West African Slave Trade Essays On Abortion

The abolition of the slave trade: Christian conscience and political action by John Coffey

Print or Download



The year 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament. The campaign for abolition was spearheaded by devout Christians, and it stands to this day as perhaps the finest political achievement of what would now be called faith-based activism. But who were the abolitionists, and how did their Christianity motivate them to campaign against the slave trade? This paper examines the Christian mind of the abolitionists, and ponders the lessons for today.



On 22 May 1787, twelve devout men assembled at a printing shop in the City of London. Most were Quakers, but they were joined by several Anglicans, including the veteran anti-slavery campaigner, Granville Sharp, and the young Thomas Clarkson, who would devote his entire life to the cause. The twelve established themselves as the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and they recruited a young Yorkshire MP, William Wilberforce, to lead the campaign in the House of Commons. Charming, well connected, eloquent and Evangelical, Wilberforce proved an inspired choice. He and his closest allies were fired with godly zeal for a righteous cause, and buoyed by an enormous swell of support from across the British Isles. The cause was promoted in a flood of publications: sermons, pamphlets, treatises, poems, narratives, newspaper articles, reports and petitions.

Within twenty years of that seminal meeting in the printing shop, the slave trade had been abolished throughout the Empire. In 1833, after the greatest mass petitioning campaign in British history, Parliament abolished slavery itself in British dominions; five years later, in 1838, the slaves were finally emancipated. By the 1880s, slavery had been extinguished in the southern United States and across most of the earth. ‘From any historical perspective’, writes the pre-eminent historian of slavery, David Brion Davis, ‘this was a stupendous transformation’.[1]


The rise of Christian abolitionism

British slave trading had begun in the late sixteenth century, and grew apace during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By 1807, around three million slaves had been transported to the Americas on British ships. The trade was occasionally denounced by Christians. Richard Baxter declared that  slave-traders were ‘fitter to be called devils than Christians’, and the Puritan Samuel Sewall published America’s first antislavery tract, The Selling of Joseph (1700). But most Christians in the early eighteenth century accepted slavery as a fact of life. The evangelist George Whitefield deplored the cruelty of slave-owners in the American South, but did not condemn slavery itself – indeed, he owned over fifty slaves in Georgia. The Anglican Evangelical John Newton was converted while captaining a slave ship in the 1750s, but he did not speak out against the trade until three decades later.[2] The Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts owned many slaves in the Caribbean – in fact the word ‘SOCIETY’ was branded on their chests with a red-hot iron to identify them as property of the SPG. For most Britons the brutality of the slave trade was out of sight, out of mind. British slave-traders were carrying almost 40,000 slaves from Africa to the New World every single year, yet there was no public outcry.

Only gradually, from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, did a Christian abolitionist movement take shape. It began with American Quakers. As a perfectionist sect, the Quakers believed that true Christianity would be countercultural, but by the 1730s many owned slaves. Three remarkable figures, Benjamin Lay, John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, refused to accept this state of affairs. So tenacious were they in challenging their brethren that in 1754 the Philadelphia Quakers officially renounced the practice of slaveholding. Slavery was also coming under attack from Enlightenment philosophers like Montesquieu and Rousseau, but it was Christian activists who initiated and organised an abolitionist movement.

From the 1760s, the Anglican Evangelical Granville Sharp campaigned with some success in the courts on behalf of vulnerable black Britons – in the Somerset case of 1772, Lord Mansfield ruled that once in Britain, slaves could not be compelled to return to the colonies.[3] By the 1770s, Evangelicals were waking up to the seriousness of the issue – inspired by Benezet and Sharp, the British Methodist John Wesley and the American Presbyterian Benjamin Rush denounced the slave trade in influential pamphlets. Increasingly, the horrors of this traffic in human beings were being exposed to public view – the most notorious atrocity involved the slave ship Zong, whose captain had thrown 130 slaves overboard in order to claim insurance for their deaths.

Once the British Abolition Committee was established in 1787, abolitionism quickly became a mass movement. In 1788–92, there was a media blitz and petitioning campaign timed to coincide with Wilberforce’s Parliamentary bills. Thomas Clarkson had worked tirelessly to assemble damning evidence against the trade, and the abolitionists pioneered many of the tactics of modern pressure groups: logos, petitions, rallies, book tours, posters, letters to MPs, a national organisation with local chapters, and the mass mobilisation of grass roots agitation. There were even boycotts of consumer goods, as up to 400,000 Britons stopped buying the rum and sugar that came from slave plantations in the Caribbean. In a sermon to his fellow Methodists, Samuel Bradburn urged them to join the boycott, and recalled that hundreds of Manchester Methodists had signed a petition against the slave trade ‘in the Chapel at the Communion Table, on the Lord’s Day’.[4]

In just one generation, there had been a sea-change in Christian attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Thirty years ago’, wrote the American Jonathan Edwards Jr., ‘scarcely a man in this country thought either the slave trade or the slavery of Negroes to be wrong’. His own father, the famous theologian and revivalist, Jonathan Edwards Sr., had owned slaves. But the practice could no longer be excused. ‘Our pious fathers’, wrote the younger Edwards, ‘lived in a time of ignorance which God winked at; but now he commandeth all men everywhere to repent of this wickedness’.[5]

Historians have worked hard to explain the sudden rise of abolitionism at this juncture in history. Some emphasise the impact of cultural change and the new bourgeois cult of sensibility; others suggest that abolitionism (albeit unwittingly) served the interests of the new industrial capitalism; the most recent analysis argues that the key lies in the anxieties and dislocations created by the American Revolution.[6] Yet all agree that Quakers and Evangelicals played a central role in the abolitionist movement, though their success depended on building a broad coalition that included Whig and Tory politicians, Enlightenment rationalists, Romantic poets and sympathetic journalists.

The Christian campaigners were not naive idealists and were not afraid to appeal to British interests – Clarkson wrote a major work on the ‘impolicy’ of the trade, and the Evangelical James Stephen eventually persuaded Parliament that dismantling the Atlantic slave trade would undermine the colonial power of Britain’s rivals, especially France. Parliament abolished the trade in 1806–07 after abolitionists exploited ‘an unpredictable and fortuitous conjuncture of politico-economic circumstances’.[7] But as David Brion Davis notes, ‘this political dimension should not obscure the crucial points’: ‘from the 1770s onward, devout Quakers were always the backbone of active antislavery organization and communication’; ‘religion was the central concern of all the British abolitionist leaders’; and grass-roots support came ‘overwhelmingly’ from the Dissenting churches.[8] As Davis writes, ‘the fall of New World slavery could not have occurred if there had been no abolitionist movements’. This was ‘a moral achievement that may have no parallel’.[9]

Clarkson and his allies succeeded because they produced compelling evidence of the cruelty of the trade, evidence presented to Parliament in a famous report and relayed to a wide audience in harrowing narratives of human suffering. But it is misleading to conclude (as does one recent account) that abolitionists realised that ‘the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings’. To say that ‘abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts, but in human empathy’,[10] is to divorce two things that Christian abolitionists wedded together, and to ignore the evidence of antislavery texts. If religious argument did not stir people to action, why did abolitionists give it so much space? For in publication after publication, critics of the slave trade quoted Scripture and rooted their campaign in Christian values and ideals. In the rest of this paper, we will explore the theological ideas of the abolitionists, and consider the lessons for our own world.


