Modern history


IN 1840, TURNER EXHIBITED his painting Slave Ship, depicting slavers throwing overboard dead and dying slaves. There is a typhoon coming on; the seamen seem to be in almost as bad a condition as the slaves. The picture, recalling the fate in 1781 of theZong,Iwas intended to commemorate the doom of slavery.

The exhibition of Slave Ship coincided with a grand meeting in Exeter Hall, in London, summoned to inaugurate the Africa Civilisation Society, inspired by Thomas Fowell Buxton. The meeting marked the final conversion of “the great and the good” in Britain to abolitionism, for it was inaugurated by the president of the new body, the prince consort, in his first public address in England. The duke of Norfolk, the earl marshall, was present, as was the leader of the Opposition, Sir Robert Peel. If the prince consort knew how the recently dead monarch, William IV, had spoken so often against abolition in the House of Lords, while his father was still king he kept quiet. Perhaps the duke remembered his ancestor’s investments in the South Sea Company. If so, he did not allude to the matter. If Peel recalled how his father had opposed abolition in the House of Commons earlier in the century, he too kept his thoughts to himself. Another age had begun—at least in England.

But though the Atlantic slave trade was in 1840 within sight of its end, the end of slavery itself in the Americas took longer than Turner had imagined. Britain had already just abolished the institution, France would do so in eight years, and the United States in twenty-five. To own a slave became an offense in British India in 1862. In both Cuba and Brazil, however, the main concern of the last chapters of this book, slavery itself survived till nearly the end of the nineteenth century, with controversies raging there (as in Spain) as if the matters concerned had never been discussed in other countries. Advertisements were still placed in Brazil in the 1870s for the sale of slaves; the wording sometimes left it uncertain whether it was a human or an animal that could be bought: acabramight be a goat, but it could also mean a female “quadroon.”

The Ten Years’ War in Cuba, in 1868-78 (which failed to secure Cuban independence) hastened emancipation in that colony: though the Cuban rebels, representing small planters rather than great industrial sugar monarchs, did not commit themselves to immediate abolition, they did proclaim freedom, as Bolivar had done, to slaves who fought for them.

A new law of 1870 in Madrid of Segismundo Moret provided, in a qualified fashion, for the liberty of children born to slave families; and it also conceded liberty to all slaves over the age of sixty-five (later amended to sixty). Slaves who fought for Spain in the war against the Cuban nationalists were also proclaimed free, but there were still nearly 200,000 Cuban slaves at the end of the war.

The passage of Moret’s law was the occasion for the great liberal orator Emilio Castelar to make one of his finest speeches, and one of the noblest of many fine orations on the matter in European legislatures. Rising from the front bench, shaking with the nerves which usually characterizes the great speaker, he declaimed: “I no longer see the walls of this room, I behold distant peoples and countries where I have never been. . . . I will say that we have had nineteen centuries of Christianity, and still there are slaves. They only exist in the Catholic countries of Brazil and Spain. . . . We have experienced barely a century of revolution, and the revolutionary peoples, France, England, and the United States, have abolished slavery. Nineteen centuries of Christianity, and there are still slaves among Catholic peoples! One century of revolution, and there are no slaves among revolutionary peoples. . . . Arise, Spanish legislators, and make this nineteenth century the century of the complete and total redemption of slaves . . . !”

Castelar’s part in the abolition of slavery is commemorated in the statue to him in the Castellana in Madrid. All the same, slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873, in Cuba only in 1886.

In 1869, Portugal finally abolished slavery: later than any other European country. Since Portugal had led Europe into the slave trade from Africa, and for two hundred years (1440-1640) had managed it, it is perhaps unsurprising that it should have taken so long for the institution to be abolished at home. Portugal still held much of Angola and Mozambique, and was busy converting those territories into something like conventional European colonies. Between 1876 and 1900, she behaved much as France was doing in Sénégal: she liberated her slaves, but put them to work for fixed periods, so that they were slaves in all but name. Portugal only formally abolished slavery throughout her empire in 1875; and whether that change meant as much to the populations of Angola and Mozambique as abolitionists would have desired is an open question.

In 1870, there were still one and a half million slaves in Brazil—many more than there had been in 1800. Two-thirds of this population of slaves lived in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and São Paulo—above all, on coffee plantations, whosefazendeiroscontinued, whatever Adam Smith might have thought, to find slavery profitable. In 1871, the Emperor Dom Pedro, who knew, through his many European connections as well as from his conscience, that slavery in Brazil could no longer be justified, took the initiative in pressing “o lei do ventre livre,” by which children born to slave mothers would be declared free. State-owned slaves would be freed immediately, and the right of slaves to buy freedom was codified. A public fund would assist manumission, and a register of slaves was announced. This law passed 65 to 45 in the Chamber, 33 to 7 in the Senate, after long, entirely worthy, and important debates. But as late as 1884, a bill introduced by a liberal prime minister to emancipate without compensation slaves who reached the age of sixty was lost, and the government indeed fell on the issue. The following year, thanks to the efforts of the Brazilian Antislavery Society led by Joaquim Nabuco, a new bill on the same subject did pass though, even then, slaves over sixty were obliged to work without payment for another three years for old owners—a form of compensation.

