeable Montpellier.” His feelings for the sufferings of slaves had been awoken in Jamaica and, on his return across the Atlantic, without humor, taste, or a moment’s relaxation, he devoted the rest of his life to seeking to ameliorate their conditions. But very difficult times continued in Sierra Leone; and, in 1794, a French flotilla, guided by a New York slave trader, Captain Newell, bombarded, then pillaged, the city of Freetown, despite the protest by Macaulay that it was a humanitarian colony. He received the reply: “Citoyen, cela peut bien être, mais encore vous êtes anglais.”15

Zachary Macaulay was a successful governor. He rebuilt the place after the French onslaught, and surrounded himself with interesting men, such as the Swedish botanist Adam Afzelius; the missionary Jacob Grigg, who came to Africa in order to convert the heathen to Christ but died as a slave trader; and John Tilley, who managed a nearby slave factory yet worked with Macaulay as a patriot in times of war. A botanical garden was established, on the initiative of Sir Joseph Banks, in collaboration with the director of the newly founded one in Kew Gardens.

After Macaulay left in 1799, the thriving community which he had built up declined. In 1800, the colony was saved from chaos only by the arrival of a contingent of 550 Jamaican blacks (Maroons), whose ancestors had taken to the hills after the British capture of Jamaica in 1655, and whose independence had long been recognized informally by British governors on the condition that they returned runaway slaves.

Sierra Leone became a full dependency of the Crown in 1808. The Reverend Sydney Smith, the curate of the Whigs, would say later that this colony had always two governors—one who had just arrived and one who had just returned—for the death rate was notable.

• • •

The same year that Clarkson met Wilberforce and Pitt in England, 1787, the new Constitution was signed in the United States, and then adopted, with its odd circumlocutions on the issue of slavery as well as the slave trade.

This famous document delayed a discussion in the new republic on the principle of the slave trade for twenty years. It provided—in article I, section 9—that the “Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year 1808, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” That provision, of course, was intended to apply to slaves as well as immigrants.

The wording meant, on the one hand, that the slave trade received a federal lease of life for twenty years; but, on the other, it did mean that the matter had to be discussed. Many of those who supported the compromise spoke, like James Iredell (author of the famous “Marcus” letters, in favor of the Constitution), of the slave trade as something “which has already continued too long for the honour and humanity of those concerned in it.” (Iredell was the English-born nephew of a merchant of Bristol.) James Wilson, a Scotch-born delegate from Pennsylvania, one of the most influential members of the Constitutional Convention, pointed out that the clause would allow the United States Congress to prohibit the slave trade after 1808. George Lee Turberville, a Virginian planter and friend of Washington, in a private letter to Madison, did refer to the trade at this time as “another great evil”; while Luther Martin of Baltimore thought it absurd that the United States should permit states to continue to carry on “the only branch of commerce which is unjustifiable in its nature and contrary to the rights of mankind.”16

The compromise on slavery occurred because the delegates as a whole, and especially the leaders, agreed with Roger Sherman of Connecticut, the most experienced of those present, who made the simple observation that it was “better to let the southern states import slaves than to part with those states.” The “morality and wisdom” of slavery, declared another delegate from Connecticut, Oliver Ellsworth, a future chief justice of the Supreme Court, “are considerations belonging to the states themselves.” Let every state “import what it pleases,” he continued. The leaders of South Carolina and Georgia had made it evident before that they “would not perhaps otherwise have agreed to the new Constitution.”17

In addition, as had become clear in the “special committee,” with one member from each of the thirteen states, the Northern states were “very willing to indulge the Southern ones at least with a temporary liberty to prosecute the slave trade, provided that they would in their turn gratify them, by laying no restriction on the navigation acts.” Finally, the states which were interested in a continuation of the slave trade were united, whereas the friends of liberty were divided. At that time, the latter were “animated by no very strong and decided anti-slavery spirit with settled aims,” whereas the delegates from Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, as well as those from South Carolina and Georgia, were quite opposed to the inclusion of any philanthropic sentiment in the matter of the slave trade in the Constitution, even though Virginia and Maryland had closed their ports to slaves from Africa in 1778 and 1783 respectively, North Carolina had done the same in 1786, and South Carolina had done so, as an experiment, in 1787.

