Abolition and working class solidarity

Official society celebrates the bicentenary of the ending of slavery as part of 'our common British heritage'. Mike Macnair examines the class forces that underpinned anti-slavery

March 25 will be the 200th anniversary of the date on which the act for the abolition of the slave trade received the royal assent and became law and the UK state has been promoting a series of events to draw attention to the bicentenary: "The government's approach will encourage and empower grassroots organisations, local authorities, faith groups and national organisations to arrange commemorative activities," says the pamphlet The 2007 bicentenary. "Above all," says Tony Blair, "this 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade is a chance for all of us to increase our understanding of the heritage we share, celebrate the richness of our diversity and increase our determination to shape the world with the values we share."

2007 has a number of other bicentenaries ... Most closely related, on March 2, the US Congress passed an act to prohibit the importation of slaves. On October 9, serfdom was formally abolished in Prussia. 1807 was the apogee of the power of the Napoleonic regime, whose European dominance was recognised in the Treaty of Tilsit in July. July 1807 also saw the death of the last direct-line Stuart claimant to the English throne, and a British military disaster in the attempt to seize Buenos Aires; and in September of that year there was a British war crime, in the form of the naval bombardment of Copenhagen, which destroyed a third of the city. It goes without saying that her majesty's government has not chosen to remember any of these.

Some other related bicentenaries have also passed unmarked by government in the last few years, too: the 1791 slave rising in Saint-Domingue (Haiti); the 1794 decree of the French revolutionary government abolishing slavery, in response to the rebels' military victories; the 1803 victory of the insurgents over a Napoleonic attempt to reconquer the country, and the 1804 recognition of Haiti's independence. But 1807 is 'our' British bicentenary.

In short, the 1807 anniversary is to be an opportunity to promote the government's agenda of multiculturalist diversity, combined with pride in the 'British heritage'. This pride has, of course, to be tempered with the 'regretful' (and perhaps even apologetic) recognition that Britain was in the 18th century a large-scale slave trader; that Britain was the sovereign power in several colonies whose economies were dominated by slavery; and that Britain's emerging capitalist economy benefited substantially from slavery and the slave trade. But these regrettable facts can perhaps be glossed over. For example, the navy emphasises its role in suppressing the British slave trade after the 1807 abolition and later under international treaties: "The Royal Navy has a proud history associated with the abolition of the slave trade and the pursuance of humanitarian rights, playing a significant role in the years following the 1807 act to abolish the slave trade, through active policing and enforcement. This campaign which began in west Africa, lasted well into the 20th century and by then was worldwide."

And on another sub-page we are told: "It has been estimated that, great as was the wealth generated by the slave trade in the half-century before 1807, the costs of suppressing it added up to a similar sum: ".. by any more reasonable assessment of profits and direct costs, the 19th century costs of suppression were certainly bigger than the 18th century benefits." This assertion is based on the highly debatable arguments of David Eltis's 1987 Economic growth and the ending of the transatlantic slave trade.

If the navy chooses to marginalise the issue by relying on Eltis, for the government as such we are all expected to feel some guilt: "Our country was not alone in benefiting financially from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet as one of the strongest powers of the age slavery played a particularly significant role in this country's history. As 2007 approaches, it is right that we begin to feel the weight of that role more keenly."

On the other hand, "Whilst we regret and strongly condemn the evils of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the 1807 act marked an important point in this country's development towards the nation it is today - a critical step into the modern world, and into a new and more just moral universe." This conception is reflected in the second half of the government pamphlet Looking to the future, which contains a puff for 'equal opportunity' policies. We are to learn from the bicentenary to be good multiculturalists.

What we are not to learn from the bicentenary is to take effective action against slave-trading and slave-holding in Britain today (politely called 'human trafficking'). Only in January 2007, after Tory calls, did the New Labour government agree to sign up to the Council of Europe's Convention on Action Against Trafficking in People adopted in 2005. Even that convention, with its 30-day "reflection period" before deportation of the slave, is feeble. If in the 19th century the navy took limited action against slavers, today the Immigration and Nationality Directorate serves as the slavers' strong right arm.


One of the most crass attempts to exploit the anniversary has been by Iraq war enthusiast David Aaronovitch. On February 27 Aaronovitch's column in The Times took up the issue. He argues that after the abolition, "within eight years, the British government was pursuing what the historian of the slave trade, Hugh Thomas, has described as "one of the most moral foreign policies in British history". This partly consisted of coercing other nations, who still retained their enthusiasm for kidnapping black people and treating them as property, into desisting. These nations - Spain, France, Portugal and the US most prominent among them - were taken aback, says Thomas, by the "quasi-religious enthusiasm which had come to possess Britain."

