The Challenges and Motives Behind the Abolition of Slave Trade

The slave trade was abolished by Britain in 1807. It seemed humanitarian at the time, but the insincerity of purpose exhibited by the progenitors of abolition has been revealed over the course of time.

It can be asserted therefore that posterity has both prosecuted, tried and judged the antics of the abolitionists and pro-slavers. The submission has found all the ‘characters’ in the unwholesome drama culpable.

The slave trade or rather slavery is as old as man. The Holy Bible in Genesis chapter 37 verse 28 describes how Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery; the holy quoran describes a ‘liberated’ negro slave who later became the prayer caller for all Mussulmans in Macca in 600 CE: it is also prominently featured in many African traditional folk tales and lores how slavery was in existence in ancient times e.g the story of the ‘princess and the slave servant’, which is a very popular lore that cuts across most African cultures particularly.

The point here is that the slave trade or slavery has for long endured only that in more recent world history the intensity of its magnitude had increased.

As far back as the tenth century [if not beyond] slave trading was a feature of the trans-saharan caravan trade between Arabia and Africa south of the sahara. Many slaves of Oriental and African extract had been transferred back and forth over this period until the sixteenth century.

The ‘white man’ (Europeans) made ‘his’ debut entrance into the international trade between Europe and Africa south of the sahara in the fourteenth century heralded by the Portuguese.

The period being refferred to as the era of the renaissance saw the succint interest in Africa by Europe which was not unconnected with the quest for knowledge on the one hand and search for new outlets for their goods on the other hand, all these in exchange for raw and human materials to sustain their commercial and economic endevours in their home land. This they found in black Africa.

Being the era of enlightenement, the European venture into west Africa saw the discovery of new lands and peoples and admittedly made good advancement in the geography and anthropology of those peoples and their lands.

It must be noted that they brought along hitherto unknown products to Africa in exchange for our local products like palm oil, timber, gold, ivory,etc.

Not long after the advent of the Europeans, the indurstrial revolution began in Britain and this developement neccessitated the need for raw materials needed to process the raw goods in their store houses as well as oil to lubricate the heavy machineries in their factories back home.

Also in the Americas, there arose a high demand for labour as a result of the emergence of large sugar cane plantations and mining operations in the northern part of America.

This need was greatly excercebated by the time it was discovered that African labour was more durable than Asiatics and red Indians who had been the available source of labour before then; The Americans and Europeans observed that Africans could endure longer hours of work than the afore mentioned, whether in the mines or the fields.

Thus from the sixteenth century down to the late nineteenth century the demand for slaves had drastically increased more than ever and West Africa provided an inexhaustive source for these ‘human material’.


By the eighteenth century a group of so called humanitarians in Britain had emerged who attempted to halt the inhuman trade.

One may safely think that the efforts of these group of humanitarians was quite noble, and unarguably some credit may be accorded them. However, if the approach to this venture still left much to be desired in the area of sincerity. what then indeed was the true objective of the humanitarians, as they were later appellated?

The anti-slavers had advocated for a new kind of economic and social relationship not like the one maintained before between Europe and West Africa

Economically the abolitionists sought to replace the illicit trade in humans with the alternative of legitimate commerce while socially they intended to systematically introduce civilisation to the ‘uncivilised’ African.

Naturally this was opposed to by the African slave merchants who had been greatly profiting from it, and this caused a resentment on their part of the white humanists who, ironically, had in fact been advocating in favour of the illicit trade for years.

They were surprised by the sudden change of attitude of the white man and interpreted it to mean an usurpation of their “legitimate rights” to the gains of the slave trade by crafty means.

Thus it was not unnatural that they had strongly resisted it by intensifying their quest for slaves for sale to the other European nations who still engaged in it other than Britain.

Of course the white men were all the same to them and their contention was that since white man ‘A’ has refused to do business with them , white man ‘B’ would always be willing to.

As pointed out practically by a local chief in a conversation with one of the European anti-slavers who was advocating legitimate trade, he was quoted as saying that human beings were much more easier to ‘catch’ than elephants.