The mind of the abolitionists

Christian abolitionists came from across the denominational spectrum and from various parts of the British Atlantic world. Yet throughout their varied writings, a number of key themes appear again and again.

‘Of one blood’: the idea of brotherhood

Abolitionists believed passionately in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Indeed, the campaign’s logo (devised by Josiah Wedgwood) was an image of a manacled slave on his knees beseeching his captor: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ Antislavery activism relied on the conviction that all people were made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27) and precious in his sight. God was the Father of all mankind, all nations were his ‘offspring’, ‘of one blood’ (Acts 17:26). Disturbed that blacks ‘stand convicted – of a darker skin!’, the Anglican Evangelical Hannah More urged her readers to ‘Respect his image which they bear…They still are men, and men shou’d still be free’.[11] ‘Africans and Europeans, Pagans and Christians, are all on a level’, wrote the Calvinist Baptist Abraham Booth. Oppressed Africans ‘are brethren of the human kind’.[12] ‘We are the common offspring of one universal Parent’, wrote the Anglican Thomas Bradshaw, ‘with whom there is no respect of persons’.[13] When William Cowper contemplated slavery he lamented that ‘the natural bond/Of brotherhood is sever’d’.[14] Every reader of Scripture should know, wrote Cowper,

That souls have no discriminating hue,
Alike important in their Maker’s view;
That none are free from blemish since the fall,
And love divine has paid one price for all.[15]


The doctrines of creation, fall and redemption underscored human equality in the eyes of God.

The Christian belief in the fundamental unity of the human race clashed with fashionable theories of polygenesis and African inferiority, promoted by infidel philosophers. As Davis explains, ‘early antislavery writers like James Ramsay and Granville Sharp repeatedly identified the theory of racial inferiority with Hume, Voltaire, and materialistic philosophy in general; they explicitly presented their attacks on slavery as a vindication of Christianity, moral accountability, and the unity of mankind’.[16] Hannah More deplored the new philosophical racism:

Perish th’ illiberal thought which wou’d debase
The native genius of the sable race
Perish the proud philosophy, which sought
To rob them of the pow’rs of equal thought!
Does then th’ immortal principle within
Change with the casual colour of a skin?[17]

The most eloquent testimony against ideas of racial inferiority came from black converts to Christianity. Abolitionists pointed to the writings of accomplished Africans: the letters of Ignatius Sancho, the poems of Phillis Wheatley, and the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano.[18] Equiano himself pointed to Scripture. Commenting on a book arguing ‘that the Negro race is an inferior species of mankind’, he wrote indignantly: ‘Oh fool! See the 17th chapter of the Acts, verse 26: “God hath made of one blood all nations of men, for to dwell on all the face of the earth”’. Working out the logical implications of the text, Equiano argued in favour of racial intermarriage, and went on to marry Susannah Cullen of Soham in Cambridgeshire.[19]


‘Deliverance to the captives’: the idea of liberty  

Abolitionists believed that common humanity entailed equal rights, especially the right to liberty. Because liberty was a gift of the Creator, men were not free to dispose of it by selling themselves into slavery, nor could they lawfully deprive anyone else of their liberty by force. The  slave-traders’ claim that Africans were now the property of Europeans was without foundation in natural law, and constituted a violation of natural rights. The Scottish philosophers who developed this line of argument were building on the Christian natural law tradition – Francis Hutcheson was a Church of Scotland minister, and James Beattie was a well known critic of Hume’s irreligion. Their argument had great appeal. ‘Liberty’, wrote John Wesley, ‘is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air. And no human can deprive him of that right, which he derives from the law of nature’.[20] Hannah More also used the language of human rights:

What page of human annals can record
A deed so bright as human rights restor’d?
O may that god-like deed, that shining page,
Redeem our fame, and consecrate our age![21]

The right to liberty was dear to eighteenth-century minds. Britons and Americans saw themselves as free peoples, living in ‘this enlightened age’.[22] In 1788, the centenary of the Glorious Revolution, abolitionists pointed out the glaring contradiction between the slave trade and Britain’s ‘boasted love of liberty’. As Hannah More put it: ‘Shall Britain, where the soul of Freedom reigns,/Forge chains for others she herself disdains?’[23] For American Evangelical abolitionists like Jonathan Edwards Jr, Samuel Hopkins and Benjamin Rush, slavery was incompatible with the Declaration of Independence which stated that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’.

The Protestant passion for liberty was fed by Scripture. Abolitionists recalled the foundational significance of the Exodus in Israel’s history, and argued that it revealed divine opposition to human systems of oppression and bondage. The slaves themselves saw America as a place of Egyptian bondage, and sang about deliverance in their spirituals – one historian writes that ‘No single symbol captures more clearly the distinctiveness of Afro-American Christianity than the symbol of Exodus’.[24] The African-American, Phillis Wheatley, wrote: ‘in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time’.[25] Like the children of Israel, slaves cried to God for freedom, and abolitionists joined in their prayer. In their eyes, God’s concern for the poor, the oppressed and the enslaved was found throughout Scripture. In letters to the press, Equiano cited OT texts on care for the downtrodden: ‘Those that honour their Maker have mercy on the poor’ (Proverbs 14:31); ‘Was not my soul grieved for the poor?’ (Job 30:25).[26] Abolitionists often quoted the mission statement of Jesus himself, taking it as the text for antislavery sermons: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor…to preach deliverance to the captives…to set at liberty them that are bruised’ (Luke 10:18). The emancipation of slaves, they argued, was on the agenda of Jesus, and an outworking of his Gospel of the Kingdom.


‘Love thy neighbour’: the idea of benevolence

Eighteenth-century Christians were imbued with the values of their age. The moral philosophers of the British Enlightenment, like Francis Hutcheson, had placed the value of ‘benevolence’ at centre stage, and argued that moral action should increase human wellbeing, producing ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. The notion of ‘benevolence’ was promoted by Latitudinarian theologians, but before long Evangelicals too adopted the new language.[27] The Calvinist philosopher and revivalist, Jonathan Edwards, presented ‘benevolence’ as a key element of ‘true virtue’, and his followers came to see slave-owning as incompatible with ‘disinterested benevolence’.[28] Granville Sharp declared that ‘The glorious system of the gospel destroys all narrow, national partiality; and makes us citizens of the world, by obliging us to profess universal benevolence; but more especially, we are bound, as Christians, to commiserate and assist to the utmost of our power all persons in distress, and captivity’.[29] The Baptist, James Dore, wrote that Christianity was ‘a religion calculated to inspire universal benevolence, by teaching us that all mankind are our Brethren, that they stand in the same common relation to God, the universal Parent…it is calculated for general utility’.[30] If this was classic Enlightenment language, it was linked to the biblical concept of ‘mercy’. ‘That Slave-holding is utterly inconsistent with Mercy’, wrote Wesley, ‘is almost too plain to need a proof’.[31] In Hannah More’s poem on slavery, the cherub ‘Mercy’ descends softly to shed ‘celestial dew’ on ‘feeling hearts’ until ‘every breast the soft contagion feels’.[32] The cult of sensibility blended with Christian values to create a humanitarian ethos.

