Wednesday 24 March 2010

A Man and a Brother

We are not long past the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. The important question, one that I’m not sure has been fully considered, is why opinion swung so decisively against a practice that had long been part of the national economy. The answer is simple: slavery had been tolerable, like so many other abuses over time, for as long as it was invisible. By the late eighteenth century this was no longer the case.

Slavery and the slave trade were activities both remote from British shores and thus removed from popular consciousness. This changed after the conclusion in 1763 of the Seven Years' War, when ever increasing numbers of enslaved men and women began to appear in London, brought by their owners.

The immediacy was shocking enough, but it also raised questions about the validity of the institution in a country where there was no slave law. It lead directly to Somerset v Steuart in 1772, when Granville Sharp argued before Lord Mansfield at the Court of King's Bench that slaveholding in England was a violation of the Common Law. To ship slave law into the country would, as Sharp put it, make England "as base, wicked, and tyrannical as our colonies." Mansfield, in finding for the plaintiff, effectively curtailed the liberties of the slave owners. Though evading the more general question about the legality of slavery as such, he had, in effect, encouraged the view that the practice was "repugnant to English laws", as one slaveholder expressed it.

There was an acute irony at work here; for the Mansfield decision defined Britain as a 'land of liberty', not long before the slave-owning American colonies began to object to being subordinated to the 'tyranny' of Parliament. "Why", Samuel Johnson asked, "do we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?" In the ideological debates between the two sides, slavery became a political issue in a way that it had never been in the past, with the Americans insisting that if there were slaves in the colonies it was because British traders had put them there. Practically speaking, of course, it was all posturing, and neither side took any meaningful steps to address the issues raised; but it still drew attention to slavery as a moral problem; that slavery was a vice and that opposition to slavery was a virtue.

Before the American Revolution, the British Empire was little more than a commercial opportunity; afterwards it started the process of rebirth as a kind of moral mission, where rule should be exercised, as Edmund Burke put it, "for the benefit of the governed as well as the governors." Evangelicals within the Church of England pressed for the proper pastoral care of slaves within the Empire, just as officers returning from the war urged the government to give support and assistance to the escaped American slaves who had fought with the British Army.

It was now that the Quakers, who had always disliked slavery, but had not challenged the existence of the institution, began to press for abolition. Buoyed up by the conviction that the British people now considered slavery as a national embarrassment, they moved forward, gathering support and momentum along the way. By the early 1790s the consumption of West Indian Sugar, the chief product of slavery, was plummeting, showing that abolition had indeed become the cause of the nation. All that was needed was someone to direct opinion; all that was needed was William Wilberforce.

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