Robin Blackburn, author of ‘The overthrow of Colonial Slavery’ (VERSO, 1988) talked to Martin Thomas
Q. About the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, you wrote: “Britain's rulers were being asked to decide the abolition question at an extraordinary time... Britain’s oligarchy had a world to win if they could pull through — and a kingdom to lose if they could not”.
So it was not just a matter of gradual moral improvement making Britain eventually see the wisdom of abolishing an ancient evil. Moreover, it was in large part not an ancient evil but a comparatively new one. The Atlantic slave trade rose to its height only in the 18th century. What was the crisis which brought on abolition?
A. The crisis had several different layers and components. In the first place, it was that Napoleon had more less united Europe under his control. Britain was more or less on its own, as in 1940.
The rulers of Britain in the early 19th century were a hard-hearted lot, but they needed to rally the people to continue to fight a war with France they had been fighting for ten years.
Britain was also going through the Industrial Revolution, and the process called by E P Thompson “the making of the English working class”. There were rebellions like those of the Luddites.
So a noble cause was required to unite the people for the war.
Abolitionism was, of course, not just a cynical contrivance. It was a progressive movement. The demand for the abolition of the slave trade came up from a movement which included people like Olaudah Equiano, a former slave and also a former member of the radical London Corresponding Society. It came from the Quakers, too.
Abolitionism was a cause which had shown itself hugely popular in the 1780s and 1790s. There were petitions in northern industrial towns which almost every adult male inhabitant seems to have signed.
Nonconformist churches supported abolition, and used the issue to underline their demand for equal rights.
Then the panic in reaction to the French Revolution had caused a complete blockage on abolitionism at the parliamentary level. But by 1805-6 that had begun to change.
Also, the British victory at the battle of Trafalgar in 1806 created a favourable context, where Britain could control the seas.
Q. Why did abolition “stick” after the crisis?
A. It was a measure that in itself was deleterious to no more than a tiny mercantile interest. The West Indian plantations themselves were another matter. But the abolition of the slave trade did not harm them. Their prosperity increased. The price of slaves increased, and there was an increasing demand for plantation products.
The people involved, in the British ruling class, believed that abolition of the slave trade was a good cause. But the abolition of the slave trade also became an ideal umbrella for Britain to pursue its own mercantile interests. Britain negotiated trade agreements with a series of countries, such as Spain and Portugal, which included measures against the slave trade along with reductions in tariffs on British goods.
Q. You argue that Wilberforce was not at all typical of the people who had been campaigning for abolition before 1807. Who were the main campaigners for abolition?
A. Wilberforce was a member of the gentry, from a rich mercantile family, and a close friend of the Prime Minister. In that sense he was not typical.
Of course, he was an evangelical, and many of the evangelicals — the Methodists, the Baptists — supported the anti-slave-trade cause. There was a sort of rivalry between the evangelicals and the political radicals, both at loggerheads with the oligarchy which was running the country, to lead the cause of abolition of the slave trade.
Q. On the face of it, abolition had a very limited effect. You write that the number of slaves sold in the Americas in 1815-30 equalled or exceeded the number of the last two decades of the 18th century. In the 1830s and 1840s the trade was still high. By 1860 the number of slaves in the Americas had increased to six million, compared to 2.3 million in 1774.
Yet slavery was abolished in former Spanish America from the 1820s; in the British West Indies in 1834; in the USA in 1865; and in Brazil in 1888. What was the long-trend which extinguished slavery in the Americas? And how significant was 1807 as a landmark in it?
A. It wasn’t only Britain that suppressed the slave trade in 1807. Denmark had banned the slave trade in 1802, and the United States banned it in the same year as Britain.
Abolition did bring the volume of the slave trade down a bit, but yes, there was a continuing vigorous slave trade, partly clandestine, in the 1820s and the 1830s. Britain had abolished the slave trade to its own colonies, but there was continued re-stocking of slave systems elsewhere in the Americas.
The Haitian Revolution had liberated the slaves of Saint-Domingue well before 1807, in 1794-1804. That was a much bigger blow to slavery than the British decision to abolish the slave trade. Saint-Domingue had been the richest single slave colony in the Americas in the 1780s. The gigantic slave insurrection put the writing on the wall for slavery. It was the beginning of the end for the slave system.
But the slaveholders in the Southern states of the USA, in Brazil, and in Cuba were able to rally. And they did not depend on imports from the slave trade. There was considerable natural growth in the slave population of the USA, which was four million of the total of six million slaves in the Americas in 1860.
The second great blow to slavery was the American Civil War of 1861-5, and the emancipation of the slaves at the end of it.
Q. You write that abolitionist campaigns involved women more than previous political campaigns, and also that “abolitionism directly inspired the first campaigns for civic equality for women”.
A. The women abolitionists were asserting their own rights to be politically active. In fact, in the 1820s, it was abolitionist women in Birmingham who were the first to say that what was needed was the immediate, not the gradual, emancipation of slavery in the British colonies.
From the links and connections they made in the abolitionist campaigns women went on to demand rights for themselves. Thus at the Seneca Falls convention in upstate New York in 1838, the first major rallying for votes for women, nearly all the women involved had met each other through abolitionist activity.
Q. It is often argued that the slave trade was central in generating modern racist ideology, as a way to bridge the contradiction between general bourgeois ideas of equality and the facts of the slave trade.
A. There is no doubt that slavery greatly intensified racist feelings. It would be wrong to say that there was no racism prior to the slave system. Although the initiative for the slave trade was taken by merchants and planters, the fact is that the ordinary colonists went along with it.
But racial feeling in the 16th and 17th centuries, as it affected ordinary British people, was a matter of fear or hostility born of ignorance and unfamiliarity. It did not involve wanting to dominate or control black people.
The slave trade led to a much more intense, much more focused racism, based not so much on aversion as on a desire to control.