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Friday, December 06, 2013
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Remembrance of Slave trade
Today is the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, which is commemorated by Unesco. It marks the anniversary of the uprising in 1791 in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) which eventually saw Haiti becoming the second independent country in the hemisphere. At the same time, the abolition movement was gaining ground in Britain, where Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act in March 1807.
More than 200 years after it was first published, the diagram of the slave ship the Brookes is still instantly recognisable.
It shows the way enslaved Africans were packed like sardines into the narrow space between the decks of an actual ship, out of Liverpool. Then as now, it “seemed to make an instantaneous impression of horror upon all who saw it,” recorded Thomas Clarkson, one of the founders of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
The image appeared in books, pamphlets, and on thousands of posters printed by the society. It was part of the first great public relations campaign, helped by the spread of newspapers, debating societies and coffee shops.
The movement to abolish the slave trade had begun in England in 1787. Among its members was Olaudah Equiano, himself a former slave from Benin, who wrote a best-selling autobiography published in England in 1789. As a slave he had been made to work in Barbados, Virginia and Montserrat, but the enterprising Equiano later bought his freedom and settled in England.
It was Equiano who first publicised the infamous Zong massacre, in which the crew of a slave ship had thrown 142 enslaved Africans overboard because they had strayed off course and were running low on water en route to Jamaica in 1781. The owners of the ship put in an insurance claim for loss of property—but none of the crew was charged with murder, despite a campaign by the abolitionist Granville Sharp. The Zong incident was a catalyst for the abolitionist movement.
The diagram of the Brookes was nothing compared to the accounts of the horrors of the Middle Passage and what came after. Based on precise measurements given by a former captain of the ship, the diagram was published in an abstract of the evidence given to a committee of the Privy Council on Trade and Plantations in 1790-91, which was set up in response to the efforts of the abolitionists. Clarkson compiled the abstract from the 850-page report published by the committee. Most of it makes sickening reading with its descriptions of the cruelty of the slavers and the planters and the absolute misery, physical and emotional, of the captured and enslaved.
It is quite clear from the abstract that the abolitionists’ ulterior motive was the ending of slavery itself: a large portion of it is devoted to accounts of the appalling conditions of life in the West Indies for those who survived the voyage. Sugar famously devoured those enslaved to grow it. Slaves were underfed and overworked.
They slept on the bare earth. Worst of all, at all times they were subject to the arbitrary and unrestrained punishments of the planters, with no redress and no hope of relief.
The abstract summarises eyewitness accounts from all over the British Caribbean of horrendous punishments inflicted on enslaved people for trivial or imagined offences: savage floggings, confinement in stocks, being made to wear heavy iron collars, chains or boots, having their ears, noses, fingers or hands cut off or their teeth pulled out, being thrown into boiling cane juice, or beaten bloody with the heels of their mistresses’ shoes.
All these punishments were administered without the slightest regard for the law or fear of consequences.
Dr Eric Williams is often represented as arguing in Capitalism and Slavery that the ending of slavery was a matter of economics alone: West Indian sugar had ceased to be profitable, and therefore slavery no longer made financial sense. But Williams’s thesis was more nuanced than that, and he allowed there were other factors: summing up the abolition movement in The History of the People of T&T, he admitted, “The British Parliament and people had been aroused by Clarkson outside of Parliament and Wilberforce inside to the unprofitability of slavery, to the injustice and inhumanity of the slave system, and to the impolicy of the slave trade.”
Williams endorsed Coleridge’s description of Clarkson as “a moral steam engine,” and wrote that Clarkson saw the slave trade as “an immense mass of evil on account of the criminality attached to it, which began in avarice and was nursed by worldly interest.”
In 1791 the abolitionists organised a boycott of West Indian sugar—the biggest ever consumer boycott up to then, in which between 300,000 and 400,000 people took part, and sales dropped by between a third and half. Customers turned to Indian sugar instead.
It was an amazing show of strength by members of the public (and especially women), who were using one of the few avenues of political action open to them—this was a period when only a tiny fraction of the population could vote and women could not vote at all. Petitions were got up against the slave trade: up to 100,000 people had signed them by the end of the parliamentary session of 1788 (among the signatories were a number of ladies, to the confusion and embarrassment of the abolitionists).
The passage of William Wilberforce’s bills to abolish the slave trade was repeatedly blocked until 1807, but by 1792 Parliament had passed a resolution that “The Slave Trade ought to be gradually abolished.” Public opinion swung inexorably towards the side of the abolitionists.
It was accepted that the slave trade was inhuman and slavery in the sugar industry tantamount to a death sentence, and that both must end.
• Planters’ protests
Every anti-slavery proposal was met with vehement protests from West Indian planters and their friends and supporters in England. As Buxton recalled wearily in an 1823 parliamentary debate on his motion for the abolition of slavery, “In the year 1787, a very feeble attempt was made to abate the horrors of the middle passage—to admit a little more air into the suffocating and pestilent holds of the slave-ships. The alarm was instantly taken. The cry of the West-Indians, as we have heard it to-night, was the cry of that day. An insurrection of all the blacks—the massacre of all the whites—was to be the inevitable consequence.”
• The greatest crime
“Slave-trading and slavery (for they are but two parts of the same act), are the greatest crime that any nation ever committed and when that day comes, which shall disclose all secrets, and unveil all guilt, the broadest and blackest of all will be that, the first part of which is slave-trading, and the last part slavery; and no nation under heaven has ever been so deeply tainted with both the one and the other as we have been.”
—Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, MP, to the House of Commons, May 15, 1823
• Between decks
The account of a Mr Falconbridge (who was a ship’s surgeon on four voyages on a slaver) complements the plan of the Brookes.
“When employed in stowing the slaves,” reports Clarkson, “he made the most of the room and wedged them in. They had not so much room as a man in his coffin either in length or breadth. It was impossible for them to turn or shift with any degree of ease. He had often occasion to go from one side of their rooms to the other, in which case he always took off his shoes, but could not avoid pinching them; he has the marks on his feet where they bit and scratched him. In every voyage when the ship was full they complained of heat and want of air. Confinement in this situation was so injurious, that he has known them go down apparently in good health at night, and found dead in the morning…
“He was never among them for ten minutes below together, but his shirt was wet as if dipt in water.”
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