There was criticism outside the narrow political world which had reached this compromise. Samuel Bryan of Philadelphia, “Sentinel,” wrote in the Quaker Independent Gazetteer that, in the Constitution, “the words, dark and ambiguous . . . are evidently chosen to conceal from Europe that, in this enlightened country, the practice of slavery has its advocates among men in high stations.”18 In The Federalist, James Madison of Virginia replied, in more cautious terms than theretofore: “It ought to be considered a great point gained in favour of humanity that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these states, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy.” He added, quite fairly: “Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppression of their European brethren!”19

There was a good deal of sporadic opposition to this clause of the Constitution. For example, General Thompson of Massachusetts asked: “Shall it be said that, after we have established our own independence and freedom, we make slaves of others?” George Mason, a planter of Virginia, and himself a slaveowner, engaged in an argument with Madison in which he declared himself against allowing the Southern states to enter the Union unless they agreed to discontinue the slave trade. But there was also opposition of a different kind: “Negroes were our wealth, our only natural resource; yet behold how our kind friends in the north were determined soon to tie up our hands and drain us of what we had”! Rawlins Lowndes of South Carolina, who had been born in Saint Kitts, had opposed independence from Britain and now openly opposed a federal constitution.20

The two other clauses of the Constitution which mentioned slavery were also compromises: first the peculiar “three-fifths clause” (article I, section 2, paragraph 3), whereby members of the House of Representatives were to be elected in proportion to the populations of their states, taking into account three-fifths of the slaves who were there; and then the fugitive slave clause. But it was the article on the trade in slaves which excited most attention.

The Constitution did not mean that individual states could not abolish the slave trade or slavery itself before 1808; and several more soon did so, in their own fashion. Thus New Jersey abolished slavery, and even imposed a duty on slaves who had been brought into the state since 1776. Moses Brown, Samuel Hopkins, and the Quakers of Rhode Island petitioned the legislators of that state to end the slave traffic and, to their surprise, a bill prohibiting the residents of the state from participating in it was passed. In 1788, as a result of more Quaker pressure, the legislature of Massachusetts also passed an act “to prevent the slave trade.” Its preamble denounced the “lust for gain” of those engaged in the “unrighteous commerce.” Connecticut abolished the trade in 1788, the prime mover being the theologian Jonathan Edwards Junior, at that time pastor of the White Haven Church at New Haven, an ally of the abolitionists of Rhode Island nearby: that was necessary if the prohibition in Rhode Island was to have a chance since, if there had been no prohibition in the next-door state, the Bristol and Providence slavers could easily have moved their business there. New York also abolished the trade in 1788. Even Virginia declared that illegally imported slaves were free. Delaware prohibited African slavery and imposed a fine of £500 per slave imported. Pennsylvania did the same, raising the fine to £1,000.

Nobody thought that these prohibitions would be easily put into practice. The intermeshing of state and federal law was poor. The issue was bedeviled by problems of jurisdiction. A debate in Charleston on the import of slaves into South Carolina in 1785 had also suggested the kind of resistance to the very idea of abolition which would be met in North America at the local level: John Rutledge, the most gifted leader in South Carolina, and later chief justice of the state, proclaimed, unequivocally, that he “had been of opinion, for many years, that Negroes were the reason for an increase of our wealth; what number of slaves had been imported since the peace?”21 General Charles Pinckney, an aide to George Washington, a future minister to France, and an unsuccessful federalist presidential candidate in 1804 and 1808, thought that “this country is not capable of being cultivated by white men. . . . Negroes are to this country what raw materials are to another country. . . . No planter can cultivate his land without slaves.”22(Pinckney was himself a substantial planter, at Belmont, Virginia, and in Charleston.)