Abolitionists repeatedly invoked the Golden Rule: ‘All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them’ (Matthew 7:12). Obeying this ‘Royal Law of Christ’ involved looking at the world from the Other’s point of view. Abolitionist preachers urged their listeners to imagine themselves being enslaved. The Baptist preacher, Abraham Booth, visualised himself, his family and thousands of his fellow countrymen ‘kidnapped, bought, and sold into a state of cruel slavery’. He was left with a sense of outrage.[33] The maverick Quaker, Benjamin Lay, even kidnapped a child (temporarily) from its slaving-owning parents to help them see the distress their practice caused! Thinking about the Golden Rule required people to consider how their actions impacted others, including African slaves on the other side of the Atlantic. The Methodist, Samuel Bradburn, observed to his horror that though he had ‘always abhorred slavery in every shape’, he had been ‘in some degree accessory to the Bondage, Torture and Death of myriads of human beings by assisting to consume the produce of their labour, their tears, and their blood!’ He asked God’s pardon, and hoped that by boycotting sugar he could ‘make some restitution for my former want of attention to my duty in this respect’.[34]

Christian benevolence involved sharing the love of God as revealed in Christ. So as well as fighting for the emancipation of African bodies, abolitionists longed for the deliverance of African souls – redemption was both a physical and a spiritual concept. ‘O burst thou all their chains in sunder’, prayed Wesley, ‘more especially the chains of their sins; Thou Saviour of all, make them free, that they may be free indeed’.[35] Wesley and others knew that masters often prevented the preaching of the Gospel to their slaves, fearing that conversion to Christianity would undermine their servility. Methodist and Baptist preachers clashed frequently with slave-owners because they won numerous converts among the slaves, integrated them into their churches, and started to denounce slaveholding. By 1800, around a third of American Methodists were of African descent. The rise of antislavery was accompanied by the dramatic growth of black Christianity. For many Evangelicals in the late eighteenth century (both black and white), the evangelisation of the slaves went hand-in-hand with antislavery activism. Only in the nineteenth century, as they became part of the Southern establishment, did white Evangelicals in the American South make their peace with slavery. In a tragic compromise, they started to soft-pedal the social ramifications of the Gospel.[36]


‘Vengeance is mine’: the idea of judgement

If the God of abolitionists was a benevolent deity, he was also a God of justice who would punish unrepentant sinners. This was a fearful thought. ‘Will not the groans of this deeply afflicted and oppressed people reach heaven’, asked the Quaker Benezet, ‘and must not the inevitable consequence be pouring forth of the judgements of God upon their oppressors’.[37] William Cowper warned those engaged in the trade: ‘Remember, Heaven has an avenging rod,/To smite the poor is treason against God!’[38] The former slave Equiano wrote ominously to the author of a pro-slavery pamphlet: ‘Remember the God who has said, Vengeance is mine, and I will repay (not only the oppressor, but also the justifier of the oppressor)’.[39] Another African Christian, Ottabah Cugoano, warned slavemasters that if they did not repent they would ‘meet with the full stroke of the long suspended vengeance of heaven’.[40]

But those directly implicated in the trade were not the only ones in the hands of an angry God. Abolitionists never tired of repeating that ‘national sins produce national judgements’. As the historian Roger Anstey suggested, Evangelicals were passionate against the slave trade because of their ‘overwhelming conviction that Providence regulates the affairs of men and in so doing chastises errant nations’ – this belief was ‘a spur to incessant activity’.[41] The very titles of their pamphlets highlighted the threat of divine judgement. Near the outset of the long campaign, Granville Sharp wrote The Law of Retribution: A Serious Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies, founded on unquestionable examples of God’s Temporal Vengeance against Tyrants, Slaveholders and Oppressors (1776); at its close, James Ramsay published The Danger of the Country (1807).

But Evangelicals were not alone in warning of collective guilt and national judgements. The Anglican Latitudinarian, Peter Peckard, reminded his readers that ancient Tyre ‘traded, as we do, in the persons of Men. She became rich, as we do, in the iniquity of her traffick…But what was the sequel? The Lord gave a commandment against the Merchant city to destroy it, and it was levelled to the ground’.[42] Abraham Booth declared that Tyre and Sidon were ‘the Liverpool and Bristol of ancient times’.[43] If the British did not repent of their collective sin, abolitionists warned, the land would face a dreadful judgement. As Benezet put it, ‘must we not tremble to think what a load of guilt lies upon our Nation’.[44]


Biblical slavery?

Whilst abolitionist ideas of brotherhood, liberty, benevolence and judgement were rooted in Scripture, the Bible also presented them with a problem, since both OT Israel and the NT church seemed to accept (or at least tolerate) the institution of slavery. As the former slave Cugoano admitted, the claim that the Old Testament sanctioned slavery was ‘the greatest bulwark of defence which the advocates and favourers of slavery can advance’. Cugoano thought that this was ‘an inconsistent and diabolical use of the sacred writings’. How ironic it was to see slave-traders ransacking the Pentateuch to legitimate slavery while blithely ignoring texts which made slave trading a capital crime: ‘He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death’ (Exodus 21:16; also Deuteronomy 24:7).[45]

Abolitionists usually admitted that the Law of Moses did sanction a form of slavery, and that this was legitimate in its time and place. But they distinguished between the perpetual enslavement of Gentiles, and the highly qualified servitude of fellow Jews. The enslavement of other Jews was to be dissolved at the year of Jubilee, and abolitionists often argued that it was ‘not, properly speaking, slavery’ – which by definition involved permanent rights of ownership.[46] The enslavement of the Gentiles, they maintained, was a unique punishment for exceptional wickedness, and formed no precedent for other nations. In any case, even these slaves were guaranteed better treatment than modern Africans. The Israelites, as one writer noted, were ‘exhorted to remember their own bondage in the land of Israel, and to treat their servants with the same lenity they wished to experience themselves’ (see Deuteronomy 15:12–15; 24:14–22).[47] OT law regulated slavery in a manner that was unique in the ancient world.[48]

