Slavery and the British Empire

There are two types of slavery, freehold and chattel. Each has particular economic features. Freehold slavery is for a limited time period and often associated with repayment of a debt. It has similarities to indentured labour where the person agrees to work for an employer for a certain period, after which the person is free. Chattel slavery occurs when someone is the property of another person for an unlimited time period. Any child of a chattel slave is also a slave, unlike the child of a freehold slave.

The slave trade

The trans-Atlantic slave trade, dating from the 16th century and formally ending in 1807, involved chattel slavery. Was it a legacy of the British Empire? Yes and no. Slavery was part of the economic transactions which took place involving empire trade from the 16th century up until the abolition of the slave trade by some countries in 1807, and the banning of slavery by many but not all countries some years after that. But Slavery has a long history stretching back centuries before the trans-Atlantic slave trade and continues today in some places. Indentured labour, which is a form of freehold slavery, is also common today in a number of countries. Illegal migrants are often involved in this form of slavery with a commitment to repay a loan with either money or work. Slavery involving the British Empire did occur, but it is part of a process which has existed throughout recorded human history. Slavery today is the legacy from all of yesterdays not just one period.

Chattel slavery deals with obtaining and using labour for certain economic purposes. It characterises certain types of labour markets. Similar actions, however, occur in markets for land, capital equipment and intellectual property. Confiscation or expropriation of land, buildings and equipment without fair compensation, and theft of patent and copyright property are similar features of market and political transactions. These too took place during imperial times but also before and afterwards.

Of relevance to the slave trade in imperial times (1500-1900) is how it was conducted. The how and why have been the subject of books, pamphlets, films, television shows and numerous speeches. Today, the subject is of interest because it is considered morally wrong in most countries, and depicts the appalling way in which some people treat others. By this measure, it has similarities to current views in many countries on the death penalty, the lash, racial and religious discrimination, polygamy, family violence, and the treatment of women and children. All these practices have a long history and continue to this day. They are the legacy of many times, peoples and places.

Conduct of the slave trade

Historians depict the trans-Atlantic slave trade as being triangular between Africa, the Caribbean/North America and the UK. A driving force was the demand for cheap labour for the production of sugar, tobacco and cotton which was shipped for consumption in the UK and continental Europe. Port cities like Bristol, Liverpool and Rotterdam flourished due to this trade. Slaves were shipped from West Africa to the Caribbean and North America, and produce from there to the UK and Europe. The last leg of the triangle, from the UK and Europe to Africa, brought goods used to purchase the African slaves. This part of the triangle and the related transactions, mainly barter, gets less attention.

Who supplied the slaves and what form did the payments take? African tribal chiefs supplied the slaves either from their own tribes or by capturing those from other tribes. One observation is that well before the 16th century the slave trade was a pattern of life, especially from west and central African regions to the north and east of the continent, and that when the opportunity arose traders diversified their business to the west coast and across the Atlantic with the aid of European shipping. Others argue that the earlier slave trade was in the form of freehold slavery unlike the chattel slavery which was later to occur, and blame still rests with the European countries.

“The African tribes who did engage in trade with the slavers could have no way of knowing how the Europeans would use the captives. Chattel slavery and the associated denial of human rights was unknown to them. The terrors that were visited on the kidnapped Africans is solely credited to the slavers themselves.
Remember: Freehold slavery was the form used in Africa, Greece, Eastern Europe, etc. Chattel slavery was a NEW form invented by Western Europeans to control enslaved Africans and “Native Americans” and propagated through the Trans-Atlantic Slaving War.
The African concept of “slavery” did not include or appear to consider the complete horror that Chattel slavery would become. So, to say that Africans “sold their own”, while historically factual, is conceptually inaccurate. They had no idea what those captured Africans were in for.
See for a complete view of the argument made.”

At the time, I suspect that there would have been little understanding of the difference between types of slavery and concepts of human rights. It is hard to imagine that those involved as perpetrators or subjects of so-called freehold slavery were unaware of the denial of some form of human rights.

A different view is expressed in Africa Economic Focus at by Tunde Obadina, an African who appears now to be living in Nigeria. It argues that part of the cause of underdevelopment today in Africa is the action undertaken by African leaders past and present including slavery.

“From the outset, relations between Europe and Africa were economic. Portuguese merchants traded with Africans from trading posts they set up along the coast. They exchanged items like brass and copper bracelets for such products as pepper, cloth, beads and slaves – all part of an existing internal African trade. Domestic slavery was common in Africa and well before European slave buyers arrived, there was trading in humans. Black slaves were captured or bought by Arabs and exported across the Saharan desert to the Mediterranean and Near East.

When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 it not only had to contend with opposition from white slavers but also from African rulers who had become accustomed to wealth gained from selling slaves or from taxes collected on slaves passed through their domain. African slave-trading classes were greatly distressed by the news that legislators sitting in parliament in London had decided to end their source of livelihood. But for as long as there was demand from the Americas for slaves, the lucrative business continued.

African slavers acted out of their own volition and for their self interest. They took advantage of the opportunity provided by Europe to consume the products of its civilisation. The triangular slave trade was a major part in the early stages of the emergence of the international market. The role of slave-trading African ruling classes in this market is not radically different from the position of the African elite in today’s global economy. They both traded the resources of their people for their own gratification and prosperity. In the process they helped to weaken their nations and dim their prospects for economic and social development.
Europeans built empires, Africans drunk gin
While Europe invested profits from the trade in laying the foundation of a powerful economic empire, African kings and traders were content with wearing used caps and admiring themselves in worthless mirrors while swigging adulterated brandy bought with the freedom of their kinsmen. Virtually all the items imported during the nefarious business were for consumption or weapons for waging wars. A slave ship’s manifest published in 1665 listed items carried for sale to Africans as old hats, caps, salt, swords, knives, axe-heads, hammers, belts, sheepskin gloves, bracelets, iron jugs and even “cats to catch their mice.” One African trader calling himself Grandy King George was quite specific in his demand. He wrote to a slave captain: “send me one lucking-glass, six foot long by six foot wide.” He also asked for an armchair, a gold mounted cane and a stool.” The more common imports were alcohol, guns and gunpowder, salt and textiles. The quality of the items shipped to Africa was inferior – the spirits were adulterated and the guns designed for the African market.”

A similar situation exists today in Somalia where the monies earned from maritime piracy are used mainly to purchase “kif” a plant with narcotic properties which is imported from other African countries. Little if any benefit from piracy operations appears to flow to the Somali economy, except by way of bigger houses and better boats.


One Response to “Slavery and the British Empire”

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