Had it not been for the destruction caused by the war, and the urgent demand for slaves in the South, the traffic in slaves might have been outlawed in 1787; and the history of the United States would have been different. But three states (North and South Carolina, and Georgia) continued to look on the trade as legal; and merchants in the Northern states continued to serve them. Thus began what W. E. B. Dubois, still the foremost historian of the abolition of the trade in the United States, described as “that system of bargaining, truckling and compromising with a moral, political and economic monstrosity, which makes the history of our dealing with the slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century so discreditable to a great people.”23

The leaders of the states which had abolished the slave trade expected that state prosecutors, customs officials, and even private citizens would bring to book those who broke these laws. No such action followed till, in May 1789, a private citizen, William Rotch, a whaler and a member of the Providence Society for Abolition in Rhode Island, charged the owners of the brig Hope (John Stanton, Caleb Gardner—the “revolutionary hero” who had piloted the French fleet into Newport in 1780—and Nathaniel Briggs) with sailing from Boston to carry 116 slaves from Africa to Martinique. A case was heard, in the course of which the defense claimed that the defendants could not be tried because they were not citizens of Massachusetts. In the end, the prosecution won. But the case had taken so long, and the punishment was so derisory, that the victory seemed to all concerned a Pyrrhic one.

The society to promote abolition in Philadelphia, which had been formed before the War of Independence, was meantime enlarged, with Benjamin Franklin as its president, and a mixture of Quakers and others, including Benjamin Rush, the founder of medical science in the United States and surgeon-general to the Continental Army during the war, were placed on its committee.X Moses Brown also founded a Providence Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. All these societies were attacked by slave interests in journals such as the Providence Gazette, in which the most powerful influence was John Brown, Moses Brown’s elder brother and now head of the firm of Nicholas Brown.XI

There was as yet no sign whatsoever that these ideas had any echo in Portugal or in Spain, nor in their empires. Indeed, the Spanish government, as always in search of ready cash, was still toying with the idea of monopoly companies; and a new Company of the Philippines (largely composed of entrepreneurs previously involved in the old Caracas Company) was given an exclusive contract to exploit the new Spanish islands of Fernando Po and Annobón. These had been bought from Portugal in 1778, in order to trade slaves there; and, in 1786, that company was also given the right to import slaves into the region of the river Plate (the modern Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay), Chile, and Peru. But the Spaniards did not settle the new islands, all the same; and the company procured most of its slaves from large English houses. Their London agent made an arrangement with the big Liverpool shipbuilders turned slave merchants, Baker and Dawson, to import five to six thousand slaves a year at $155 each. (Peter Baker, the biggest shipbuilder for the navy, had embarked upon the slave trade about 1773. His daughter Margaret married James Dawson, who captained some of his father-in-law’s ships—among them the True Briton, which carried over five hundred slaves from Africa to Jamaica in 1776, despite an insurrection and the outbreak of war.)

In 1788, when Baker and Dawson’s contract came up for renegotiation, the firm made a bid to introduce 3,000 slaves into Cuba every year. But their terms were unsatisfactory. The Spanish government, in no way showing that it was disconcerted by the new mood in London—or in North America, come to that—and at last despairing of monopoly companies, on February 28, 1789, allowed as many slaves to be brought into Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela as the planters liked for the next two years. Slaves had, it is true, to be landed at specific ports (to assist collection of taxes), a third of the slaves had to be women and, as well as a government subsidy of four pesos per slave landed, a tax of two pesos was levied for slaves intended for domestic labor. Foreigners were limited to twenty-four hours in Spanish ports, their ships had to be of less than 300 tons, and they were not allowed to land in certain places, such as Santiago de Cuba, where the Crown feared that it was too easy for captains to escape the attention of officials. The policy was extended to the vice-royalty of New Granada (that is, Cartagena de Indias) in 1791, and to the remaining Spanish imperial territories, including Peru and the river Plate, in 1795.

