Abolishing the Slave Trade: Sierra Leone and British Abolitionism

guest post by Padraic Scanlan

read Padraic’s article in the November issue

The history of slavery and abolition is not a treasury of fables and moral lessons. The abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, and then the emancipation of slaves in British colonies in 1833, were the two obvious first steps in undoing the fiction that human beings can be property. Celebrating Britain’s ‘achievement’ in divesting itself from a centuries-long, genocidal, world-historically evil system of labour exploitation (after already industrialising in part thanks to its profits) seems to me like a perverse interpretation of the history of the end of the British slave trade. And yet, measuring ‘how moral’ British abolitionism was continues to be a live issue. The question, to my mind, isn’t whether or not it was ‘right’ to abolish the slave trade – the answer to that is obvious – but what it meant, in practice, to do the grueling, incremental work of stopping slave ships and prosecuting slave traders, and how those practices affected the lives of former slaves.


In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Sierra Leone was at the centre of British efforts to end the slave trade, and to ‘rehabilitate’ West Africa after centuries of slave trading. The British colony at Sierra Leone was the headquarters for the interdiction of slave ships in the first thirty years after the abolition of the slave trade. The early colonial history of Sierra Leone shows the ideology and logic of British abolitionism in practice.


The Slave Trade Act of 1807 made the British slave trade illegal, but only gestured at enforcement. The Act simply declared slave ships to be contraband, and fair game for Royal Navy cruisers. To encourage the hunt for slave ships, the captors were to receive part of the value of any ships they seized, and any gear or other cargo on board as ‘prize money.’ Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, was the home of a Vice-Admiralty Court with a mandate to process slave ships, and to release people imprisoned aboard. This court was the first court of law in the British empire with an explicit mandate to release people from slavery. However, although the court released more than ten thousand people from the Middle Passage (and its successors, the Courts of Mixed Commission, released many tens of thousands more), it was principally a commercial court. ‘Freedom’ was a by-product of prize money.


My article, ‘The Just Rewards of their Exertions,’ reconstructs the social and material history of the Vice-Admiralty Court of Sierra Leone, and of the thriving marketplace in goods, credit and insurance that built up around it during the Napoleonic wars.  It shows how former slaves were legally declared to be ‘captured Negroes’ by the court, and how the colony came to depend on the cheap and mobile labour of people released from the Middle Passage in order to survive. As I see it, the history of the court – and, more broadly, the history of early colonial Sierra Leone – helps us to see British abolitionism more clearly.


First, as others have noticed, the abolitionists of Wilberforce’s generation believed in the sanctity of the marketplace. Just as Evangelical businessmen competed for contracts, their souls competed for salvation. Slavery, in this worldview, was wrong because it denied the enslaved the ability to compete in commerce and in spirituality. Second, although the leading British abolitionists admitted that Africans were capable of ‘civilisation,’ many believed that the experience of enslavement had so debased both individual Africans and entire African cultures that the end of the slave trade was an automatic license to begin a civilising mission. In early colonial Sierra Leone, and especially in the slave trade court, these two ideas became a set of practices for controlling the lives and the labour of former slaves.


My point is not to condemn abolitionists for ‘hypocrisy’ – or to argue that what happened in Sierra Leone was a distortion of the good intentions of activists in Britain. To leading abolitionists, ending the slave trade without transforming former slaves into low-wage labourers and without subjecting them to rigid social control was as inconceivable as the idea that commerce and Christianity were not only essentially compatible, but probably identical. The day-to-day work of ending the slave trade became the day-to-day work of colonial exploitation and imperial expansion.

read Padraic’s article here

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