Abolitionists also maintained that ‘the laws of brotherly love are infinitely enlarged’ by the Gospel, which proclaims ‘goodwill towards men without distinction’. Since all men were now to be treated as brethren, the Mosaic ban on perpetual enslavement of fellow Israelites was universalised.[49] Of course, pro-slavery Christians emphasised that neither Christ nor the apostles demanded the abolition of slavery. But abolitionists responded that slavery was tolerated as an evil by the early church, just like ‘the sanguinary despotism of Nero’ and ‘the sports of gladiators’, neither of which was expressly condemned in the New Testament.[50] Despotism and slavery were contrary to the ‘spirit’ of Christianity, whose ‘merciful operations’, though ‘gradual and slow’, eventually undermined both institutions.[51] Abolition could not happen in the first centuries, when the church was too weak and slavery was integral to the Roman economy. As Equiano observed, if Paul ‘had absolutely declared the iniquity of slavery…he would have occasioned more tumult than reformation’. Yet his letter to Philemon plainly showed ‘that he thought it derogatory to the honour of Christianity, that men who are bought with the inestimable price of Christ’s blood, shall be esteemed slaves, and the private property of their fellow-men’.[52] Paul had pointed the way; it was for later Christians to complete the journey.[53]

Abolitionists maintained that over the long run Christianity was inimical to the institution of slavery. The great Scottish Enlightenment historian (and Church of Scotland minister), William Robertson, claimed that ‘the spirit and genius of the Christian religion’ had gradually undermined many of the evils of the ancient world, including ‘the practice of slavery’. He observed that the enslavement of fellow Christians had been widely forbidden by the church and its bishops, so that slavery largely disappeared from Christian Europe by the twelfth century.[54] The Cambridge Baptist, Robert Robinson, amplified the argument. In the central rite of communion, he reasoned, slaves and slaveholders ate and drank together as brethren, undercutting earthly hierarchies. Christ had brought ‘deliverance to the captives’ by teaching principles of brotherhood and human dignity that ‘slowly but certainly subverted the whole system of slavery’.[55] The revival of slavery in the sixteenth century was a terrible reverse, but it would not survive the consistent application of Christian principles.[56]


Learning from the abolitionists

The profoundly Christian character of the abolitionist movement constitutes a serious stumbling block for secular commentators who rail against the ‘mixing of religion and politics’. Increasingly these days, secular Europeans and Americans are inclined to see religion as an essentially malign force in human affairs, one that should be excluded from public life, and securely locked away in a privatised compartment. Yet as the abolitionist movement illustrates, public religion has proved a powerful force for reform in Western society. In the last half-century, Christian churches made a vital contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement, the overthrow of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the fall of apartheid in South Africa.[57] Christian charities also played a central role in the worldwide campaign for the abolition of Third World debt, giving it the biblically resonant name, Jubilee 2000.

Christian social and political activism has made a major contribution to the culture of modernity. Too many opinion-makers today operate with a fundamentally erroneous picture of modern history – they assume that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment secularised society and constituted a clean break with a religious past. The reality is rather different. As we have noted, a good deal of Enlightenment thought (especially in the Protestant world) still bore a Christian character, and Christian activism flourished during the ‘Age of Reason’. It has been a vital force ever since. The modern world can do without religious violence, but can it do without the Christian conscience?

If the abolitionists have a lesson for secularists, their ideals and values present an equally sharp challenge to contemporary Christians. Modern Christianity has been damaged by the severing of evangelism from social action. Liberal churches often embrace the political activism of the abolitionists but seem embarrassed by the very thought of evangelism. As a result, churchgoing is plummeting, pews are empty, and within a generation there may be few Christians left to do social action! Conservative churches, observing this dismal state of affairs, sometimes fear that social involvement is just a dangerous distraction from the proclamation of the Gospel. Talk of human brotherhood, benevolence and human rights, which once came naturally to Evangelicals, can now sound suspiciously ‘liberal’. As a result, modern Evangelicals have sometimes looked anything but the heirs of William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp.

Yet it is far from clear that we should avoid one reductionist view of Christian mission (the ‘social gospel’) only to replace it with another kind of reductionism (a Christianity shorn of concern for the created order, for the poor and the oppressed).[58] For most abolitionist Christians, ending the slave trade and evangelising non-Christians were complementary activities. Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, for example, was both an antislavery tract and an Evangelical conversion story. Dynamic Evangelical movements like the Methodists and Baptists were at the forefront of British antislavery from the 1780s to the 1830s. Moreover, as Seymour Drescher observes, ‘the take-off of British abolitionism coincided almost exactly with the revival of the British missionary movement’.[59] Evangelisation and social reform flowed from a revitalised Christianity. Together they bore eloquent testimony to the transforming power of the Gospel. As David Brion Davis has argued, Christian abolitionism served to rehabilitate Christianity as a force for human progress in the face of challenges from rationalist scepticism.[60] Thomas Clarkson’s definitive history of the abolitionist movement was (among other things) an apologetic for Christianity. In its opening pages, Clarkson argued that the slave trade was the greatest of the social evils conquered by the Christian religion. On the final page, he urged his readers: ‘retire to thy closets, and pour out thy thanksgivings to the Almighty for this his unspeakable act of mercy to thy oppressed fellow-creatures’.[61]

Abolitionist Christians, of course, are not above criticism. Some were against the slave trade, but more willing to tolerate slavery itself; some rejected racism, but retained condescending attitudes towards Africans; some showed little concern for exploited workers in Britain’s industrial cities; some were uncritical of British imperialism. Yet for all their blind spots, the clarity of their moral vision of the slave trade stands as a lasting challenge to later generations. As contemporary Christians we need to ask ourselves hard questions: Does our faith shake our moral complacency and drive us to do justly, show mercy and walk humbly with our God? And are there grave injustices that we have ignored, much as Christians once disregarded the horrors of the trade in African slaves?

It may be that we have too many ills to combat, and no one great evil that pricks the Christian conscience and galvanises mass action. For some Christians, the burning issue is global poverty. While we in the West enjoy unparalleled affluence, hundreds of millions live on the brink of starvation. Just as eighteenth-century Britons learned that their consumption of sugar sustained the slave economy, so we need to see that our consumer choices can contribute to the exploitation of the world’s poor. Christians must work to ‘make poverty history’.

For others, the issue of our day is abortion. Like transported slaves, unborn children are out of sight, out of mind, and quite defenceless. Their destruction happens silently, and Christians must raise their voice in protest.

For others, human-induced climate change should be high on the Christian agenda. As the recent statement of the Evangelical Climate Initiative puts it: ‘Millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbours’. Love for the Creator of our world, love for our neighbours, and the demands of stewardship require that we act now.[62] Once again, this action requires an imaginative leap – like our eighteenth-century predecessors, we will have to learn that seemingly innocuous actions (like taking frequent cheap-flight holidays) might contribute in a small way to a human catastrophe.

These issues hardly exhaust the list of competing claims on our attention. Indeed, slavery itself is returning in new forms, as human trafficking emerges as a global business, involving the transportation of over a million people a year for forced labour, sexual exploitation or other forms of servitude.