Opponents of the campaign had arguments both of formal legality and practicality in their support, says Aaronovitch: "The cause of Spanish slavers was taken up by the Regius professor of civil law at Oxford (an MP), and a Whig MP cautioned that 'it was not for us to teach Spain humanity'. There were powerful arguments for leaving the slave trade alone ... The slaves, said some practical-minded folk, might be worse off thoughtlessly liberated than working on well-ordered plantations. Southerners and slaveholders in America were genuine in their beliefs that their way of life was threatened by outsiders telling them how to behave."

The payback comes in the next paragraph: "A month ago I was invited to speak at an all-day event on 'The clash of civilisations', organised by the eccentric half of Ken Livingstone's personality. Its purpose, as far as I could work out, was to promote cultural relativism by suggesting that anything that looked like telling foreigners what to do was some kind of mad imperialism. So we shouldn't seek to export democracy, because it wouldn't work and maybe they didn't want it anyway, and it would end in a bloodbath or profits for western companies, whichever you thought was worse."

The British naval campaign for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade - ultimately successful in the 1860s - thus serves Aaronovitch as a metaphor to justify Blair's and the neoconservatives' "global struggle" in which "we need a policy based on democracy, on freedom and on justice ..."

The argument is fatuous. In the first place, the British intervention against the slave trade was a 50-year commitment of fairly limited naval resources: the west coast of Africa naval station, tasked with the suppression, was created in 1819 and wound up in 1869, and Lord Palmerston "as foreign secretary complained that if there was a 'particularly old slow-going tub in the navy, she was sure to be sent to the coast of Africa'". The actions were targeted specifically at slave traders and their operations. This is hardly comparable to blockading a whole country for 12 years, bombing its infrastructure out of existence, then invading it and dissolving its state altogether, purportedly on the ground that its political leadership are tyrants.

Secondly, the decisive shifts which brought the trans-Atlantic trade to an end were at points at which slaves were sold, not those where they were bought. In mainland Spanish America, abolition movements advanced in tandem with the independence movement in the 1810s and 1820s. In Jamaica, a large-scale slave strike movement cum revolt in 1831 led to the general abolition of slavery in the British colonies, passed in 1833, to take effect in 1838. In Brazil, limited British pressure in the late 1840s combined with internal Brazilian political dynamics and the state of Brazilian relations with Argentina to produce effective suppression of the (formally illegal, but flourishing) slave trade by a conservative government in 1850.10  (Abolition of slavery itself had to wait until 1888.) In the US, serious efforts to suppress the slave trade began with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860; before then, in spite of the formal ban on importing slaves, the US mainly played the role of providing a flag to slaver ships which would block British stop-and-search.

British pressure thus certainly contributed to the end of the trade in the case of Brazil, but could not destroy it on its own. In reality, it contributed more to a growing perception across the world that the trade - and slavery itself - was radically morally illegitimate. In this respect it had the opposite effect to the invasion of Iraq. This - as Aaronovitch indirectly recognises - has contributed to a growing mood that large-scale invasions for the purpose of 'regime change' are radically morally illegitimate.


The government website refers to "empowering", among others, "faith groups ... to arrange commemorative activities". One such initiative is represented by the project/website Set All Free. This "has been established by Churches Together in England to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade act in 2007 in ways which challenge modern society to engage with christian values. The project aims to highlight how the abolitionists' values can transform our relationships on an individual, community and society level."11 

It would be utterly foolish to pretend that the activists of the organised campaign against slavery and the slave trade which began in the 1780s were anything but committed christians - mainly, but not exclusively, from the protestant dissenting churches. It would be equally idle to suggest that these campaigners were not motivated in part - or even mainly - by their christian beliefs. Equally, the 1831 Jamaican slave revolt (like some other slave movements) was organised through christian meetings. But we should not buy the christian churches' attempt to exploit the bicentenary to "challenge modern society to engage with christian values".

In the first place, christianity's history is a lot longer than just the history of anti-slavery campaigning in the late 18th and early 19th century. And for most of this history, christian thinkers have tended to see nothing wrong with slavery or slave-trading. In spite of the radical egalitarianism which can be found in parts of the gospels, Pauline christianity did not propose the immediate abolition of slavery. At least one Pelagian author came close, but Augustine saw enslavement, like other human ills, as sent by god to 'try' or 'purify' the slave.12  Unsurprisingly, Augustine's view became orthodox.

