Slave trade abolition bicentennial: an exercise in whitewashing

Two centuries after the slave trade was formally abolished in the British Empire, the true extent of British involvement and reliance on that trade is less widely understood than ever; as are the real reasons for its abolition.

Proletarian writers

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On 25 March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed, prohibiting slave relations within the British Empire. The bicentennial of this event has been greeted by a great deal of fanfare, with leading politicians queuing up to issue half-hearted ‘apologies’ for Britain’s role in the slave trade. The great insight and moral loftiness of the likes of Tory MP William Wilberforce (the most prominent British parliamentary abolitionist) have been lauded, and the marvel of 21st century ‘free labour’ has been counterposed to the insufferable cruelty of slavery.

Abolition was not a ‘moral’ issue for the capitalist class

The question of the abolition of slavery has long been treated in history books as an act of benevolence and dedication by a few white liberal campaigners, driven by their humanitarianism and lofty moral values. This treatment of the subject is not just superficial – it is pernicious.

It is perfectly true that a significant number of whites campaigned and lobbied for abolition; some of them even contributed to the underground railroad and took part in military raids against slaveowners (John Brown being a notable example). However, the white abolitionists were by no means the main contributing body towards the abolition of slavery. Furthermore, the motivations of the white abolitionist movement – in Britain and America – were not humanitarian: although many individuals within this movement were undoubtedly motivated by a sense of humanity and equality, the movement as a whole reflected changing economic conditions.

The simple agricultural labour of the slave was increasingly being rendered inefficient by the introduction of large-scale industrial machines. It just wasn’t feasible for these machines to be operated on the basis of slave labour – the operation of such machinery requires a certain level of education and training that is not consistent with the shackles of slavery. As Tristram Hunt wrote recently: “Profits from the bloody trade secured the imperial hegemony of Georgian England. It was only brought to an end in 1807 because of the move from a colonial sugar trade to industrial capitalism. There was nothing noble about abolition …” (‘Easy on the euphoria’,, 25 March 2006)

An ‘added bonus’ of treating abolition as an act of kindness by ‘good’ people is that it leads very naturally to treating slavery as an act of meanness by ‘bad’ people, thereby allowing us to ignore the important fact that capitalism will stop at nothing in the pursuit of profit. The industrial revolution, the great cities of Britain, the rapid development of western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – all these were built on the slave trade, on the intensive and inhuman exploitation of African slave labour. Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean were considered to be “the fundamental prop and support” of the British Empire. (Eric Williams, Capital and Slavery, cited in WEB DuBois, The World and Africa)

In the poetic words of Karl Marx:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, etc …

“With the development of capitalist production during the manufacturing period, the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience. The nations bragged cynically of every infamy that served them as a means to capitalistic accumulation …

“If money, according to Augier, ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek’, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” ( Capital Vol 1)

Slave revolts

Aside from the economic question, one of the principal driving factors in bringing down slavery in the Americas was the increasingly well-organised and militant revolts by the slaves, who far outnumbered the white population in the southern states and in the Caribbean. As is (at the time of writing) noted on the Wikipedia entry for the Atlantic slave trade, “Virtually every major reform pertaining to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery took place in the immediate aftermath of a major armed rebellion and/or victory by enslaved or formerly enslaved Africans.”

These revolts were a highly significant factor in rendering slavery untenable. But the history of slave revolt is largely ignored, or at least features only as a footnote, in bourgeois accounts of abolition. Bourgeois academics have settled on a version of history that emphasises the benevolence of white colonialists, ignores the economic basis upon which political acts rest, and downplays any thirst of the oppressed for freedom. Perhaps one day Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson and David Trimble will be remembered in secondary schools as the bearers of Irish freedom!

It is criminal that the version of history taught to schoolchildren does not include, for example, the heroic uprising of the African slaves along with the Seminole American natives, in which hundreds of slaves fled their plantations to join the rebel forces in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). In this revolt, the largest slave rebellion in US history, more than 20 sugar plantations in Florida were destroyed. (See

The names of slave leaders like Nat Turner, Samuel Sharpe and Zumbi are rarely heard when the press talks about slavery. Nobody mentions Haiti, where the slaves overthrew the colonisers and set up their own independent state. Such memories are clearly too painful for the ruling class (and potentially too inspiring for the oppressed masses of the world). As WEB DuBois put it in his excellent book The World and Africa, “The slave revolts were the beginnings of the revolutionary struggle for the uplift of the labouring masses in the modern world. They have been minimised in extent because of the propaganda in favour of slavery and the feeling that the knowledge of slave revolt would hurt the system.”

The legacy of slavery lives on

Britain, the US, Belgium, France and other imperialist countries continue to treat Africa simply as a source of profit. Two hundred years ago, they stole human beings and took them across the Atlantic Ocean to work them in the sugar plantations; today, they are happy to exploit Africans on African soil. The colonial and neo-colonial history of Africa, most of which occurs after Britain suddenly discovered the importance of freedom and thus abolished slavery, is a story of relentless exploitation, subjugation, oppression and repression. Still today imperialism does not hesitate to murder, rape and steal in the interests of getting control of Africa’s mineral resources, labour and markets. What are we to make of Tony Blair’s ‘apology’ for Britain’s role in the slave trade when his government and the British ruling class he represents are doing everything they can to keep Africa in neo-colonial chains?

What’s more, the ideological legacy of slavery, ie, the idea of the superiority of the white ‘race’, is still perpetuated today, albeit in far more sophisticated fashion than it was two hundred years ago. This racism is still used to divide working people and to provide a subconscious justification for the actions of the imperialist states in the third world.

Finally, we should point out that, while formal slavery relations are these days very unusual, the actual conditions under which the poorer sections of the world’s population labour are not all that different to conditions of slavery. Labourers in Asia, Africa and South America are very often literally worked to death by the multinationals that employ them. They are nominally ‘free’, but in reality they have no means of survival other than submitting themselves to the ruthless exploitation of the corporations.

It’s up to us to finish the job started by the likes of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Frederick Douglass.

No to slavery and no to wage slavery! Forward to communism!