Anniversary of abolition of slave trade shows complex legacy, professor says

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Religious and economic factors involved in the abolition of slave trade.

By Regis L. Roberts

Jan. 1 marked the 200th anniversary of the beginning of a long road to the abolition of an institution whose legacy of race relations America still struggles with.

The trading of slaves from Africa to the United States was formally ended Jan. 1, 1808.

History Professor Carol Keller, who has been discussing slavery with her classes this week, said it is important to reflect on this period in history, especially during Black History Month.

History Lecturer Richard Buitron said the struggle for African-American rights created a complex legacy for a country founded on liberty and equality.

“It’s a difficult legacy to go through,” he said of the journey from legal slavery to Jim Crow laws and segregation.

Complicating matters even more were the efforts made by the government to achieve rights for African-Americans that failed, such as during Reconstruction, Keller said.

“It succeeds in some areas, but by and large, it fails,” she said. “The country gets tired of it; it’s an expensive process; you don’t have education and land reform.”

Many forces were involved in keeping the institution of slavery alive in America until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, 55 and 57 years after the end of the slave trade respectively, Buitron said.

He said slavery was opposed by some even as far back as the American Revolution, but there was such fierce disagreement between the colonies that they could only agree during the Constitutional Convention to continue the slave trade until 1808.

Keller said Congress, through a gag rule passed in 1836, could not discuss slavery in any way for years. After leaving the presidency, John Quincy Adams served in the House of Representatives, where he fought the rule until it was repealed eight years later.

The forces behind abolition, Buitron said, were often driven by different considerations.

One of those was a moral opposition to slavery, led primarily by the Quakers who believed that every human being, regardless of race, gender and class, had a spark of divinity within them.

Implicit in this belief was that every person should be treated equally, considered a radical position for the time, Buitron said.

The average Englishman and American who lived in that period thought it was natural for black slaves and women to be treated unfairly, he said.

In America and Britain, evangelical Christians also fought for abolition. Buitron and Keller both mentioned the 2006 film “Amazing Grace,” about British abolitionist William Wilberforce’s efforts to end slavery, as a great depiction of the religious arguments for abolition. Keller even assigned the film as extra credit to her students.

The moral argument against slavery was bolstered by a shifting economic climate in America, Buitron said.

For many years, the main cash crop was tobacco, a labor-intensive crop to cultivate. Land used for tobacco eventually became exhausted, and slave labor was seen as being less important to the agricultural economy, he said.

As less labor-demanding crops, such as wheat, replaced tobacco, the importation, or “kidnapping” as Buitron put it, of people from Africa was something that became harder to justify.

“Those slave populations in Virginia, and what we call the Northern slave states … they’re sold south as cotton expands, and they become this huge market for the South,” Keller said.

Selling within the United States, which was still legal after 1808, caused an “excess slave population” in the South. Therefore, the continuation of the slave trade was seen as being unnecessary for the continuation of slavery, she said.

Developments like the cotton gin, invented in 1793 by Eli Whitney and patented the next year, again increased the demand for crops that were cultivated using slave labor.

The movement to abolish the slave trade in England was hinged more on a moral basis.

Of particular consideration for the British Parliament were the conditions on slave ships.

Parliament investigated these conditions by interviewing slaves and the crew of the ships.

Dr. Thomas Trotter, a physician on the infamous slave ship Brookes, told Parliament that the slaves were crammed together in tight quarters and “were often miserably bruised against the deck or against each other.”

Buitron said passengers had an area of about five square feet, not even enough room to sit, stand or move.

Conditions on the ships were unsanitary because of a lack of facilities, he said.

These conditions were a breeding-ground for disease, he said, and the crew of the ships often threw people who were sick, dead or dying overboard. Sharks even learned to follow the ships along the Middle Passage — the route from Africa to the Americas — because of the constant food supply.

The crew of slave ships, he said, were the dregs of the maritime business, often abusing the passengers. The abolition of the trade was not seen as a loss among legitimate sailors, he said.

The trading of human cargo was replaced with the opening of new markets, especially in Asian countries like India and China, Buitron said. Ivory from India and silks from China quickly filled in as a replacement for the maritime business.

Consequently, Buitron said, opium was introduced to China and the specter of alleged opium-addicted Chinese laborers was used as propaganda to exclude them from American citizenship decades later.

The slave trade in Europe began with Portugal in the 1490s because of the number of explorers from there, he said.

Portuguese traders often took slaves to Brazil and the Caribbean islands.

Brazil ended the slave trade in the 1850s, and Caribbean nations, such as Cuba, ended the trade about a decade later.

Buitron said the harsh conditions for slaves in the Caribbean contributed to the continuation of the slave trade well after America and Europe ended the trade and slavery as a practice.

Slaves were often worked to death in the Caribbean and the abundance of poisonous animals meant slaves died at a faster rate than in America and Europe.

Because slaves died so frequently, the continuing importation of people from Africa was justified as being a way to replenish their source of slave labor, Buitron said.

As a result of the continued slave trade in the Caribbean and Latin America, blacks constituted large percentages of the population in many countries, he said. In fact, Brazil has a black population of 6.2 percent and a biracial population of 38.5 percent; 51 percent of the Cuban population is biracial and 11 percent is black.

In states like South Carolina and Louisiana, blacks made up a majority of the population after slavery was abolished, Buitron said.

Slavery was ended in Cuba in 1886 and Brazil in 1888.

“Of course, Brazil was a huge consumer of slaves because of the sugar and the mines,” Keller said.

Britain abolished slavery in 1833 and paid planters 20 million pounds in compensation — more than $800 million today.

She said it is important to stress that “in the United States, it takes a war” to end slavery. “It’s the only place where it takes a war.”

The cotton growers and the powerful textile industry that depended on cotton were the main obstacles in ending slavery, he said.

The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation is still something that America has to work through, he said.

The historical contradiction exists of America as a culture synonymous with freedom and equality and a people who practiced such brutality and inhumanity, he said.

The Founding Fathers were slave owners, and John Locke, famous for his writings and philosophy on liberty, was a shareholder in the Royal Africa Company, which profited from the slave trade.

The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and civil rights legislation were all measures to enfranchise African-Americans.

Human trafficking, however, still takes place today, Buitron noted. People are used as sex and labor slaves even today, even in this country.


Leave A Reply