For some of the old slave centers, such as Cartagena de Indias, this liberalization of the laws came too late. From 1791 to 1794, only 262 slaves were legally imported; even if the real figure, taking into account contraband, was higher, the old slave trade to the South American mainland was in full decline, for reasons which had nothing to do with Anglo-Saxon abolitionism. For by this time, in both New Spain and New Granada (Mexico and Colombia), the indigenous, or mestizo, population was growing fast, and the need for African slave labor seemed less. But merchants in Cuba seized the opportunity: in consequence, 4,000 slaves were introduced in a single year, half of them by Baker and Dawson, as a result of the skillful salesmanship of their agent in Havana, Philip Allwood. In addition, the great landowners of the territory which would become, after independence, Venezuela, “los amos del valle” (to recall the title of Herrera Duque’s fine novel), with their large plantations of cacao in the valley of Caracas, were equally pleased, for they had always hated the silly restrictions on their imports of slaves which the old regulations had necessitated. They too were prominent customers of Barker and Dawson.

More comfort still was given to the British traders in slaves by the arrival in England in 1787 of five planters and businessmen from the Spanish empire. These included the count of Jaruco, from Cuba, who came to buy modern sugar-processing equipment, and to discover how the British managed their sugar refineries and also their trade in slaves. No doubt Jaruco and his comrades discovered that most English sugar planters lived away from their properties. The Cubans certainly took back from England a steam engine which was for the first time put to use on one of Jaruco’s sugar plantations.

William Walton, the Spanish honorary consul in Liverpool, told Lord Hawkesbury, the experienced president of the Board of Trade and Plantations (himself a West Indian proprietor), how these visitors had “been down to Manchester to look at the kinds of goods and their prices usually sold to the English African merchants, [and] since that they have been at Liverpool to view the town and the ships employ’d in the slave trade . . . how many hands each vesell carried . . . the list of cargoes necessary to purchase slaves on different parts of the Coast . . . which goods might be procured in Spain, which must be purchas’d in England, and which were East India goods; [and] whether the slave trade had been profitable to the Town of Liverpool at large. . . .

“They likewise particularly enquir’d whether captains and doctors experienced in the Slave Trade might not be prevailed upon, by proper encouragement and great advantages given them, to go out to Cádiz and undertake the purchasing of the cargo, navigation of their vessells, and management of their Slaves. . . . They told me that the Court of Spain propos’d to have a slave trade of her own. . . .”24

The Spaniards were naturally disturbed by hearing of the campaign to bring to an end the British slave trade, on which their empire so greatly depended. They began to realize that, sooner or later, they might have to do without the supplies of Africans from Liverpool merchants. So they returned to found enlightened societies in Cuba, such as the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País, a club concerned to promote liberal ideas without any risk of a political or social upheaval; they also promoted the first Cuban newspaper, El Papel Periódico; and they inspired a development board known as the Junta de Fomento. They instigated schools, and interested themselves in all technological innovations. Jaruco and his friends saw no reason to consider the abandonment of either slavery or the slave trade just because the British were having what seemed to be a temporary fit of conscience. They were looking forward to achieving in Cuba the wealth of Jamaica or Saint-Domingue, preferably on a larger scale, a possibility to be entertained because their territory was much bigger. They would go to any lengths to secure the slaves they believed were necessary to make that possible.

The enlightened government of King Charles III in Madrid was anxious to do all that it could to assist these schemes and first reacted by promulgating a new slave code: the Código Negro Español, based largely on precedents extracted from previous laws of the Indies (especially the Código Carolino of 1785 and the French Code Noir of 1685). It contained several humane provisions. Masters were now absolutely obliged to instruct their slaves in the Catholic religion, not just baptize them and leave everything else to chance, and to feed them according to standards fixed by a specially designated “protector of slaves.” Masters who abused slaves were subject to fines, and even risked their confiscation. There were to be only 270 working days a year, the rest being holidays and feasts. Nevertheless, on working days, slaves could still be legally obliged to work from sunrise to sundown, unless they were older than sixty or younger than seventeen. The recalcitrant slave could still be punished with twenty-five lashes or by being placed in stocks and irons. Nor was this revised document generally implemented. Spanish laws, even under the rule of King Charles III, were still more an indication of what intelligent civil servants and lawyers in Madrid hoped might occur than a reflection of what did happen in the colonies.

