Slave Trade


Slave Trade
   For most of the nineteenth century a commerce in human misery was in steady decline among the imperial powers. The Atlantic slave trade during the sixteenth century was initially established by Spain and Portugal for the transport of enslaved African labor to the Americas. In the seventeenth century, both Britain and the Netherlands also became deeply involved, in Britain’s case the Royal Africa Company established in 1662 claiming an official if not actual monopoly on the sale of slaves in the English colonies. Markets such as the United States, Brazi l, and other South American plantation economies, and the Caribbean accounted for the transport in the most appalling conditions of some 12 million Africans to the fate of forced labor and early death in the New World.
   Beginning in the 1780s, humanitarian movements dedicated to the abolition of slavery and the slave trade based on Christian humanity were progressively reinforced by the industrialization of European economies and the increasing political influence of a bourgeois class to whom slave labor epitomized the economic backwardness of agrarian interests. Denmark banned slave trading within its empire in 1792, followed by Britain and the United States in 1807, and France in 1815. Largely as the result of British insistence, the Congress of Vienna adopted a resolution banning the slave trade, yet left it to each of the powers present to decide when to act on the sentiment. The trade in slaves continued illegally well into the 1860s, and the use of slave labor was not banned in the British Empire until 1833 and in the United States not until the defeat of the Confederacy and its slave-based economy in 1865. The Netherlands waited until 1863 to ban slavery. Although France banned the trade in 1815, the trafficking of slaves and use of slave labor lasted for decades in many French colonial possessions. Because after the Battle of Trafalgar the Royal Navy was omnipotent on the high seas, it was in a position to repress the slave trade and made an honest attempt to do so. It had the greatest impact on the Atlantic passage. Elsewhere, such as the Arab slaving network stretching across the Indian Ocean and deep into the African interior, the sheer volume of the commerce often exceeded the navy’s capacity. Moreover, variations on slave labor and its legacy persisted in corners of the British Empire. British missionaries inveighed against the cruel treatment of native Africans by the Boers, and British circuit courts in the Cape Colony took legal action. The Slachter’s Nek Rebellion of 1815 erupted when a farmer charged with mistreating a Khoikhoi laborer refused to appear in court. When a force of colonial police consisting partly of Khoikhoi regulars was sent to arrest him, a skirmish ensued in which the farmer was killed. Several of his supporters were subsequently tried and hanged. The episode provoked outrage among Boers who thought it absurd that a farmer be punished for abusing a Koikhoi, and it presaged the tension between South African Boers and British authority that eventually led to the Anglo-Boer Wars.
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   FURTHER READING:
    Johnson, Paul. The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815–1830. New York: Harper Collins, 1991;
    Klein, Herbert. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999;
    St. Clair, William. The Door of No Return: Cape Coast Castle and the Slave Trade. New York: Bluebridge, 2007;
    Toledano, Ehud R. The Ottoman Slave Trade and Its Suppression, 1840–1890. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.
   CARL CAVANAGH HODGE

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.