The impression by this chief interpreted to mean that the slave trade was much too profitable and physically less demanding than ‘legitimate commerce’ which the “white man was trying to promote and there was no ‘possible’ way it could be stopped unless…

The justice Mansefield ruling of 1772 in Britain held that a slave was automatically free once he/she stepped on British soil. This pronouncement sparked a new zeal for the abolitionists who through heated arguements in and outside parliament at Whitehall sought for total abolition.

Not long after, Justice Mansfields’ ruling had included that all British subjects were legally forbidden to deal or trade in slaves by a law passed in 1807. With the passing of this law Britain assumed the forefront position among other European nations, in the fight against slavery.

In West Africa, a naval patrol was commissioned to intercept slave ships navigating the atlantic. Further still, several treaties were signed with Britain and other European nations between 1833 and 1842, which included the equipment treaties.

This treaty allowed Britain to search any ship suspected of either carryig slaves or equipments used in the illicit trade, and seize them.

The approach of Britain to achieve total abolition included military force, diplomatic persuasions and pressures, legitimate commerce and missionary propaganda.

The British campaign in West-Africa was clearly concerted, and interestingly the afore mentioned methods were all quite related in achieving their objective of colonial authority, which as at the time reflected Britain’s imperialist policies in international relations.

Slavery in every form is evil because it involves forced and involuntary service,subtle brutality of mind and body, child labour and not to talk of the dehumanization of mans pre-divined dignity by his ‘creator’.

As stated earlier, some credit may be given to the advocates of abolition in that they had indeed succeeded in scrapping the inhumanity of slavery in the physical cum practically literary sense.

Yet it can still be asserted that the motive behind the abolition was not well meant nor favourable to the enslaved.

Truly in the sight of God, and ovbious in the eyes of man (the black African especially), it can safely be asserted that slavery ceased in one of many forms only to emerge in another form. For the black African therefore, this thus culminated serially in capitalism and globalisation.

In the days of messrs William Wilberforce and William Pitt, Europe had ironically almost hijacked Africa in accordance with its premeditated objective of imperialism and colonialism.

This is evident today in the economic and political status of developing nations in the world: the overtake by big businesses of many of these developing nations economy. Here, monopolostic exploitation of the available human and natural resources thrived on the one hand, whilst the commercial criminality of the big nations in Africa and other developing nations, on the other, diminished the progressive mentality of the average third worlder, nay the African.

This has degenerated to the point where as a result of the vested interest in the hitherto vibrant economies, the expatriate concerns located in the economies of these nations has produced flagrant corruption in high and low places.

In the area of labour and employment in the so called developing countries where the conglomerates are located, the average worker is dehumanized in fact and subjected to almost inhuman treatment where by they are made to work more and receive less than the commensurate pay for their labour.

In these dehumanized social economies, international labour regulations and ideals have been flagrantly disregarded by the big capitalist nations with economic and commercial interests in such countries.

This developmeht has witnessed poor working conditions, and especially security and safety in the factories of these expatriate concerns for their labour are deliberately disregarded.

Cases have been recorded before now of workers locked in and barred from leaving factory premises simply for the reason of maximizing the marginal output of labour which in many unrelated instances has led to tragic out comes.

Thus in appraising the motives and intentions behind abolition it must be fundamentally noted that the progenitors of this course already envisaged a systematic but gradual approach to continously enslave Black Africa although no longer practically or rather literarily, but subtly mentally if not intellectually.

This discourse is thereby surmised by the words of Jules Merline, a former prime minister of France in the late 19th century which lends credence to the validity of the position of the afore text.

In his words, he states that France should: “…earnestly seek to discourage in advance every form of entrepeneurship on the part of the African…[and]…endevour fervently to locate their source of rich raw materials which must be coveted to our use for the greater benefit of our mother country [France]…”

This stands as food for thought for all concerned and interested in the slavery and anti-slavery era of world history in general.

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