The muslim ulama came up with the rule that it was illegal for muslims to enslave muslim prisoners of war, and this rule was copied by the christian canon lawyers: it became illegal for christians to enslave christian prisoners of war. But before the rise of the anti-slavery movement neither islam nor christianity went beyond this point. That it was lawful for christians to enslave muslim prisoners of war and vice versa was still asserted and practised in the 17th century.13  Indeed, the theory of the lawfulness of enslaving non-christians was used in the English courts in Butts v Penny (1677) to justify the enslavement of Africans.14 

Secondly, in the late 18th and early 19th century almost all political ideas in Europe, and certainly in England, were expressed in the form of christian ideas. On the one hand, this means that radical egalitarianism was christian in form. On the other, so was the conservative politics of the property-owning elite. More than one author has studied christian arguments for natural inequality, which were deployed against the anti-slavery campaigners.15  It is not even a matter that Anglicanism and catholicism supported slavery, while protestant dissent opposed it: there were protestant dissenters enough among the slaveholders of the southern United States and southern pro-slavery writers. If "modern society" is to "engage with christian values", which christian values? The slaves' and the anti-slavery activists' values? Or the slaveholders' and conservatives' values?

In fact, the answer to this question is clear enough. Though today's churches wish to associate themselves with the radical christians of the anti-slavery movement, their first preference is for the most respectable among them, evangelical Anglican MP William Wilberforce, who sponsored the unsuccessful bills leading up to the 1807 act. They would not wish to associate themselves with the "prophets, revolutionaries and pornographers" of the turn of the century's "radical underworld" described by Iain McCalman.16  Equally, the establishment parties do not mean this sort of religious radicalism when they promote 'faith communities'. Rather, what they want is christian social conservatism, particularly on the politics of the family, sex, drugs, etc.

To the extent that 'our leaders' are happy at all with religious egalitarianism, they want to see it firmly committed to pacifism and legalism, not the militancy of the 1831 slave strikers. The biography of Wilberforce on the Set All Free website makes the point very clearly: "Perhaps it is as William recognised 200 years ago that the fight has to be within the law and in particular within the houses of parliament ..."17 

In spite of the early role of radical christianity in the plebeian radical movement down to Chartism, since the 1870s at the latest radical christianity has mainly played the role of promoting pacifism and legalism in the British labour movement. Right now, this is an immediate problem for the movement. An increasing proportion of the work in this country is done by migrant workers held in quasi-servitude by immigration controls. To organise them requires illegal action. The trade union movement, fettered by the anti-union laws, will never overcome these laws or revive its strength without returning to the illegal and sometimes forcible methods of its pre-1860s history. In this context, the promotion of a pacifist and legalist christian 'radicalism' is a drip-feed of poison into the veins of the movement.

Cynical materialism

It was not christianity that caused radical christian anti-slavery. Rather, anti-slavery took the form of radical christianity. Why, then, was there anti-slavery at all?

In Capitalism and slavery (1944) Eric Williams argued for a 'cynical materialist' approach to the problem. Very roughly, colonial slavery had come into being for economic reasons. The profits it created had contributed to the 'primitive accumulation' of a mass of surplus sufficient to launch British industry on its breakthrough. Now, towards the end of the 18th century, the (relative) profitability of (British colonial) slavery declined. British capitalists no longer needed it; it potentially benefited their competitors. So an anti-slavery ideology comes into existence to support measures against the slave trade (and thus against capital's competitors).

The first half of Williams' argument is still debated. Eltis's work, which the navy has chosen to adopt, is a polemic against it. On the other hand Blackburn winds up supporting it, as does Inikori.18  The second half - that the anti-slavery movement reflected capitalist interests - has generally been abandoned. The numbers do not suggest even a relative decline in the profitability of plantation slavery and the slave trade at the time of the rise of the anti-slavery movement, and the half-heartedness of the first phase of the British state's anti-slavery operations does not suggest that a serious interest of British capital was involved.

