Britain did more to abolish slavery than any other nation

In March 2021 the Canadian Parliament voted unanimously to recognise August 1 as Emancipation Day commemorating the date the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect throughout the British Empire.

Emancipation is also celebrated in a slew of countries across North America, Africa and the Bahamas, with the first observance occurring in Trinidad and Tobago in 1985.

While slavery was always illegal in Australia, this is one of the single biggest leaps forward in human history. It’s time to celebrate it here as well.

It also offers an opportunity for repentance as well as celebration. It is a pivot point where the British Empire, of which Australia is an heir, starts to redeem itself.

It also ushers in the modern era of human rights and enforceable international law.

First some historical context.

We take it for granted that human rights are universal, but for most of history that has not been the case.

The most telling marker of that is there is not one inhabited continent in the world where slavery was not practiced at some time and over long periods.

The societies we most admire from antiquity, the Romans and Greeks, were both slave societies, with slave ownership in ancient Athens similar in its extent to car ownership today.

Both North and South America had slave economies before Europeans arrived, and after their arrival the Transatlantic Slave Trade powered plantations throughout the region.

China had slavery under the Qing Dynasty, and the Mughals practiced it in India. Africans enslaved Africans and some of the highest-ranking advisors in the Ottoman Empire were slaves.

The Vikings, and their descendants in Kyivan Rus, in what is now Ukraine, were prolific slavers in Eastern Europe to the extent that their predations gave rise to the ethnic term “Slavs” or slaves.

Accounts of sexual slavery are also documented in Australia amongst Aboriginal people.

No doubt as a result of American exceptionalism and cultural dominance, as well as Eurocentrism, Australians are fascinated by the Transatlantic Slave Trade more than any other.

This started when the Portuguese, the only Western European slave economy of the time, purchased Africans for sale and shipped them to Brazil in 1526.

Britain was not a slave economy in the 16th century, but prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066, 10 to 30 per cent of the population had been slaves. The Normans opposed slavery. William the Conqueror’s Ninth Law banned the export of slaves and in 1102 the Church Council in London condemned slavery. By 1200 it had died out.

Subsequent court cases affirmed that there was no status of slavery under the Common Law, so slaves could not exist in Great Britain and any slave brought there was free.

Nevertheless in 1562 John Hawkins, later an English Vice-Admiral and cousin of Francis Drake, embarked on a slave-trading expedition in three ships: the Salomon, Jonas and Swallow. This went so well that in 1564 he conducted another, persuading Queensland Elizabeth I to be an investor.

The return on this voyage was 60%, a high reward denoting a commensurately high risk, but attractive to speculators.

How culpable were the British for the slave trade? Well at this stage, as a nation, not at all. While British nationals were involved in it, including the Queen, they were doing so as individuals.

This was a very different world to today’s where private interests sometimes carved out international niches for themselves outside of what we think of as the norms of nations.

Although perhaps not so different.

Prigozhin and the Wagner group, as well as other mercenary outfits, operate very similarly to the Elizabethan privateers.

However, by 1663 Britain was indeed a slaving nation with the Royal African Company granted a royal monopoly over West Coast African slavery. Subsequently the East India Company was given a monopoly over the East Coast African slave trade.

I should make it clear here that when I use the term slavery, I am using it in the sense of chattel slavery.

There is a modern tendency to broaden the definition to capture things which no one prior to the 20th century would have seen as slavery. These include indentured labour, or even low wages or poor working conditions.

Australia has the Modern Slavery Act 2018, which conservatively advances the definition of slavery by including a category of “slave like”. If enacted in 19th Century Australia it would most likely have made apprenticeship “slave like”.

There is a reason that a young person might be apprenticed to someone called a “master”. That master could use force to ensure the apprentice stayed at work and did as he was told, just as I can order my dog around. But my dog is a chattel, whereas the apprentice regains all of his rights after a defined term.

Indentured labour as practiced in the 19th century, such as the employment around the Pacific of South Sea Islanders, Indians, Chinese, and even Europeans such as Finns, was also similarly as brutal as an apprenticeship. In return for free passage to and from the country of their indenture they received wages, food and housing, but were bound to work out their time.

This sounds barbaric to us, but even our most modern anti-slavery instrument describes this only as “slave-like”.

These distinctions are often absent from public debate when the charge is unreasonably made that Australia once sanctioned slavery through the use of indentured labour.

It’s almost as though we want to magnify our blemishes so we can mix it with the worst in the moral turpitude Olympics.

Is there a defence for the original involvement of Britain in the slave trade?

“Everybody was doing it” is not generally regarded as a good moral argument. In its guise as “I was just following orders” it was rejected at the Nuremberg Trials. But everybody was doing it, and we are all creatures of our time, so it is difficult to see how the British could have avoided some level of involvement.