While Cuban liberals were in England studying how their traffic in slaves, and slavery itself, could be expanded, William Pitt, the prime minister of the country which they were visiting, was converting the question of the abolition of the British slave trade—not, for the moment, that of slavery itself—into a major political matter. For, in May 1788, with Wilberforce ill, Pitt himself raised the matter in the House of Commons, and announced that he was planning to place it on the agenda of the next session of Parliament. The great Burke used the opportunity to speak out against the very idea of slavery, which he called “a state so improper, so degrading, and so ruinous to the feelings and capacities of human nature that it ought not to be suffered to exist”; the fact that the declaration was the opposite of what he had said on the subject twenty years before was a sign that even great men were having to change their views. Charles James Fox spoke in similar vein. But the member for Liverpool, Bamber Gascoyne, through his mother a man with substantial economic interests in that city,XII now made the first of many speeches against changing the existing order, saying that those of his constituents “who were more immediately concerned in the trade, were men of such impeccable characters that they were above the reach of calumny.” Gascoyne was a close friend of the premier slave merchant, Peter Baker, to whose house he had, indeed, been carried in a chair in 1780 on his election. Abolition of the trade, he said, was “unnecessary, visionary and impracticable.”25

Then as later, Pitt was unable to secure a majority of his Cabinet and party for abolition, and so the motion was introduced as a private member’s action, with a free vote. Pitt had a great ascendancy, but he did not have a large personal following.XIII Radicals such as the eloquent Lord Brougham, the persistent Sir James Stephen, and the tortuous Sir Philip Francis thought that Pitt could have pressed the matter of slavery more strongly than he did. Was he not the most powerful statesman of his age? Had he not then been in power for over ten years? Could he not have overridden his Cabinet? John Somers Cocks, member for Reigate, said in 1804: “It had frequently occurred to him that, if the right hon gentleman had employed the fair, honourable influence of office, the great object which he professed to have had so cordially in view would long ere this time have been obtained.” But Pitt could not have done that without difficulty. His friend and manager, on whom he relied for so much, Henry Dundas, was as determinedly against change, as was the long-serving Lord Thurlow, the lord chancellor (“No man was ever so wise as Thurlow looked,” Fox once said). Lord Hawkesbury, a third influential senior minister, was also hostile to change. Later on, issues of peace, the French Revolution, and war would overshadow the issue of slavery. King George III may have made some intervention too which prevented Pitt from taking the kind of initiative that Somers Cocks thought desirable. That may explain the mysterious paragraph in Clarkson’s History: “A difficulty, still more insuperable, presented itself, in an occurrence which took place in the year 1791 but which is much too delicate to be mentioned. The explanation of it, however, would convince the reader that all the efforts of Mr Pitt from that day were rendered useless, I mean as to bringing the question, as a minister of state to a favourable issue” (emphasis added). To support this interpretation, the agent for Jamaica, Stephen Fuller, who was also a member of Parliament, wrote that he was convinced that more was owed to the king than was generally realized in securing “the defeat of the absurd attempt of abolishing the slave trade” (he was writing in 1795).26, XIV

The French historian Gaston Martin thought that Pitt’s attitude derived from a wish to ruin French commerce. Eric Williams added, “It can be taken as axiomatic that no man occupying so important a position as Prime Minister of England would have taken so important a step as abolishing the slave trade purely for humanitarian reasons.”27 That seems as inaccurate as it is harsh. Pitt assured Granville Sharp that his “heart was with us.” Clarkson, always quick to denounce treachery, recalled that, year after year, Pitt “took an active, strenuous and consistent part” against the slave trade. Clarkson always had access to him, and gained a great deal of help from him. Whatever papers Clarkson wanted, Pitt supplied. Pitt was genuinely interested in the “civilisation of Africa”: and hoped, by imperial expansion, to assist it. His speeches confirm his concern: he concluded his first declaration in the House of Commons on abolition with the ringing words: “When it was evident that this execrable traffic was as opposite to expediency as it was to the dictates of mercy, of religion, of equity, and of every principle that should actuate the breast . . . how can we hesitate a moment to abolish this campaign in human flesh which has for too long disgraced our country and which our example would no doubt contribute to abolish in every corner of the globe?”28