A cynical argument is still available, however, and Richard Gott has offered it (in The Guardian, January 17). Gott points out that slave rebellions and 'maroons' (communities of escaped slaves) affected plantation slavery in Britain's Caribbean possessions in the late 18th century, as well as Haiti. Britain was not the first to outlaw the slave trade: slavery itself was abolished in several northern US states in the 1780s; the Danes banned the trade in 1792, albeit only to take effect in 1803; the British "took advantage of the continuing trade" in their Asian possessions. The kicker is towards the end of the article: "One lasting and dubious legacy of 1807 has been the sanctimonious interventionism that has survived in Britain for two centuries, and still motivates contemporary governments ... The naval squadron was not phased out until the 1870s, but by then Britain's taste for empire had become well established."19 

As a jaundiced response to official celebrations of anti-slavery by a deeply blood-stained government, Gott's argument is at first sight attractive. As an explanation of "Britain's taste for empire" and "sanctimonious interventionism", however, it is pretty dodgy. European "sanctimonious interventionism" goes back at least to the argument in the 1530s that the Spanish were entitled to make war on the Aztecs in order to suppress human sacrifice.20  British "sanctimonious interventionism" can be no later than Sir John Davies's early 17th century arguments for the imposition of English law on Ireland; English "sanctimonious interventionism" might reasonably be argued to go back to archbishop Pecham's 1279-82 condemnations of Welsh law, as a supporting ground for the English conquest of Wales.21  The idea is not even modern: the Romans used similar arguments (against human sacrifice) to support their conquests of Carthage and, later, of Britain. By 1807, Britain's "taste for empire" was long-established; indeed, a good deal of the British formal empire was already in place.

The first modern 'citizens' movement'?

We have to set the purely cynical narrative on one side. The 1807 ban on the slave trade was not a cynical manoeuvre in British capitalist interests. It was a limited concession dragged out of a hostile capitalist establishment by an organised mass campaign.

The immediate political context made it a little easier to drag this concession out. The 1804 victory of the Haitian insurgents meant that the slave traders had more difficulty using the bogeyman of French competition to resist abolitionist arguments. Moreover, Britain was at war with France, and the 1807 act was prepared by another in May 1806 banning British subjects from participating in the slave trade with France and its allies - hard for the slaving interests to resist, since it could be sold as a war measure.

William Pitt the Younger, prime minister and head of the parliamentary coalition which would later re-identify itself as the Tory Party, died in early 1806, and Grenville, the leader of another Whig faction which sought to make peace with France, became prime minister. The Pittites opposed this 'ministry of all the talents', and in October 1806 Grenville called a general election in the hope of improving the government's parliamentary position. The anti-slavery campaigners ran highly successful local campaigns in the election to obtain pledges from candidates to vote for abolition. The 'ministry of all the talents' was to fall in March 1807 over the catholic issue, but there was a renewed round of campaigning to ensure that the new Pittite ministry did not renege.22 

Once the ban was adopted, British shipping interests did have some common ground with the abolitionists. To harass foreign slave-traders would now be to do down the competition. But the interest was not strong enough to produce the application of major resources until rather later.

Where did the mass campaign come from? Adam Hochschild's Bury the chains (2005) is a popular-history account of the anti-slavery movement in Britain from its formal beginning as a nationally organised campaign in 1787 (with a little of the prior history of the individual participants in the national leadership) to the legal abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1833. The Alliance for Workers' Liberty's Paul Hampton, in a response to Richard Gott's Guardian article, has taken Bury the chains as showing "the role of mass action"; he concludes that "We should use the bicentenary as an opportunity to publicise the role of workers in the struggle against slavery - and draw the lessons for working class unity in the present fight against racism."23 

Comrade Hampton is right; but, in saying so, he goes considerably further than Hochschild does. Hochschild's view of the campaign is as the first modern 'citizens' movement': that is, a single-issue campaign like CND or the Stop the War Coalition. His narrative is a story written through the leading figures and their brilliant work and manoeuvres. For example, Hochschild sees the organising backbone of the early campaign as being the Quakers: but they were canny enough to use the 'respectable' - ie, Anglican - William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson as their figureheads. Clarkson, apparently, damaged the campaign by his too close identification with the French Revolution in the 1790s (see chapter 16); Wilberforce, in contrast, supported the repressive legislation introduced by the government of his friend, Pitt (chapter 17). The sub-text: Hochschild's lesson for today's opponents of social injustice is to follow what have become time-worn methods of 'campaigning' to change 'public opinion'.

On p360, Hochschild celebrates the winner's justice of the trial of Slobodan Milosevic. The anti-slavery campaign is thus normalised as part of the 'human rights talk' which has backed blockades, bombing campaigns and the invasion of Iraq.