Most of us believe in the concept of historical progress, but for this concept to make any sense things must have been worse in the past, and they frequently were.

But we don’t have the luxury of living simultaneously in the present and the past, and undoubtedly some things we routinely do today will be viewed as immoral and inhumane in a couple of centuries’ time.

It’s easy to sit in the 21st Century and critique the 17th, but if you lived in the past what would you have done? Work to with what you have, maybe improving it incrementally, or sit it out in isolation somewhere?

Early societies were obviously trying to balance these imperatives. Ancient Judaism had slavery, but there were rules. You can’t enslave a fellow Jew, although they can enslave themselves to you for a certain time if they owe you money they cannot pay. The courts can order them into slavery. You can capture someone in war and use as a slave, or buy a foreigner as one. However, every 7 years all slaves had to be freed.

But, to borrow an insight from Thomas Sowell in another context. What is surprising is not that slavery existed, but that it was abolished.

People will tend to do evil, and that is to be condemned. But nothing is lost, and everything is to be gained, if when people recognise and reject that evil they are forgiven and applauded.

And if they are the first to repent, then celebration is even more warranted to encourage others to follow in their tracks.

There was surely some tension in Britain all along. For 400 or so years there had been no slave trade to speak of, and for around 300 no domestic slavery, because it was thought to be morally wrong. Yet here was this robust international trade, sanctioned and monopolised by the Crown for a period of around 150 years.

In fact, opposition to the slave trade well-predated its eventual abolition.

One of the earliest signs of its tangible effect was that the colony to be established in New South Wales was designed to be slave free some 19 years before the trade in slavery was banned and 55 before slavery was abolished.

In 1807 under the influence of noted abolitionist William Wilberforce and others, the British parliament passed The Slave Trade Act which banned any trade in slaves using British flagged ships. The margin in the House of Commons was 283 to 17, with 94% supporting it.

As the UK accounted for 42% of the Atlantic slave trade at the time, this was significant. The UK also used its diplomatic influence to enter into treaties with other countries to abolish the trade in their areas of influence with the Royal Navy used to interdict shipping.

The 1833 Slavery Abolition Act did not immediately abolish slavery. What it did was pay compensation to the owners of slaves and change the slave’s status to that of apprentice. The apprentices then had 4 to 6 years to work out their indenture. This was further compensation to the former owner, as well as providing a phasing-in period.

Territory controlled by the East India Company was also exempted, which included India, although here slaves were mostly owned by Indians. Slavery in India predated the arrival of the British. It was abolished 11 years later in 1844.

You might argue that this approach is too gradualist, and too favourable to the slave owners, but what would be the alternative and how moral would that outcome be?

Between 1861 and 1865 the United States fought a civil war over slavery which resulted in the deaths of between 600,000 and 1,000,000 men – a greater proportion of the population by far than the USA has lost in any other war.

They destroyed their economy and created enmities that exist to this day. Sometimes there is no perfect way.

The British achieved their emancipation without a war, although at some cost. The compensation was 20 million pounds sterling, or 40% of the British budget. While government revenue was smaller then, amounting to around 12.5% of GDP, it is the equivalent $450 billion AUD as a percentage of Australia’s budget.

This money was borrowed and only completely repaid in 2015.

They also used the Royal Navy to actively supress the slave trade, and much of their interference in Africa was directed to this end. Generally, this was under treaty agreements with other countries but in 1850 the Royal Navy blockaded Brazil to pressure it to ban the trade. Wanting to avoid war with Britain it did this in 1850.

So for every year it was a slaver the Empire spent roughly another year doing its best to eradicate slavery.

Without this effort would the trade have ended? Probably. Other major countries were moving in that direction at the same time. Would it have ended as soon? Definitely not. No other country appears to have put as much effort into suppressing it as the UK, or to have had the same moral sensibility.

The British Empire has faded into the mists of time so we have forgotten how it tended to fill the role of the world’s policeman.

Today we look towards international forums and institutions to protect our rights, and when these fail, we fall back on the Pax Americana, as currently evidenced in Ukraine.

At the height of the empire Britain controlled 25% of the world and the Pax Brittanica dwarfed that of the Pax Americana.

When it abolished slavery a new era in human rights had arrived which within another century leads to the United Nations declaration of the Universal Rights of the Human Being.

That’s something to be celebrated. That’s why my think tank, the Australian Institute for Progress, will be celebrating Emancipation Day this August 1, because seldom has there been progress like this.

The slave trade may never have been instituted in Australia, but we are still inheritors and beneficiaries of the will and moral impulse that defeated it as an internationally acceptable form of commerce or an acceptable treatment of a fellow human being.