Long before the first Europeans set foot in Africa, native kings and chieftains had traded in slaves. There were white captives held in African slave markets, people who had been kidnapped by pirates during raids on the coasts of England, Ireland and France. These slaves were very highly valued by North African chieftains. The gold mining industry on the Gold Coast, modern-day Ghana, was also a magnet for the African slave trade, which continued long after the European nations agreed to its abolition. White slaves were still held in North Africa as late as 1626.
Around the 1470’s, the Portuguese began to play a middleman role in the slave trade, between the various African kingdoms. They imported slaves to the Gold Coast from Benin, Kongo and Angola. But after 1540 the Portuguese involvement was curtailed when the Songhai Empire of Western Sudan increased the number of slaves it could trade with the Gold Coast merchants. The desperate need for labour in the gold mines led the Fanti and Asant of the Gold Coast to acquire their slaves in exchange for gold.
The slave trade in Africa was dominated by strong states such as Akwamu and Oyu on the Gold Coast. The Ekba of Calaba controlled the marketing and trading networks of other areas of the continent, and the Aro traded deep into Nigeria, dominating many of the smaller tribes there. The Aro was particularly adept at persuading chiefs and petty kings to “donate” slaves to prove their wealth, or status.
During the 17th century, English ships were contracted to transport slaves from Sao Tome, a Portuguese island colony off the Atlantic coast of Africa, to the Gold Coast. But this trade provided only a fraction of the total amount of slaves imported to the Gold Coast region. The vast majority were transported there by African traders, who had acquired the slaves from various chiefs and kings in exchange for ivory, textiles and hides. Within Africa slaves were a valuable commodity for the numerous chiefs and kings. Many of the slaves were captured members of rival tribes, taken during wars for land and cattle. Then there were the tribes’ own fold who had been deemed “undesirable,” such as those who had broken tribal laws, or who were rivals for titles and land.
On the Gold Coast mining was expanding rapidly and as such there was a need to enlarge the agricultural areas to provide food for the miners, so slaves were also needed for clearing land for cultivation. The gold mining here then began to attract the interest of the European countries, and trade began between the Dutch and the Gold Coast in about 1642. As the kings on the Gold Coast demanded slaves in exchange for gold, the Dutch soon became involved in transporting slaves to them.
English involvement in the slave trade began about 1663, following the establishment of the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading in Africa, who were given the monopoly for the slave trade on the African coast. The Company joined African chiefs and merchants to establish a trade relationship that facilitated export of slaves from Africa to the newly developing areas of North America.
The trade with North America, and the Caribbean islands, increased the demand for slaves from Africa. Initially though, labour on the sugar and tobacco plantations of the Caribbean and North American colonies had been provided by white labourers. Many of these labourers were working-class people from Britain who had been kidnapped and transported to the West Indies to work as labourers there. But soon the English plantation owners found that their profits were lagging behind those of their fellow Europeans, Dutch and Portuguese, who used negro slaves. When they discovered how much cheaper it was to use black slaves, as opposed to white labourers, the demand for African slaves increased dramatically.
The English plantation system in the West Indies was at its peak in the mid-1700’s, but at this time the European settlers on the east coast of America were still using their own white labourers, or household servants, on the rice and tobacco plantations there. But soon they too were to learn of this cheaper source of labour that could be provided by the African slave trade.
Another factor that is invariably overlooked is the way in which the crews of the slave-ships were recruited, and then subsequently treated. Apart from the Captain and his immediate staff, the majority of the crew were men forced into service at sea by a variety of devious, and often violent, methods, by unscrupulous landlords and debt-collectors in England. Everybody now knows about the “press gangs” that were used to force people into service with the navy; these same methods were used to provide crews for the slave ships.
Men were often sold to captains to pay off debts they were tricked into acquiring, or landlords would increase rents, and then evict and have arrested those who failed to pay up. Rather than go to jail, or be transported, most men opted to work their passage at sea. Ship owners used crimps to recruit unwary “sailors” by luring them into debt, and then offering to clear the debt by letting them work on a merchant vessel. Once at sea, the sailors faced atrocious conditions. Food was rationed to near-starvation levels and the water allowance was reduced to the bare minimum. One captain of an Atlantic slave ship, John Newton, described the sailors’ conditions: “There is no trade in which sailors are treated with such little humanity... I have myself seen them when sick, beaten for being lazy till they had died under the blows.” The development of the new colonies in North America and the West Indies would now cause a major increase in demand for slaves and sailors.
Paradoxically, the increase in the slave trade between Africa and North America also brought about a rise in the campaign for its abolition. This grew out of people becoming more aware of the trade’s existence through religious pamphleteers and crusading merchants in England, who found the whole thing immoral. It should be remembered that, at this time, the majority of the people could not vote, could not read, and had no power. The campaign was in the hands of the few with power to change the laws of the land.