Faced with such a plethora of woes, it is easy to feel powerless. Yet the lesson of the abolitionists is that God can use conscientious Christians who think globally and act locally to accomplish seemingly impossible things. When the philosopher John Stuart Mill reflected on the abolition of the slave trade and the demise of slavery itself, he concluded that these great events had happened not because of ‘any change in the distribution of material interests, but by the spread of moral convictions’. ‘It is what men think’, wrote Mill, ‘that determines how they act’.[63] Modern historians have been sceptical about this idealist interpretation of abolition – they correctly emphasise the importance of political contingencies, and the complex motivations of the participants.

But if ‘the spread of moral convictions’ was not a sufficient cause of the rise and triumph of abolitionism, it was a necessary one. Ideas mattered, and the leading abolitionists cannot be understood without reference to their Christianity. They believed that all people are God’s offspring and bearers of the divine image; they believed that you must love your neighbour as yourself and do to others as you would have them do to you; they believed in a God who heard the cry of the oppressed, and a Messiah who had come to bring deliverance to captives; and they believed that sooner or later, God would punish a nation that failed to repent of its iniquitous exploitation of another race. These simple religious convictions lent a special intensity to the campaign against the slave trade, turning it into a sacred cause. If we doubt the power and promise of Christian beliefs, we should remember the abolitionists.


Further reading

Roger Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1807, Macmillan, 1975. Now out of print, this remains the finest academic account of British abolition.

James G. Basker, ed., Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery, 1660–1810, Yale University Press, 2002.With poems from 250 writers, this anthology is the best possible introduction to the eighteenth-century mind.

Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital:Foundations of British Abolitionism, University of North Carolina Press, 2006.This major new work is the most sophisticated and persuasive attempt to explain the dramatic rise of a British abolitionist movement in the wake of the American Revolution. It contains key chapters on why Anglican Evangelicals and Quakers took centre stage in the campaign against the slave trade.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, ed. V. Caretta, Penguin Classics, 2003. The classic eighteenth-century slave autobiography.

Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, Pan, 2006. A riveting narrative, though it downplays the theological beliefs of the abolitionists.

Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870, Phoenix Press, 2006.This is a grandsurvey of the rise and fall of the slave trade.

www.brycchancarey.com is an excellent website on British abolitionists with a special focus on black abolitionists.



I am grateful to the Writing Group and to Professor David Killingray for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Its shortcomings, of course, are my own responsibility.

Dr John Coffey trained as a historian at Cambridge University. His research is on religion, politics and ideas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is the author of several books, including Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England, 1558–1689 (Longman, 2000). He is a Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Leicester.

[1] D. B. Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, Oxford University Press, 1984, p.108.

[2] John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, 1788.

[3] See Steven M. Wise, Though the Heavens may Fall: The Landmark Trial that led to the End of Human Slavery, Pimlico, 2006.

[4] Samuel Bradburn, An Address to the People called Methodists concerning the Evil of Encouraging the Slave Trade,1792, pp.13–14.

[5] Jonathan Edwards Jr, The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade, 1791, pp.29–30.

[6] See B. Carey, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility, 1760–1807, Palgrave, 2005; D. B. Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823, Cornell University Press, 1975; C. L. Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

[7] R. Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1807, Macmillan, 1975, p.412.

[8] Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, p.139.

[9] D. B. Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of New World Slavery, Oxford University Press, 2006, p.331.

[10] A. Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, Pan, 2006, p.366.

[11] Hannah More, Slavery: A Poem, 1788, p.10.

[12] Abraham Booth, Commerce in the Human Species, and the Enslaving of Innocent Persons, inimical to the Law of Moses and the Gospel of Christ, 1792, p.17.

[13] Thomas Bradshaw, The Slave Trade inconsistent with Reason and Religion, 1788, p.13.

[14] William Cowper, The Task, 1784, book 2.

[15] William Cowper, Charity, 1782.

[16] See Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, pp.130–136.

[17] More, Slavery, pp.4–5.

[18] Their writings can be found in V. Caretta, ed., Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the 18th Century, University of Kentucky Press, 1996.

[19] Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, ed. V. Caretta, Penguin, 2003, pp.334, 331–32.

[20] John Wesley, Thoughts upon Slavery, 1774, p.27.

[21] More, Slavery, p.18.

[22] Bradburn, An Address, p.6.

[23] More, Slavery, p.18.

[24] A. Raboteau, ‘African Americans, Exodus and the new Israel’, in D. G. Hackett, ed., Religion and American Culture, Routledge, 1995, p.81.

[25] Cited from E. S. Gaustad & M. A. Noll, eds, A Documentary History of Religion in America to 1877, Eerdmans, 2003, pp.224–25.

[26] Equiano, The Interesting Narrative, pp.330, 334–335, 340.

[27] D. B. Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Thought, Cornell University Press, 1966, chs. 11–12.

[28] K. Minkema and H. Stout, ‘The Edwardsean tradition and antebellum slavery’, Journal of American History, 92, 2005, pp.47–74.

[29] Granville Sharp, An Essay on Slavery, 1773, pp.22–23.

[30] James Dore, A Sermon on the African Slave Trade, 1788, pp.34–35.

[31] Wesley, Thoughts upon Slavery, p.18.

[32] More, Slavery, p.19.

[33] Booth, Commerce in the Human Species, p.28.

[34] Bradburn, An Address, p.20.

[35] Wesley, Thoughts upon Slavery, p.28.

[36] For this sad tale, see D. Mathew, Slavery and Methodism: A Chapter in American Morality, 1780–1845, Princeton University Press, 1965.

[37] Anthony Benezet, A Caution and a Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies, 1766, p.9.

[39] Equiano, The Interesting Narrative, p.339.

[40] Ottabah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery,1787, p.25.

[41] R. Anstey, ‘A re-interpretation of the abolition of the British slave trade, 1806–1807’, English Historical Review, 87, 1972, p.313.

[42] Peter Peckard, National Crimes the cause of National Punishments, 1795, p.17.

[43] Booth, Commerce in the Human Species, p.26.

[44] Benezet, A Caution and a Warning, p.33.

[45] Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments, pp.29–30, 64–66. This text was printed on Cugoano’s title page.

[46] Booth, Commerce in the Human Species, pp.8–14.

[47] Bradshaw, The Slave Trade, p.12.

[48] For helpful discussions of OT slavery see C. Wright, Old Testament Ethics and the People of God, IVP, 2004, pp.333–37; M. Schulter and J. Ashcroft, eds, The Jubilee Manifesto, IVP, 2005, pp.193–95.

[49] See Sharp, An Essay on Slavery, p.22.

[50] Booth, Commerce in the Human Species, p.26.

[51] Bradshaw, The Slave Trade, p.13.

[52] Equiano, The Interesting Narrative, pp.337–38.

[53] For modern analyses of the hermeneutical issues see W. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation, Herald Press, 1983, ch. 1; W. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, IVP, 2001.