Sir William Dolben, the much-respected if aged MP for Oxford University, had, meantime, visited a ship in the Thames which had been used for carrying slaves. No captives were there, but he could see the “equipment.” He saw that, “when the slaves were transported, they were chained to each other hand and foot, and stowed . . . like herrings in a barrel.” Appalled by the evidence, Dolben, a high-minded Anglican, introduced into the House of Commons a bill restricting their number by tonnage of the carrier. The Portuguese, after all, had had such restrictions for a hundred years, as he no doubt knew from a mention in the Report of the Privy Council commissioned in 1788 of that fact. Dolben was powerfully supported by Henry Beaufoy, member for Yarmouth, who came from a Quaker family, though he was by then an Anglican. Bamber Gascoyne attacked the idea of restriction, and he was supported by a fellow member for Liverpool, Lord Penrhyn, as well as by one of the two members for Bristol, Matthew Brickdale, a clothier and undertaker, and by the member for Dorchester, William Ewer, an ex-governor of the Bank of England.XV All thought that to insist that ships carry anything less than two men per ton would ruin the trade. Penrhyn denied that cruelty even existed. It was absurd to think that “men whose profit depended on the health . . . of the African natives would purposely torment and distress them during their voyage.”29

During the hearing of evidence at the bar of the House of Commons, witnesses from Liverpool did all they could to discredit the bill, suggesting not only that the existing mode of transport was suitable for the Middle Passage, but even that the voyage to the West Indies from Africa, with so much merrymaking on the deck, was “one of the happiest periods of a Negro’s life.” Dolben’s bill was carried in the Commons, however, with Pitt making a statement that he considered the slave trade an iniquity; but the House of Lords amended it severely, after receiving many petitions from slaving interests.

In the course of these debates, some curious statements in favor of the slave trade were heard. The great Admiral Lord Rodney (master of a devoted black servant, who had long attended him) said that, in all his victorious years in the West Indies, he had seen no evidence to show that the Africans were treated with brutality. Africans on ships complained more frequently of cold than of heat, Rodney thought. He added that “he should rejoice exceedingly” if he heard that the English laborers were “half so happy as the West Indian slaves”: a statement which led Lord Townshend to suggest ironically that Parliament should set about putting “the English yeoman on a footing with the West Indian negro slave.” A general, Lord Heathfield, the defender of Gibraltar in the late war, said that the bill was unnecessary, since his soldiers had been allowed seventeen cubic feet of air in tents, whereas African slaves had thirty in their ships. Lord Thurlow, the lord chancellor, then made a speech which left the impression—or so it seemed to Clarkson—of “taking the cause of the slave merchants conspicuously under his wing.” Lord Sandwich, who had been First Lord of the Admiralty, also said that he did not think that one slave the less would be carried across the Atlantic were the British to abolish the trade.

The bill passed the House of Commons thereafter, in its amended form, by 56 to 5, and the House of Lords (thanks to Pitt’s intervention, in the background) by 14 to 12, though not before the duke of Chandos, who may have had the same financial interests in slaving as his grandfather, had asserted that, when the slaves (who, he thought, must read the English newspapers avidly) heard of the measures taken to ameliorate the conditions of the Middle Passage, “they would burst out into open rebellion” leading to a “massacre of the whites.”30

In the debate in the House of Lords, Thurlow, disgusted by Pitt’s attitude, sneered at “a five days’ fit of philanthropy which had sprung up.” The remark was misleading, not least because the slave trade had begun to obsess public opinion. The extent to which the anti-slavery committee, through its Quaker connections, had awoken opinion was astonishing. The abolitionist movement in Liverpool even held meetings. Two-thirds of Manchester’s male population signed a petition demanding an end to the slave trade. Another hundred towns followed. The Reverend, and ex-Captain, John Newton published his Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade with success. In March 1788, John Wesley delivered another famous sermon in the New Rooms at Bristol on the immorality of slavery: an oration interrupted by an inexplicable shaking of the building, surely a sign of divine wrath, it was supposed, which stopped the proceedings for six minutes. That same year, the painter George Morland exhibited The Slave Trade (also called The Execrable Traffic), the first depiction of the commerce in visual form, at the Royal Academy; its sentimental picture of weeping Africans saying goodbye to their families brought tears to many fashionable eyes.