The first man to organize a campaign against slavery was Granville Sharp, who founded an Anti-Slavery Society in 1760. Sharp became famous for his defence of a black immigrant in England, James Somersett, whose right to be free when he was here was established in law. Sharp also championed the idea of a home for slaves in Sierra Leone. It was Sharp’s prolific campaigning against slavery that caused an Abolition Committee to be established in Parliament in 1787.
But the best known anti-slavery campaigner is William Wilberforce, the son of a wealthy merchant and the MP for Hull and Yorkshire. Wilberforce became the conscience of Parliament and in conjunction with Sharp lobbied hard for the Bill for Abolition of the African slave trade. With them was a third prominent campaigner, Thomas Clarkson, a man who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade in all British colonies. Clarkson wrote the important book History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade in 1808. These three men are credited with raising the issue to such a height that it became a vital political matter to the competing Tories and Whigs in the Parliament of the late 18th century.
By the end of the 18th century, leading methodists and Quakers were campaigning vigorously against slavery in Africa. Wilberforce stated that the fight for abolition was a religious and humanitarian triumph over economic and political interests. From 1788 on, Parliament was inundated with petitions against the slave trade. Abolition came in 1807 with an act of Parliament that called for forfeiture of ships engaged in slavery and a fine of £100 for each slave discovered aboard. Participation in the slave trade was punishable by transportation to a penal colony. Enforcement of abolition was carried out primarily by the Royal Navy. Constant action by the navy eventually encouraged other European nations to pass anti-slavery laws.
It was following the abolition of the slave trade that the British Empire expanded into Africa, as efforts to eradicate the trade led to more involvement in the continent. Treaties with African rulers, and the activities of merchants strengthened the links that Britain had with Africa. When Britain annexed part of Nigeria in 1861, the main reason for doing so was to stamp out the slave trade there. In fact, many African states and their rulers saw the abolition of slavery by Britain as an insult to Islam, which taught that non-Muslims could be lawfully enslaved.
Although it must be said that there can never be a case made for participation in the slave trade, it must remain a credit to this country that it played a leading role in stamping it out with the use of the Royal Navy as the policeman of abolition. Writing in his 1869 book, A History of European Morals, W. H. Lecky stated that: “The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.” In present-day Britain, there are those who try to burden the entire nation with the guilt of slavery. This is palpably unfair.
The vast majority of the people at the time were unaware of its existence and, even if they had known of it, they were unable to do anything about it, since they had no voice in Parliament. The power in the land was held by some of the very people who profited from the slave trade, or by those who had the wealth to afford a conscience. Those who trooped to work a sixteen-hour day in the factories and mills of industrial cities like London, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield had no knowledge of the profits made by slavery. Nor did they have the luxury of having the time and money for a conscience about the political issues of the day.
At the height of the anti-slavery campaign William Cobbett wrote to Wilberforce:
‘You seem to have great affection for the negroes... I feel for the hard-pinched, the ill-treated, the beaten down labouring classes of England, Scotland and Ireland, to whom you do all the mischief that it is in your power to do; because you describe their situation as good, and because you do, in some degree, at any rate, draw the public attention away from their sufferings.’
In an impassioned letter to the Leeds Mercury in 1830, a social reformer, Richard Oastler, wrote:
‘Thousands of our fellow creatures are existing in a state of slavery more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system, colonial slavery... The very streets which receive the droppings of the Anti-Slavery Society are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled, not by the cart whip of the negro slave driver, but by the equally appalling thong or strap of the overlooker, to hasten, half-dressed, but NOT half-fed, to those magazines of British infantile slavery – the worsted mills in the town of Bradford.’
Oastler, a Tory land agent of estates near Huddersfield and Leeds, became the leader of the so-called Ten Hours Movement, which aimed to reduce the working day of factory children to 10 hours. The West Riding of Yorkshire was the heart of the factory reform movement, and many Short Time Committees were set up there.
Campaigning by a few radicals, and several of the more humane factory owners, led to a Factory Inquiry Commission being set up by Parliament in 1833. Reports to the Commission showed that children as young as 5, but more often 7, were employed in a working day of 14-16 hours, exclusive of intervals and meals. It was also reported that factory owners permitted overseers to flog and maltreat children and often took an active part themselves. In many factories children were employed on 12-hour night shifts. Medical reports to the Commission showed that thousands of children were maimed and deformed by factory work, lack of sleep often leading to accidents involving several children and adults.
Children were also employed in the mines, starting underground at the age of about 7 or 8, when they would spend long hours alone in the darkness of the pit. Older boys and girls, strapped to loaded wagons, hauled these along tramways underground. Very small children as young as 5 or 6 were sometimes employed on the surface, in charge of the pit-head winding gear, responsible for the lives of colliers being hauled up and down the shaft.