Only during the late 1880s did Brazilian slavery collapse. Three-quarters of a million slaves were still left in March 1887, but by then, many were fleeing their farms, in acts of mass desertion. It is not altogether fanciful to see these unpunished escapes as a repetition of the flight from servitude which occurred at the beginning of the eleventh century in Europe, and which signaled the end of the institution there. The army in Brazil was now no longer willing to round up runaways, as they had done for so many generations, and prices collapsed. Planters began to free slaves on the condition that they signed labor contracts for three or four years. The Church, for the first time, overtly backed abolition, probably from fear that revolutionary blacks would sweep the country in an onda negra, in the style of Haiti. Fazendeiros began to find in Italians a cheap alternative to slavery on coffee plantations: and three-quarters of a million European immigrants arrived on subsidized passages in the 1890s.

In March 1888, the conservative government of Correia de Oliveira proposed the lei áurea, which provided for the immediate abolition of slavery in Brazil. No indemnification would be available for slaveowners. The bill became law in May, just eighteen months before the army deposed the Emperor Dom Pedro, whose kind and cultivated personality had done so much for the black people of his country—one reason, it is to be feared, why he had become unpopular with the oligarchy which ran the economy. To conclude the era of slavery in Brazil, and in America, the abolitionist minister Rui Barbosa in 1890 issued his famous order which ordered papers in the Ministry of the Treasury relating to slavery and the slave trade to be burned. But it remains a matter of controversy what was, and was not, thereafter consigned to flames. Among those, all the same, who watched the burning was a black worker in the customhouse, aged 108, determined to see for himself “the complete destruction” of the documents which bore witness to the “martyrdom” of his race.

• • •

Yet in Africa the trade in slaves continued; eunuchs were still in demand for northern harems; and, as late as the 1880s, slaves were still being exchanged for horses, as they had been by the Arabs and the Portuguese in the 1450s. The differentials in price in the nineteenth century were remarkable for, the explorer Captain Binger remembered, a horse valued at two or three slaves by the Moors in the north could be sold for fifteen to twenty slaves at Ouassoulou. The cowrie also continued to play its part. The German explorer Heinrich Barth in the 1850s saw a slave “of very indifferent appearance” being exchanged for 33,000 of them. (By 1870, a new unit of the old currency of cowries had been added in Bambara: a captif, a “slave,” meaning 20,000 shells.) David Livingstone would tell audiences in London in 1857 that, though the European slave trade might be dying, that of the Arabs in East Africa was growing. In the 1870s, de Brazza, in the interior of the Congo, found that slaves were still being exchanged there for salt, guns, and cloth from Mayumba. In the 1880s, in Senegambia, at the beginning of the era of direct French rule, slaves accounted for two-thirds of the goods traded at markets. Slaves may have constituted nearly a fifth of the population of Haut-Sénégal-Niger in the first quarter of the twentieth century, a quarter of that of the Sokoto caliphate. Muslim scholars still had their slaves in that region, as their predecessors had had in the fifteenth century, and so did noblemen. In 1883, Commandant Joseph-Simon Gallieni, the future proconsul of Madagascar, who spent some time at Ségou, on the upper Niger, an ancient slaving city 350 miles southwest of Timbuktu, described how “nothing equals the horror of the scenes of carnage and desolation to which the incessant war gives rise in regions renowned for their unexampled fertility and their wealth of minerals. The villages are burned, the old of both sexes put to death, while the young are carried into captivity and shared out among the conquerors.” In the now wholly British Gold Coast, slave labor was outlawed. Sir Bartle Frere forbade any governor to recognize the institution, in 1874. But a generation later, it was still winked at, and probably used in the palm-oil industry, including by the mulatto descendants of Danes who had experimented with cotton in Akuapem. British civil servants sometimes returned escaped slaves to their masters. If Saint Paul had done so, why should not an English ex-public-schoolboy do likewise? Perhaps 750,000 slaves were carried into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in the nineteenth century, many in the last half of it.

The General Act of Brussels of 1890 committed the European powers interested in Africa to act against slavery: not precisely to end it, but at least to place the pursuit of liberty in Africa on the agenda of Europe’s civilizing mission. In the end, the European empires did end slavery in the territories for which they became directly responsible. But they did not so act in protectorates: and the European will to rule Africa lasted barely two generations. Awkward new states have taken the place of old polities; but ancient systems of labor survived the changes and, at the time of writing, a slave trade in children seems to survive in Nigeria, and newspaper reports are frequent of the incidence of slavery in Mauritania where, despite the abolition of the institution at least three times, most recently in 1980, 90,000 black Africans are said to live as full-time slaves to Arab masters: precisely whence the Portuguese, in 1441, first carried black slaves away to a remote northern destination.

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