[54] W. Robertson, The Situation of the World at the Time of Christ’s Appearance, 1755, pp.28–32.

[55] R. Robinson, Slavery inconsistent with the Spirit of Christianity, 1788, pp.12–13, 5–8.

[56] For a spirited defence of the claim that Christianity undermined slavery in the long run see R. Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery, Princeton University Press, 2003, ch. 4.

[57] See J. W. De Gruchy, Christianity and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[58] See Ranald Macaulay, ‘The Great Commissions’, Cambridge Papers, 7:2, 1998; and T. Chester, The Gospel to the Poor: Sharing the Gospel through Social Involvement, IVP, 2004.

[59] C. Bolt and S. Drescher, eds, Anti-Slavery, Religion and Reform, W. W. Dawson, 1980, p.47.

[60] Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, pp.129–53.

[61] Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, 2 vols, 1808, vol. I, pp.5–9; vol. II, p.587.

[62] The statement can be found at www.christiansandclimate.org

[63] John Stuart Mill, Representative Government, 1861, ch. 1.

Share this post on your network

Tags: Abolition, Abolitionist, British, Evangelical, Human, Racism, Rights, Slave, Trade, World

Category: Cambridge Papers

June, 2006

Enslaved women and slavery before and after 1807

Diana Paton, Newcastle University

This year's commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the passage of the British Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade have tended to focus on those exceptional individuals who led movements against the trade and against slavery itself. (1) For some, those individuals have been located primarily in Britain: people like Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and – finally being given his due in recent years – Olaudah Equiano. Others have countered that it is more appropriate to examine the frequently revolutionary actions of enslaved people themselves, whose '200 Years' War' against slavery, as Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles describes it, ultimately increased the economic and political costs of that system to the point where it could no longer be sustained. (2) On both sides, the emphasis has largely been on men, despite some efforts to include a token woman or two: a Hannah More here, a Nanny or a Mary Prince there. This concentration on men is almost inevitable when historical narrative becomes a search for heroic leaders, for the social conventions of most societies have tended to limit women's capacity to become prominent leaders.

Yet this attention to the exceptional threatens to obscure the quotidian. What about the men and women who lived through slavery without taking up arms against it? Their experience was the norm for slave societies and, I would argue, is as important, as interesting and as full of political struggle as the lives of those who became rebels. This essay focuses on the everyday lives of enslaved people, especially enslaved women, in the British colonies in the Caribbean, and asks what difference the abolition of the slave trade meant to them. It focuses in particular on two issues: labour and reproduction. Drawing on secondary work as well as my own research in Jamaican archives, it shows the complex results of the end of importation of enslaved Africans. One outcome of the end of the slave trade was increased pressure on enslaved women, and thus increased conflict between them and those who sought to exploit them.

In order to understand the impact of abolition, we need to appreciate something of the context of enslaved women's lives in the Caribbean colonies before the end of the slave trade.

For most women who endured it, the experience of the Atlantic slave trade was one of being outnumbered by men. Roughly one African woman was carried across the Atlantic for every two men. European slave traders preferred to buy men. The captains of slave ships were usually instructed to buy as high a proportion of men as they could, because men could be sold for more in the Americas. (3)

Women thus arrived in the American colonies as a minority. For reasons we do not fully understand, they did not stay a minority. Trevor Burnard's study of eighteenth-century Jamaican probate records found that on most plantations, even during the period of the slave trade, there were relatively equal numbers of men and women. From the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century in Jamaica, fifty-two to fifty-three per cent of enslaved people listed at probate were men.(4) All enslaved people suffered from very poor health and high levels of death, but it seems that men were even more vulnerable to death and disease than women.

Before abolitionism, slaveholders showed little interest in women as mothers. Their willingness to pay more for men than for women, despite the fact that any children born to enslaved women would also be the slaveowners' property and would thus increase their wealth, suggests that they preferred to buy new enslaved people from Africa rather than bear the costs of raising children. Women who did have children, therefore, always struggled with the impossible conflict between, on the own hand, their own physical needs and their children's need for care and, on the other, the requirements forced on them by plantation work regimes. Women's inability to maintain the pace of work required by plantation managers during pregnancy, their need for recovery time after childbirth, and the needs of their young children to be fed, cleaned, loved, and integrated spiritually and socially into the human community, all brought them into conflict with the demands of the owners and managers of the plantations on which they worked.

In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that enslaved women in the Caribbean had, on average, an unusually small number of children and that of those children they did have, a very high proportion died young. The diaries of the Jamaican planter Thomas Thistlewood, to take one example, record 153 pregnancies over thirty-seven years, resulting in 121 live births. (The thirty-two miscarriages and abortions must be an underestimate, since Thistlewood would not have known about all pregnancies.) At least fifty-one of these children – more than one in three – died before the age of seven. Only fifteen definitely reached the age of seven. (5) Enslaved women's experience of pregnancy, birth and motherhood was marked by ill-health and death, pain and grief; 'rooted in loss' as Jennifer Morgan writes. (6) The everyday loss of children was one of the hidden traumas of slavery.

The reasons for these high rates of miscarriage and infant death are much debated, but it is clear that the work regime that women encountered, requiring very strenuous physical exertion in conditions of inadequate nutrition, played a major role. (7) This work was, for the very large majority, agricultural. Overwhelmingly, enslaved women worked doing hard manual labour growing sugar and other commercial crops. Sugar was not the only crop grown in the Caribbean, but it was the reason for the existence of the colonies, and the main source of their profitability. About sixty per cent of all enslaved people in the Caribbean lived on sugar estates. (8)

Given this context, what difference did the abolition of the slave trade make? The rest of this essay argues that despite the hopes of abolitionists, in practice it meant an increase in labour demands and in intervention in their reproductive lives for enslaved women.

Caribbean slavery had always been a deadly system. Enslaved people died young and had few children to replace them. Although more than two million people were brought to the British Caribbean colonies through the period of the slave trade, only around 700,000 became free in 1834. (9)

As the abolition of the slave trade loomed, this demographic disaster became apparent to planters, abolitionists and government officials. In anticipation of abolition, the 1790s saw very high rates of slave imports: British ships brought more than 400,000 Africans across the Atlantic in that single decade, mostly to the Caribbean. This was the peak period of British slave trading. (10)

Despite this frenzy of slave purchasing in advance of the abolition of the slave trade, population decline continued after 1807. Yet the labour demands made on enslaved people did not decrease. Indeed, as the future of slavery looked uncertain, slaveowners became increasingly concerned to extract as much labour from the enslaved people over whom they claimed ownership, while that ownership was still legally recognized. Many estates by this time were severely indebted, and the need to service debt produced an additional drive to maintain productivity from the owners' point of view. In Jamaica, total production of export crops decreased slightly between 1800 and 1834, but the numbers of enslaved people declined more significantly. (11) In other words, the average amount of sugar (or other export crop) produced by an individual plantation worker increased after 1807. Given that there were relatively few technical improvements, this means that enslaved people were subjected to increasingly intense and increasingly closely controlled work regimes after 1807, and especially after 1820. (12)

