Slavery has existed from the earliest records of human history. The ancient Egyptians used slave labour to build the pyramids from 4,750-3,000 BC; the Romans and ancient Greeks owned slaves and the geographical areas from which slaves were obtained had a history of owning slaves themselves. The West Africans had slaves and the Carib Indians of the West Indies raided Puerto Rica. Hispaniola and Jamaica for slaves. Slavery was such a basic feature of ancient societies that Plato, Plutarch and Aristophanes all retained slavery as part of their utopias, and even Thomas More, in his Utopia, as late as 1516, retained slavery as a punishment for crimes and adultery.
The slave trade of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries differed from earlier periods of slavery in that the number of people enslaved was much greater; the contradiction between the alleged Christian beliefs of the white slavers and the evils of the trade led to pseudo-scientific theories that their black captives were not really human, which, in turn, produced entrenched racist ideas which have persisted into the twentieth century.
The trade in African slaves to provide labour in the Southern states of the USA and the West Indies lasted for approximately 250 years and led to the transportation of an estimated forty million slaves. The Portuguese began trading in slaves at Lagos between 1440 and 1450 and by 1540 ten thousand slaves were being shipped to the West Indies from West Africa each year and. in addition, slaves were sold in South America and Mexico. Although slaves may have been brought to England as a result of the Iberian trade, the first group of African slaves to be brought to England by an English trader came from the Guinea Coast in 1555.
Britain's participation in the slave trade dates from 1564, when Sir John Hawkins made his second expedition to Africa in the flagship Jesus, with Queen Elizabeth's blessing, his first trip, two years before, having been highly successful. Manufactured goods such as textiles, iron, guns and spirits were shipped from Britain to the Guinea Coast and exchanged for other goods and slaves. These were exchanged for raw materials such as sugar and cotton in the New World which, in turn, were transported to England, completing the triangular trade. Jack Grates (The Great White Lie) states:
Profits derived from the system found their way through reinvestment into other industries and agriculture, and it is not an exaggeration to say that they contributed substantially to the development of the Industrial Revolution on which Britain's nineteenth-century prosperity was based.Liverpool was the main British port from which the slave ships sailed. In 1730, the port had 15 ships; in 1751, 53; 74 in 1760; in 1770, 96. and 132 by 1792 (Karl Marx. Capital).
The slave trade corrupted the African chiefs who bartered with the white slave traders. The insatiable demand for slaves led to an increase in tribal wars for captives who could be sold to the slavers. And by the middle of the eighteenth century the kidnapping of men and women of working age and in their most active reproductive years, the terrible loss of life resulting from the tribal wars and the spread of disease which accompanies foreign invaders, caused some areas of Africa to become underpopulated.
As the slavers pushed further into the interior of Africa the forced marches to the coast became more of an ordeal. Thirty per cent of the slaves died before they reached the coast to board the slave ships. And sometimes slaves who were rejected as unfit were killed by the black traders (Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa, 1788). Conditions on the slave ships were barbaric in the extreme: a captain in the Royal Navy made a famous drawing of the slave ship Brookes in Liverpool docks in 1787, which showed how 450 slaves were packed into the ship, allowing six feet by sixteen inches for every man and five feet by sixteen inches for every woman. This "tight-packing", as it was called. led to considerable loss of life during transportation and in 1788 to the British Parliament regulating the conditions under which slaves could be shipped. Although this made the transportation of slaves more humane, by regulating the trade Parliament had officially sanctioned it. Greed had led to the "tight-packing" of slaves but the higher survival rate of transported slaves after regulation may have been commercially just as successful and, by its claim to be humane, may have set back the campaign to abolish the trade.
William Wilberforce campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade from the formation of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, in London in May 1787 to the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act on 16 March. 1807. A number of myths surround Wilberforce. He was an MP and a wealthy factory owner who exploited child labour in his Hull factories. Contrary to popular belief he was opposed to the emancipation of the slaves, claiming that they were not fit for freedom.
When Earl Percy wanted to bring in a Bill for the gradual abolition of slavery in the West Indies in 1807, Wilberforce stated: "I and those who think with me not only abstain from proposing such a Bill, are ready to reject such a proposition when made by others". Wilberforce had a patronising attitude towards the slaves and was intolerant of Mohammedanism and Hinduism, which he wished to replace with Christianity.
The Prime Minister, William Pitt, also claimed to be an abolitionist but trading actually increased during his administration. It is thought that his opposition arose as a result of the sale of slaves by British merchants to foreign colonies, especially France, which although profitable in the short term was damaging to Britain's long-term interests.
After the abolition of the slave trade a million slaves remained in bondage in the West Indies and as slavery continued until 1833 slaves, therefore, had to be replaced. But the illegality of trading pushed up the price of slaves. To prevent illegal trading the British government provided bounty money for the capture of slave ships. As a full ship could command a bounty of £2,500 the naval squadron patrolling the African coast preferred to catch slave vessels at sea because it was more profitable than prevention. To evade the risk of capture the slave captains would put the slaves into specially prepared hiding places, so small that the slaves often died of suffocation or else they would be thrown overboard to drown or be eaten by sharks. The illegal trade was so profitable that if only one in three of the slave ships delivered its human cargo, a profit could be made. The European slave owning countries co-operated with each other to stop the slave trade but the USA refused to take part for a time and it was possible for a ship to avoid capture by running up the American flag.
The abolition of the slave trade provides a classic example of the futility of a reform that leaves the system intact and can sometimes lead to a worsening of conditions rather than an improvement. By the nineteenth century the industrial revolution had superseded chattel-slavery and feudalism in Britain. A new class of labouring poor with nothing to sell except their labour power had emerged in the industrial towns and cities. Slavery was becoming an anachronism. Slave labour was not free: slaves had to be maintained and, unlike the wage-slaves of Britain, they were expensive to buy. In Jamaica, in 1817, male slaves aged 20-40 years were valued at £139 and female slaves at £124 (B.W. Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica 1807-1834, Cambridge University Press. 1976).
As the work performed by slaves was usually of poor quality incentives were provided within the slavery system. In the French West Indies slaves had some legal protection against arbitrary punishments being meted out by their owners and. it is claimed, those islands were more profitable. In Jamaica slaves who had learned trades were able to amass fairly large sums of money. The ending of the slave trade led to a higher proportion of unproductive slaves as the owners were forced to breed slaves for themselves.
Further pressure was put on the slave system by a fall in the price of sugar which, by emancipation, was worth only about half of its value at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Reform Bill of 1832 halved the planters' representation in the British Parliament which weakened them politically and the increasing number of slave rebellions culminated in the Jamaican rebellion on 27 December 1831 in which 20,000 slaves took part, killing 14 whites and destroying over £1 million worth of property.
In the face of growing economic and political problems the plantation owners opted for the compensation offered by the British government of 1833 which, in fact recognised the legal right of one person to own another. For the former slaves, emancipation changed their material lives very little; their former owners kept control of the courts and owned the land. As Tolstoy observed fifty years later:
. . . the essence of all slavery consists in drawing the benefit of another's labour-force by compulsion, and it is quite immaterial whether the drawing of this benefit is founded upon property in the slave or upon property in money which is indispensable to the other man (What Shall We Do Then, 1885).
Chattel-slavery was a particularly vicious form of exploitation, although the condition of the working class under laissez-faire capitalism was also inhumane and squandered workers' lives. For workers all over the world the fight for emancipation against wage-slavery and its replacement with socialism still has to be won.