Even so, Hochschild is left at the end with the question: why was this mass campaign so successful at this time? He discounts industrialisation on the ground that "none of the other half-dozen European nations with slave colonies spawned anti-slavery movements when they industrialised" (p215). This is more than a little tendentious. England is generally accepted to have been the first country to industrialise. In France, the revolution produced abolition of slavery (1794), though the reaction-within-the-revolution under Napoleon restored it (1802); final abolition was the work of the revolution of 1848. Elsewhere, 'industrialising' was much later. Instead, Hochschild argues for: the highway boom and the post; newspapers; coffee houses; libraries; the absence of censorship; the fact that slavery was not extensively practised in Britain, so that "ending slavery ... did not, as in the United States, threaten secession or civil war. And, with the slaves on the other side of the Atlantic, for Britons to oppose slavery did not threaten their own way of life" (p222). On the positive side, the press-gang - arbitrary conscription of sailors - threatened 'British liberty' in ways that could produce empathy with slaves (pp222-25).

At the beginning of the workers' movement

At this last point - the press gangs - Hochschild has approached closer to the truth, though he insists that "press victims were not only from the working class" (p223). The press gangs were by no means the only way in which British capital sought to use forced labour. Convicts were 'transported' to the colonies. Some of the early cotton mills, for example, were supplied by the children of the poor, bound to compulsory 'apprenticeships' by Poor Law authorities; justices of the peace had power to fix maximum wages, which they routinely exercised; it was an offence for an agricultural labourers to leave their employer before their contractual term was up.

The other side of the coin, however, was that by 1600, the British economy was dominated by wage-labour, in agriculture as well as in the limited but growing industries. In the 18th century there was a massive growth of towns; and among the artisans differentiation between the proto-capitalist masters and the proto-proletarian perpetual journeymen. Anti-slavery united both wings; but it was the towns, and especially the artisan classes, which provided the campaign with its mass base.

Anti-slavery began before the launch of the formal campaign in 1787. Anti-slavery campaigning was already around on a smaller scale in the 1760s in the run-up to the 1772 decision in Somersett v Stewart that chattel slavery proper did not exist as a matter of English law.24  Earlier traces are harder to find, since the political elite was more firmly in control of 'public opinion' before the 1760s. But the traces are there. One aspect is the evidence of resistance, cutting across the categories of 'enslaved' and 'free', collected in Linebaugh and Rediker's The many-headed hydra (2000).

Another trace of a very different sort is the evidence of law-cases well before Somersett v Stewart, which focus on the question whether chattel slavery can exist as part of English law, and provide contradictory answers: Gelly v Cleve in 1693, Chamberlaine v Harvey in 1696, Smith v Browne in 1702-5, Smith v Gould in 1706; the need of the slave-owners to obtain an opinion of the attorney general and solicitor general in 1729 which baldly asserted that slavery was lawful, and the decision in Black's /Cartor's Case in 1732 that an alleged slave could obtain habeas corpus; lord chancellor Hardwicke's assertion that slavery was a part of English law in Pearne v Lisle (1749) and lord chancellor Northington's flat denial that it was in Shanley v Harvey (1762).25 

Legal conflicts of this sort are not produced where there is a real social or political consensus over a question - as Hochschild, and many authors, suppose there was before the 1780s. It seems more likely that the 'consensus' for slavery before the 1760s is like the 'consensus' for 'market reform' today: a product of corrupt control of politics and the media which leaves a large part of society grumbling but without a loud political voice.

The other side of this coin is that anti-slavery in Britain commonly rose to high points after slave strikes and revolts in the colonies. This was true in the 1730s, 1760s, 1780s, 1800s and 1830s.

In short, the objective material basis for anti-slavery was growing through the 18th century with the increase both of slavery in the colonies and of the propertyless working class at home. This trend was able to become more than a submerged grumble because of crises in the class elite's system of control. In the first place, the two-party system broke up in the late 1750s-60s into a confused mess of factions. In the second, the military defeat in the American Revolution at least temporarily suppressed British empire triumphalism.

Anti-slavery, though the formal campaign was led by christians, was at the end of the day about solidarity of the workers - in their simple capacity as humans - across the legal borders of freedom and unfreedom, the geographical borders of the countries, and the boundaries of race. It remained a fundamental element of the politics of the emerging workers' movement as late as the 1860s, when British trade unionists' actions in solidarity with the northern, anti-slavery, side in the American civil war were to provide the basis for the creation of the First International.

The movement's fundamental lessons for us today are simple: the international unity of the class movement, and its role as the standard-bearer of all humanity. The government's commemoration projects serve to bury this history and these lessons in providing a heritage-industry back-up to multiculturalism and the promotion of 'faith groups'. Indeed, they may also serve - as Aaronovitch shows - to promote what Gott calls "sanctimonious interventionism". But the way to oppose these projects is precisely to retrieve and renew the lessons of the early history of the workers' movement.