This was precisely the opposite of what the abolitionists had forseen. They had hoped and expected that abolition of the trade would lead to a more balanced sex ratio, and to planters improving the conditions under which enslaved people lived; both of these were expected to lead to increasing populations. (13) But in fact, what seems to have happened is that the immediate need to produce sugar for that season's market always outweighed the longer-term self-interest of preserving the health of enslaved people. It was the logic of the system of slavery, and not simply the cruelty of individual slaveowners, that produced the extremes of exploitation and oppression in the Caribbean. Some of the biggest rebellions in the region's history took place in this period – in Barbados in 1816, in Demerara (today's Guiana) in 1823 and in Jamaica in 1831 – and this may be partially explained by the ever-increasing intensity of work demands as the population dwindled. As Emilia Viotti da Costa notes, the post-slave-trade period 'led simultaneously to increasing oppression and growing hopes for emancipation'. (14)

The growing pressure to work affected all enslaved people, men and women. But there were also issues affecting enslaved women specifically, and reproduction was at the heart of these. Planters and colonial governments were aware from around the 1770s of the demographic problems of slave societies, which they largely attributed to low birth rates and high infant mortality, rather than to death rates. (15) Some of them adopted a range of pronatalist policies from the late eighteenth century on, with the intention of transforming this situation. (16) Such policies had contradictory implications for enslaved women. In some ways, they provided for improved levels of health care and rights in relation to family life, but they also led to increasing surveillance and intervention.

On some estates in Barbados, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands, and perhaps elsewhere as well, cash payments were made to women after their children survived for one month, along with additional 'bonuses' to mothers at Christmas time. It is unlikely, however, that these actually made much difference either to women's motivation to have children or to the likelihood of the survival of these children. Indeed, the very idea that these payments might produce such benefits tells us a lot about the mentality of slaveholders, who assumed both that low fertility and high infant mortality were under women's control, and that a relatively small material payment would be enough to alter women's reasons for refusing to have children.

Probably more significant in terms of increasing fertility were the reductions in labour demands for pregnant women and women with children which several colonies legislated for from the 1790s onwards. The Leeward Islands Slave Code of 1798, for instance, said that women five months pregnant or more could only be asked to do 'light work', although this kind of regulation was not always respected. In Jamaica, the small minority of women who had six living children were by law exempted from 'hard labour' after 1792.

Probably all women to whom it applied appreciated exemption from the exhausting physical labour of sugar cane cultivation. But other planter and state efforts at increasing the birth rate were more intrusive. White observers almost universally believed that African-derived ways of organising sexual and romantic relationships contributed to the low birth rate. In particular, they objected to what they called 'promiscuity'. Thus, on plantations in Barbados and the Leeward Islands only those women with large numbers of children born through 'wedlock' or 'faithful cohabitation' respectively were entitled to release from labour. The Leeward Islands Act of 1798, which was explicitly framed as a response to population decline, required planters to gather together their slaves and get those who were in relationships to 'elect' one individual as their husband or wife, thus outlawing the polygynous relationships that were accepted in many of the African societies from which enslaved people originated.

Planters and colonial states tried to use these policies to shape women's – but not men's – sexual behaviour and to impose European ideas of domestic monogamy on them. Some planters also attempted to get enslaved women to change childbirth practices. One Jamaican doctor, for instance, recommended that plantations should build 'lying-in houses' where women should give birth, attended by 'the manager and the medical practitioner', while the Leeward Islands 1798 slave code likewise recommended that women 'lie in' at a dedicated plantation hospital. (17)

Planters also believed that enslaved women's practice of relatively extended breast-feeding (up to around two years, which drew on African norms) was suppressing their fertility and therefore population growth. As a result, they attempted to persuade and coerce women into weaning earlier, at about a year. Thomas Roughley, a planter who wrote an advice manual for other plantation managers to follow, wrote that 'I would never (except sickness intervenes) leave a child more than fourteen months sucking, but generally no more than twelve months'. (18) Most evidence suggests, however, that planters were unsuccessful in trying to reduce lactation periods, which enslaved women defended vigorously.

These new pronatalist policies produced an important zone of conflict between planters and enslaved women. Enslaved women responded to them by fighting to transform those aspects of pronatalism from which they benefited into rights, while resisting those they disliked. Little evidence about these struggles is available from the period of slavery itself, but when slavery was abolished in 1834 and was replaced by a system known as apprenticeship they came into the open. (19) Many planters reacted to the apprenticeship system by trying to force women who had previously been entitled to work at 'light' duties into the cane fields. The response was a wave of protest from these women. In May 1836, for instance, four women named Diana Hall, Eliza Hall, Elenor Hall and Frances Thomas were brought up before William Carnaby, a Jamaican stipendiary magistrate, for absence from work for two weeks. (20) In their defence the women stated that they had many children: Elenor, with the fewest, had six, while Eliza, with the most, had ten. As enslaved people, none of these women had been required to undertake heavy agricultural work. When a new overseer arrived in 1836, however, he sent them to the fields. Apprenticeship was supposedly a step towards freedom: the strong sense of entitlement to exemption from field work that had already existed during slavery was strengthened just at the moment when managers tried to attack it.

This sense pervaded the four Worcester women's response when Carnaby ordered them to do a variety of relatively light tasks. Elenor acceded to his proposal that she go to work in the third gang, but the other three 'positively refused to do any labour', for which act of 'insolence' they were sent to the house of correction for seven days' solitary confinement. On 12 May they were released, but all three once again refused to work. Meanwhile Frances Thomas was also not working as the overseer, Mr. Reid, wanted. All four women appeared before Carnaby again on 17 June. Eliza 'decidedly refused again to do any work'; she and Elenor were both sentenced to 14 days' hard labour in the house of correction, with two daily spells on the treadmill. Carnaby sentenced Diana Hall to ten days' solitary confinement. (21)

For younger women, the crucial issue was not exemption from field labour but relaxation of the work-pace for pregnant women, and sufficient time to breast-feed or take care of children. On 12 February 1835, stipendiary magistrate Ralph Cocking reported that he had 'lectured' the pregnant women and those with young children on Bellfield estate. It appears his lecture did no good: four days later he was back at the estate, where he ordered four women with six children each and three pregnant women to work as they had previously been instructed. (22) On Friendship estate, Ann Smith asserted that she was 'entitled to sit down' because she was pregnant, and then refused to work. Her use of the term 'entitled' is interesting, showing her clear sense of the rightness and justice of her demand. In similar cases, Nancy Cowan was charged with 'insolence, general bad conduct and refusing to wean her child when ordered, it being 29 months old', while Jessy Ann Tharp was punished for taking time off to breast-feed her 19-month-old child, and refusing to wean the infant. Both were punished by being locked in the plantation's cell every night for 14 days. (23) Carnaby ordered the punishment of five women in 10 days on Fairfield estate, all of whom said in their defence that they had taken time off to look after sick children. (24)

These conflicts, touching on questions such as when a child should be weaned and how a sick child should be treated, show that struggles about labour time were tightly intertwined with questions about the organisation of family life. Apprenticed women's experience as workers, and thus their activity in labour struggles, were constructed through their gender-based responsibilities. Similarly, planters' and magistrates' shared desire to maintain control of the labour of apprentices meant that the state attempted to regulate many other aspects of their lives.