Although in the case of African slavery the clergy, rich merchants and political reformers all united in protest at the immorality of the issue, there was no such concerted campaign on behalf of child slaves. In fact, many clergy and leading politicians of the time actually argued that working long hours in the factories was good for children. One senior clergyman and writer of the time, the Rev. Thomas Malthus, argued in his Essay on Population (1798) that poverty was natural and that to help the working class would be detrimental since it would enable them to live longer. Many radicals opposed interfering in the issue of the working day, saying that it should be left to people to decide how many hours they worked, and that if they wanted to work 16 hours then they should be allowed to. When the Ten Hours Movement argued for a reduction in the working day for children, the government opposed the move, saying that it would be detrimental to trade. The great radical William Cobbet scathingly commented on the Establishment position:
‘A most surprising discovery has been made, namely, that all our greatness and prosperity, that our superiority over other nations, is owing to 30,000 little girls in Lancashire. If these little girls work two hours less in a day than they do now, it would occasion the ruin of the country.’
For the little girls of Lancashire, the bent and crippled children of Bradford’s mills, the kids with coal trains strapped to their backs, there was NO Wilberforce, NO pamphlets being circulated.
In the wake of the Factory Inquiry Commission, a Factory Act of 1833 limited the hours to be worked in a day for the under-12s to eight, and to twelve hours for those aged 13-18. But there were clauses in the bill that allowed children to work successive eight-hour shifts, thus prolonging the adult working day to 16 hours. This Act became known as the “White Slavery Bill.”
Discussion in the slums of an English city:
“Tell me about these African slaves we had then.”
But now the newly legalized Trades Unions were leading the fight to reduce the working time of children. In the past campaigning to relieve the conditions of the working class in Britain had resulted in a trip to the gallows pole, or transportation to a penal colony. People had learned that some things were acceptable to campaign for, others were outlawed. However, after decades of underground struggle, with hundreds of activists killed, imprisoned or transported, the mid-19th century saw the legalization of the Trades Unions. Now there was a forum for the campaign to help the working children.
In 1837, George Loveless, the leading figure of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (six Dorset labourers who had been sentenced to transportation to the penal colony of New South Wales for their Trades Union activity), made a speech to his fellow labourers:
‘England has for many years been lifting her voice against the abominable practice of negro slavery. Numbers of great men have talked, have laboured and have struggled until at length emancipation has been granted to the black slaves in the West Indies. When will they dream of advocating the cause of England’s white slaves?’
At long last, during the latter part of the 19th century, a series of Factory Acts reduced the working hours for children, and also began to introduce the idea of providing working class children with an education. The Factory Act of 1867 permitted only part-time work for children under 11, and a further Act of 1870 put up the age of boys working underground in the mines to 12. This Act also set the maximum working week for children under 16 to 54 hours. A national system of education for working-class children only began after the 1870 Education Act set up local School Boards. But as these Boards were allowed to charges fees for their classes, most ordinary workers could still not afford to send their children to school. It was only after another Education Act of 1891, which permitted schools to claim grants for the children it educated from poorer families, that a more universal education system came into being.
Why was it then that fifty years after the abolition of black slavery, the enslavement of white children in Britain was still acceptable? Why were people able to find the time, the conscience, and the effort, to campaign on behalf of people in a far-off land? And, moreover, why is it that in our present age this issue is rarely discussed, and certainly not with the vigour and enthusiasm with which African slavery is debated? The fact that child slavery was on the doorstep, so to speak, and that it was possible to eradicate it quite easily, seems incredible to us now. The British Empire put the full force of its Royal Navy, Army and Diplomatic Service into enforcing the eradication of the African slave trade. The British put pressure on other European nations, risking wars and trade embargoes, to bring in a world-wide ban on slavery. But the same Government, clergy and political reformers would not lower the working day of a child of 7 in Britain to 10 hours!
The cause of African slavery was championed, whilst that of the child slaves of Britain was virtually ignored, because of an early form of political correctness. The “bleeding hearts” of the day preferred to campaign for abolition of slavery because it was more socially acceptable: because it was taking place somewhere else. Considering the attitudes of their ilk today, it is unsurprising that they would campaign for one but ignore the other. When one reflects and considers the suffering of our ancestors, our kith and kin, and the way their plight was ignored, then you have to say that we are the ones who should be angry. Conquerors have enslaved their enemies since before the dawn of time, the native Britons were enslaved by the Romans, then by the Saxons who, in turn, were enslaved by the Normans. We move on. And it is the mark of a civilized and mature folk that they accept that what was done in the past was done in the context of the age in which it took place.
For those who did not know about these things, and sadly there are a great number, I hope that you will now be better equipped to resist attempts to make you feel guilty about your past. And perhaps you will educate others who are ignorant of the truth.
There may be things that have been done by the British that have been wrong, but they are far outweighed by those things that have been right. Our ancestors suffered more than any plantation labourer. Let no-one lecture us with the pious guilt of the “chattering classes.” Don’t preach to us, liberal, when it was your kind that emancipated the African slave while leaving our own children to work 16-hour days in the factories!