All the same, opposition to reform was also organizing itself. In Liverpool the town council paid a hundred pounds to a local Spanish resident, the sometime Jesuit “Raymond Harris,” really Raimundo Hormoza, for his curious pamphlet Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave Trade. John Tarleton, member of Parliament for Seaford, from a family of Liverpool slaving merchants, who failed to convince Pitt in a conversation of the merits of his views, wrote to Lord Hawkesbury, to reemphasize his and his friends’ unaltered support of the traffic, though he cheerfully added that his own firm would engross the largest share of trade even under Dolben’s conditions. (Tarleton himself, with his partner David Backhouse, invested in thirty-nine Liverpool ships between 1786 and 1804, of which half were slavers.)

The Privy Council’s committee of inquiry, meantime, had made progress. Captain Perry, of the Royal Navy, visited Liverpool on behalf of the committee and looked at several ships, including the Brookes, whose master was Clement Noble; this vessel—of 297 tons, and capable of carrying 609 slaves—belonged to its builder, James Brookes. (It may be recalled how Noble had armed some of his slaves to fight the French off Barbados in the late war.) Perry sent his description of it to Clarkson, who had a meticulous sketch made of how the slaves, during the Atlantic crossing, were fitted into their places at night, as if they were sardines in a tin. The diagram was much used. A rising young clergyman, Thomas Burgess, compared the design to Dante’s Inferno. The picture inspired William Grenville, later prime minister, a cousin of Pitt’s, to say: “In the passage of the negroes from the coast of Africa, there is a greater portion of human misery condensed within a smaller place than has ever yet been found in any other place on the face of this globe.” Many years later, Wilberforce caused the sketch to be shown to Pope Pius VII, who was also much affected. The fact that the design was slightly erroneous, since it omitted the space needed for gaining access to the slaves in order to feed them or to remove the dead, was irrelevant to the impact it made.

In fact, the passage of Dolben’s act had a decisive effect on the British slave trade, for it reduced the slaves-per-ton ratio. This, and the subsequent bonuses offered to captains and surgeons who reported a modest loss of life had a benign effect. It did not mean, however, that fewer ships participated in the trade. On the contrary, the new law led to an increase in the number. But each English ship now carried a smaller number of slaves than French ships did.XVI

The idea of the abolition of slavery or of the slave trade was still confined to the European and American nations. There were at least 4,000 slaves in Egypt, and a minimum of a hundred new ones were imported every year, but no one yet thought that their plight could be mitigated by Quaker philanthropy. The same was true of the three or four thousand slaves imported annually into Tunis from Timbuktu across the Sahara in these years (they came, the British consul-general in Tangier reported, largely from Bambara on the middle Niger, where the king would still “give from twelve to twenty eunuchs for a horse”). The slave trade to Tripoli was also prospering. Hiring French, occasionally Venetian, and sometimes English ships, the traders sold extensively to Chios and Smyrna, to Constantinople, and even to Athens, Salonika, and the Morea. We should suppose an average annual sale of these slaves, originating in Fezzan, of two thousand in the 1790s, each fetching seventy sequins—with eunuchs selling best. Indeed, the evidence is that the slave trade to North Africa increased in these years, since prices began to fall in West Africa at the end of the century. Slaves from sub-Saharan Africa were found in Morocco tending date palms, mining salt, and looking after camels. The East Africa slave trade was also growing. It used to be thought that the coming of Mehmet Ali to Egypt after Napoleon’s invasion of that country was a stimulus to the slave trade there; but there was a rise in imports before Napoleon arrived. When Jeremy Bentham sailed from Izmir to Constantinople in 1785 he reported that “our crew consists of 15 men besides the captain . . . beside 18 young negresses (slaves) under the hatches.”31 The pioneer of philosophical radicalism did not seem in any way surprised.