The abolition of the slave trade, then, had some paradoxical consequences. While we commemorate it, and honour those who struggled for the end of the slave trade – especially those enslaved people whose continued resistance provided the abolitionists in Britain with examples of why abolition was needed – we should also pay attention to its implications for people already enslaved in the Caribbean colonies. For many, the period between the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the final abolition of the apprenticeship system in 1838 was a time of intensified exploitation and greater intrusion into personal life.

  1. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Women's Library, London Metropolitan University and the Literary Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in March and Apr. 2007. I thank the audiences at those events for comments. Thanks also to the scholars, cited in the footnotes, on whose important research I have relied for much of what follows. Back to (1)
  2. Hilary Beckles, 'The 200 Years' War: slave resistance in the British West Indies, an overview of the historiography', Jamaican Historical Review, 13 (1982), 1–10. Back to (2)
  3. David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, 2000), 100-4. While many historians argue that the sex ratio in the slave trade resulted from the coincidence of African traders' desire to retain women and European purchasers' desire to buy men, Eltis argues that Europeans were forced to buy more women than they would ideally have chosen. See also the work of Jennifer Morgan, who points out that proportions of women in the trade varied considerably by region. In some regions, such as the Bight of Biafra during the late seventeenth century, considerably more than one-third of Africans on slave ships were women (Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia, Pa., 2004), 56–61). Back to (3)
  4. Trevor Burnard, 'Valuing gender: Jamaican slavery, 1674–1784', The History of the Family: an International Quarterly (forthcoming, 2007). Back to (4)
  5. Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004), 220. We do not know what happened to the remaining 65. For comparative purposes it is worth noting that in England the death rate for the period 1750–99 was 268 deaths per 1,000 children under the age of five, although in London death rates were higher (see John Landers, Death and the Metropolis: Studies in the Demographic History of London (Cambridge, 1993), 138). Thanks to Jeremy Boulton for this reference. Back to (5)
  6. Morgan, Laboring Women, 108. Back to (6)
  7. Michael Tadman, 'The demographic costs of sugar: debates on slave societies and natural increase in the Americas', American Historical Review, 105.5 (2000); B.W. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean 1807–1834 (1984; Mona, Jamaica, 1995), 217–18. The debate on the causes of population decline (which includes discussion of high mortality as well as low fertility) is too extensive to cite fully here, but see also Marietta Morrissey, Slave Women in the New World: Gender Stratification in the Caribbean (Lawrence, Ks., 1989), 100–43; Barbara Bush, Slave Women in Caribbean Society 1650–1838 (London, 1990), 40–5, 120–43; J.R. Ward, British West Indian Slavery, 1750–1834: the Process of Amelioration (Oxford, 1988), 121–89. Back to (7)
  8. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 61. Back to (8)
  9. Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440–1870 (London, 1997), 805, Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 72. The enslaved population in 1834 was smaller than the total numbers imported not because large numbers had become free earlier (as did, in contrast, take place in Brazil and parts of Spanish America) but because the population did not reproduce successfully. Back to (9)
  10. David Richardson, 'Slave exports from west and west-central Africa, 1700–1810: new estimates of volume and distribution', Journal of African History, 30.1 (1989), 10. Back to (10)
  11. Barry Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807–1834 (1976; Kingston, Jamaica, 1995), 213–15. Back to (11)
  12. Emilia Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: the Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (New York, 1994); Mary Turner, Slaves and Missionaries: the Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787–1834 (Urbana, Ill., 1982). For the contrasting argument that increasing productivity was a result of improvements in material conditions and 'incentives', see Ward, British West Indian Slavery. Back to (12)
  13. Seymour Drescher, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor Versus Slavery in British Emancipation (Oxford, 2002), 44–7. Back to (13)
  14. Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, 39; Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 231–2. Back to (14)
  15. Drescher, The Mighty Experiment; Bush, Slave Women, 122. This was true not just in the British colonies but throughout the slave societies of the Americas. For comparative discussion, focusing especially on Cuba, see Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Social Control in Slave Plantation Societies: a Comparison of St. Domingue and Cuba (1971; Baton Rouge, La., 1996), 25–38. Back to (15)
  16. The evidence about these pronatalist policies presented in this and the next four paragraphs is from Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 349–54; Morrissey, Slave Women, 126–30; Bush, Slave Women, 29–30; Ward, British West Indian Slavery, 166–70. Back to (16)
  17. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 352. Back to (17)
  18. Quoted in ibid, 354. Back to (18)
  19. For an explanation and analysis of the apprenticeship system, see Diana Paton, No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780–1870 (Durham, N.C., 2004), 53–82. Back to (19)
  20. Jamaica Archives, Spanish Town, 1B/11/23/9, William Carnaby, 'Record of Visitations, Adjudications, and Valuations &c, by Special Justice Carnaby ... 1 January to 30th June 1836' (hereafter 'Carnaby journal'), 5 May, 17 June 1836; National Library of Jamaica, Kingston, Sligo letter book, MS. 228, no. 4016, p. 102, 24 June 1836. For examples of similar protests, see Mimi Sheller, 'Quasheba, mother, queen: black women's public leadership and political protest in post-emancipation Jamaica, 1834–65', Slavery and Abolition, 19.3 (1998). Back to (20)
  21. Carnaby Journal, 17 June 1836. Back to (21)
  22. Sligo to Glenelg, no. 169, 28 Sept. 1835; PP 1836 (166) XLVIII, cases of 2, 12 and 16 Feb. 1835 (hereafter 'Cocking journal'). Back to (22)
  23. 'Carnaby journal', 7 Jan 1836 (Smith); 'Cocking journal', 18 Feb. 1835 (Cowan and Tharp). Other similar cases include Evelina Williams, punished with seven days' extra labour for taking time to breastfeed her 22-month-old child ('Carnaby journal', 21 Apr. 1836); and Cecilia Henry, for not weaning her 16-month-old child, 14 days' hard labour in the house of correction (Rhodes House MSS. W. Ind. r. 1, Frederick White, 'Diary of a magistrate in Jamaica', Aug. 1834–Feb. 1835, 7 Aug. 1834). Back to (23)
  24. 'Carnaby journal', 21, 30 March 1836. Back to (24)

Articles index | Back to top

0 Replies to “West African Slave Trade Essays On Abortion”

Lascia un Commento

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *