England Empire and the Commonwealth Essay Example
England Empire and the Commonwealth Essay Example

England Empire and the Commonwealth Essay Example

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  • Pages: 6 (1525 words)
  • Published: December 20, 2021
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For decades and decades the history of slavery within the British Empire has been a subject of a great debate and argument among contemporary historians. The intense debate the subject evokes today is to some extent a result of one big reality: expect for the past two centuries, slavery was a central feature in almost every aspect of historical era. Perhaps the big question all contemporary historians are asking is, why did a practice so big and widely accepted come to a halt? How did it, for instance, stop in within the British Empire?

Until 1807, about 200 years ago, slavery was an institution that was accepted within the New World. Slavery was like a custom or practice back then. Major European powers led by the British Empire had at one point entered and signed a treaty or agreement to practice slavery. The agreeme


nt was known as the Atlantic slave trade. This was a move to safe guard their slave colonies in different parts of the world, especially in Africa and the Caribbean islands. The slave trade was largely dominated by the British Empire whose ships ferried an estimated three million African slaves from their colonies. The slave trade thrived rapidly until 1807 and 1808 when the British Empire and the United States decided to abandon or rather abolish the transatlantic slave trade respectively. In fact, abolition emerged as the most significant reform movement during the 18th and the 19th centuries. The movement was mostly effected by religious leaders, politicians, and economics. Even after its abolition, slave trade continued for years and years, though illegally. The abolition movement was not effected in a single day, but

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it was a gradual process.

Why was slave trade abolished? This is perhaps the most significant question about the abolition of slave trade. Was it as a result of intellectual enlightenment or was it on economic reasons? In his book, The Black Jacobins, CLR James states that despite the existence of other reasons as to why slave trade was abolished, economic reasons especially British commerce ranked first on the list of members of parliament who wanted to abolish slave trade. In their discussion, members of parliament through William Wilberforce argued that other than the “justice and humanity” reasons, Britain’s political interests played a significant role in the abolition of slave trade within the British Empire (Great Britain).

Some members of parliament argued that slave trade was significant in serving the political interest of Britain. Slave trade to some extent made sense to some parliamentarians like William young who argued that abolition of slave trade would have devastating effects to British commerce (Drescher). Other mp’s considered slave trade as evil that was necessary and others like Vaughan argued that he had not witnessed any cruelties as mentioned by some Africans (Great Britain).

Those who supported the abolition of slave trade had no idea of the effects it would have to the British Empire’s commercial interests. Adam smith supported the abolition of slave trade not because of economic reasons but because of the allocation of resources as he argues in his book, The Wealth of Nations. He argued that resources were not allocated effectively and efficiently when people worked under constrained conditions or as slaves. He further argued that the British Empire would benefit economically if they abolished slave trade.

Many people remained skeptical about Adam smith’s analysis including William young. Sugar interests of the British Empire remained as the major obstacle of the abolition of slave trade and the move was seen as an economic suicide-“econcide” (Drescher). It was at this time that the sugar industry was more profitable than any other year.

In his book, Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams was highly critical of the fact that abolition was motivated by humanitarian reasons and ideals. Williams argues that abolition came as a result of modern capitalism. He further argues that capitalism made the slave trade system unprofitable leading to the abolition all together. Williams’ argument became one of the basic theories of abolition.

Theories explaining why slavery was abolished within the British Empire

Theory of Capitalism

The theory of capitalism was advanced by Eric Williams in his book, Capitalism and Slavery. He argues that modern capitalism made slave trade unprofitable leading to its abolition (Williams ). He argues that humanitarian motive had little or nothing towards the abolition of slave trade within the British Empire. He argues that people were motivated by self-interest and not morals nor humanitarian feelings. He further argues that profit made during the slave trade led to the industrial revolution which in turn played a significant role in the abolition of slave trade. Slave trade and capitalism was incompatible, at least that’s how supporters of capitalism put it.

Williams’’ work was great because it was scientific with empirical evidence attached to it. It actually room for further research. Even after advancing such a strong argument, his work could not go without criticism. Many historians criticized his thesis known as the “Williams’ thesis” up to

a point it lacked sustainability. Historians argue that there were serious some difficulties in the abolition of slave trade even in countries that were capitalists. They give examples of places such as the United States and Brazil where slave trade was difficult to abolish. Their argument begs the question, if slavery was incompatible with capitalism why then did it persist and survive for a long time in a capitalist economy like the United States?

The major challengers of Williams’ argument were Seymour Drescher and Roger Anstey. These two historians were able to successfully demonstrate that slave trade was at its most profitable period within the British Empire when people started to fight for its abolition in the early 1800s. They say that slave trade never became less profitable, but hostility towards it had grown even though it was still important to traders and slave owners and the overall importance to the economy of the British Empire (Roger 472).

These historians do damage to Williams’ thesis even further when they successfully proved that resistance towards slavery had become a real force towards the abolition of slave trade. There was a mass movement that supported the abolition of slave trade in Britain and other countries like France. Drescher maintains that abolition of slave trade was a significant of a popular British culture then, commanding huge support from most people, and people without economic interest (Howard 359).

Humanitarian movement theory

The need for abolition in Britain did not rise until the eighteenth century. Equiano, a former slave played a great role in the initial stages of the abolition of slave trade within the British Empire. Equiano, also known as, Gustavus Vassa constantly

wrote to the queen as a slave and before he became an abolitionist about slavery and its cruelties. The writings indicate how he dedicated his entire life resisting slavery. His writings reveal the horrors slaves went through. The insights about the cruelties of slavery in his writings can be argued they played no small role in abolishing slavery within the British Empire. Aware of the intellectual and economic environment of that era, Equiano made arguments similar to Adam smith’s and recognized groups who were in particular against slavery (Hopkins).

Another important factor that played a significant role in the debate for the abolition of slave trade was religion. Even among those who opposed slave trade, there were those who maintained that Africans were not worth of liberty because they were not Christians. This caused a huge stir in the theological debate about the abolition of slave trade. Most slaves were brought in the pretext that they would get civilization through education. CLR James argues that the moment slaves arrived within the British Empire; it marked the end of the empty promises and the beginning of cruelty (Hopkins).

Common basis

Many historians have come to agree that humanitarian needs and a man’s basic nature of freedom had a significant role in the abolition of slave trade. They also agree that there was a relationship between capitalism and abolition of slave trade but not because of self-interest has Eric Williams argued but rather on an intellectual point of view. They again agree that religion played an important role, particularly Quakerism and evangelical Protestantism.

Work cited

  • Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. London: 1789.
  • Great Britain. Parliament,

House of Commons. Abolitionist Debate. London: 1789.

  • Antsey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1975).
  • Drescher, Seymour. A Case of Econocide :British Abolition and Economic Development, quoted from.Antsey.
  • Hopkins, Samuel. Timely Articles on Slavery. (Miami, FL: Mnemosyne Publishing Inc., 1969).
  • Roger Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810(Atlantic Highlands, N.J.:
  • Humanities Press, 1975), and Seymour Drescher,Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1977).
  • Howard Temperley, “Anti-Slavery as Cultural Imperialism” in Christine Bolt and Seymour Drescher, eds., Anti- Slavery, Religion and Reform: Essays in Memory of Roger Anstey (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980), pp. 335–50.
  • Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, 1994).
  • Seymour Drescher, Econcide: British Slavery in the era of Abolition (Pittsburg, 1997).
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