IHe had also, as early as 1729, published a pamphlet by Ralph Sandiford, the early Quaker opponent of slavery.

IIGregson, mayor in 1762, was for long one of the most prominent men in his city; he was a member of the council from 1760 till 1800, and he held the corporation account in his bank. His partner, George Case, also his son-in-law, was a member of the council for fifty-seven years, and mayor in 1781.

IIIThe tragedy of the Zong influenced Turner in 1840 to embark on his most impassioned painting. Perhaps he learned of the event in his father’s barbershop in Maiden Lane. (He was, after all, seven years old in 1783.) The painting, Slave Ship, now hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

IVThe society was at that time firm in its support for slavery. When Anthony Benezet wrote to them asking them to abandon slavery, he received the answer, “Though the Society is fully satisfied that your intention in this matter is perfectly good, yet they most earnestly beg you not to go further in publishing your notions, but rather to retract them. . . .”

VThe members of the committee were William Dillwyn, George Harrison, Samuel Hoare, Thomas Knowles, John Lloyd, and Joseph Woods (author of a famous pamphlet, Thoughts on the Slavery of the Negroes).

VISee page 405.

VIIClarkson’s visit to Paris is discussed on page 320 ff.

VIIICaptain Thompson was later made a baronet, fought at the Nile and Copenhagen, where he lost a leg, and became controller of the navy.

IXA system of law in which all members of a community take responsibility for the achievements of, or the damage caused by, the others.

XRush had been converted to the cause of abolition in the 1770s by Benezet, and published two pamphlets on the matter before the War of Independence.

XIMeantime, Moses Brown himself was interested in new things: in 1789, he agreed to finance Samuel Slater of England, who had worked with Jedediah Strutt, a partner of the great Arkwright, to set up a water mill to make cotton textiles. Thus began the industrial revolution in Rhode Island.

XIIGascoyne’s mother was Mary, daughter of Isaac Green of Childwall Abbey. His father, another Bamber Gascoyne, had been an MP most of his life and was himself son of Sir Crisp Gascoyne, a London brewer. Gascoyne’s daughter, Frances, married the second Marquis of Salisbury, who took the additional name of Gascoyne, in view of the fortune which thereby passed. As a result, Bamber Gascoyne was grandfather of the Lord Salisbury who became prime minister in the 1880s.

XIII Pitt’s most recent biographer, John Ehrman, suggests that the prime minister did try to secure abolition’s presentation as a government measure in 1800, but failed to carry the idea through.

XIVProfessor J. A. Rawley has argued that Pitt’s conduct might be explained by his government’s purchase of over thirteen thousand slaves, from Africa as well as from the Caribbean, to make up for a shortage of men in its West Indian regiments between 1795 and 1807. That could have been so, though had it been, it would surely have been noticed explicitly, or Pitt would have mentioned it to George Canning, or one of his other younger followers. Further, the crucial year was 1791, not 1795. John Ehrman, in a personal letter to the author, thought that Pitt did not owe anything much to the king in 1791.

XVPenrhyn (it was an Irish title, if a Welsh place) was Richard Pennant, son of another Richard Pennant of Penrhyn Hall, a merchant of Liverpool, and grandson of Edward Pennant, chief justice of Jamaica, and Bonella, daughter of Joseph Hodges, also of Jamaica. Lord Penrhyn was also known for his road-building in North Wales.

XVIThe act provided that vessels should only carry five slaves per registered ton of shipping up to 201 tons and one slave only for every ton beyond that; every slaver had to carry a surgeon, who was to keep a register of slaves shipped; and a premium of £100 was to be paid to the master and £350 to the surgeon on each vessel whose cargo showed a loss of less than 2 percent; half were to be paid if the mortality was between 2 and 3 percent.

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