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The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery Abolishment


Slave trade carried out mostly in the 17th-18th centuries encompassed the capturing, selling, and purchase of people for the sole purpose of forced labor. Slaves were acquired from the sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world, as early as the 1st century AD. Most of these slaves found themselves in Europe, the Caribbean or Brazil working on plantations. Any discussion on the genesis of slave trade and how it was done cannot be concluded without referring to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that characterized the 17th and 18th centuries. In the transatlantic trade, African men were captured and sold in the Caribbean in exchange for items such as glasses, molasses, and other manufactured goods.

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Trading in slaves was of great importance to the countries that participated in it. Industrialization of some countries has been credited to the contribution of the slaves in the production of commodities such as tobacco and sugar. Major investment capital, was again generated by this trade thus increasing the rate of industrialization. Britain was among the major beneficiaries with Slave trade catapulting the importance of some of their ports, an example being Liverpool. According to Curtin and Philip (2009), “Liverpool’s dominance is clear and Liverpoolians were in the forefront of opposition to reform slavery”.

While some of the people taken to Europe and America for the purpose of forced labor had initially been African slaves, many of them where innocent bystanders. It was again not unusual for the slave traders to hide and wait for a person to capture. Slaves were also acquired from convicted criminals. “It was also likely for an African of a particular tribe to be captured by an enemy tribe as a prisoner of war and then exchanged for goods. This lasted through the 15th-19th century, devastating lives of over 20,000,000 Africans” (Curtin & Philip, 2009). All these people were taken into slavery or sold abroad in exchange for imported commodities.

Slaves were often captured by force and crowded into a waiting ship for the long trips to Europe. As shown by Rawley and Jameson (2001), “during their voyage slaves were governed by a system of fear, torture and brutalization”. Instilling fear to the slaves was aimed at preventing slaves with intentions of escaping from doing so. Women in the trade were often pursued by the sailors where most of them were raped. Upon arrival in Europe, their conditions worsened. As explained by Curtin and Phillip (2009), “as many as one-third of Africans died within four years of landing, and only a few survived. This was because they were unable to adjust to the vast changes in climate, culture, and living conditions”. Therefore this paper will show why slavery was abolished then show that the motivation for ending it was not primarily ethical.

Why slavery was abolished

Abolishment of slavery was witnessed in French colonies, British colonies, in the United States and some parts of the modern day Romania between 1834 and 1850s. Slavery in its totality is still being practiced in a number of countries especially the Islamic countries in the Middle East and parts of West Africa. Statistics reveal that despite illegalizing slavery, up to twenty five million children all over the world are used as sex slaves. In many African countries, slavery in form of child labor and forced labor are still significant.

Between 1783 and 1888, an abolitionist movement emerged; its major objective being to put an end to slave trade and emancipate slaves both in Western Europe and America. Until the 18th Century, no signs of protests against slavery had been witnessed. According to Paul Heinegg, it was until the 18th century “when rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment criticized it for violating the rights of man. The Quakers and other evangelical religious groups also condemned it as un-Christian” (Heinegg, 2005). There were also a number of reasons put forward by various scholars as to why slave trade was abolished. The reasons revolved around economic reasons, actions by the black slaves and white people both middle and working class.

Actions by the black slaves significantly contributed to the abolishment of slavery. There is evidence towards the role of the ex-slaves who played a key role in fighting slavery through there writings on what their experience was in the sugar plantations. This attracted interest from human rights activists. Fredrick Douglass an ex-slave for example, was very intelligent and a talented speaker who spend much of his time fighting for equality. Apart from this, he created a newspaper through which he could publicize the grievances of the slaves. Most of the African Americans eventually emulated his fight against slavery. Nat Turner was another ex-slave who killed about 50 slave owners and their families so that they could not be replaced to continue with their oppression tendencies. All these activities greatly contributed towards the abolishment of slavery. According to John Brown, “this is how black people’s actions helped to end slavery; he asserts that if the slaves kept burning down the fields and buildings, owners would be losing money, and not gaining from it”.

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Economic reasons cannot be ignored in this discussion due to the major role they played in the abolishment of slavery. Their reached a point where little amounts of money was being accrued from the slave trade thus leading to its abolishment. This decline in the revenue was as a result of the frequent revolts by the slaves against those who owned plantations. The blacks intensified their revolt that graduated to burning down of buildings and plantations to the extent that, the whites could not keep up with it. These rebellions made plantation owners to lose a lot of money. It became apparent to them that sugar could be bought cheaply somewhere else rather than struggling with the slaves to try producing it.

There are also reported cases in which a number of white slave owners and their families were killed by the slaves. Voyages to North Africa to acquire these slaves had also become too expensive. A lot of court cases against the slave owners filed by the human rights activities contributed to increased expenses incurred by these slave owners. The only remaining logical step to be taken by them was to end slavery and free their slaves. According to John Brown, economic reasons contributed to end of slavery because “if the slaves kept burning down the fields and buildings, you would be losing money, and not making it” (Brown, 2005).

There were also a number of actions by the whites that led to the abolishment of slavery. There were a number of petitions brought to parliament in 1778 all aimed at ending slavery. Most of these petitions were taken round to be signed by the working class whites’ e.g. in Britain, Manchester in 1788 and 1792 where ten thousand and twenty thousand people respectively signed this kind of petitions. Exertion of pressure to the government continued even after slave trade had ended. According to John Brown (2005), “when slave trade was ended in 1807, people continued campaigning to make slavery completely illegal and make sure all slaves were freed. By 1814 over 1,500,000 people had signed petitions. These petitions put pressure on the parliament to end slavery”.

There were also some white middle class individuals like Granville sharp who tirelessly campaigned for the abolition of slavery and slave trade. Granville Sharp for example helped a number of slaves in 1765 to gain freedom. He represented a number of blacks in court cases such as this one that happened in 1765 and was captured in John Brown’s ‘Body and Blood’ (Brown, 2005).

Actions of religious groups again played a major role in the abolishment of slavery. These Christian groups were motivated by the joint belief that all humans in the eyes of God are equal. As a result, no any particular kinds of restrictions were to be imposed on their rights and liberties. “To them, blacks and white were equal thus enslaving them was not just and it contradicted their Christian beliefs” (Brown, 2005). It’s with this realization that they started championing for the freeing of slaves and abolishment of slavery. According to According to the Pennsylvania Association of history and biography (2000):

The Mennonites appealed to the consciences of slave-owners, asking them to realize that the sin of slavery led to many other sins, such as adultery when the master lay with the female slave. The consequence of this sinful union was the birth of a child rejected and enslaved by the master, who denied all that was right and true by denying his own flesh and blood.

It is also shown in the article that, “the Mennonites believed that all social relations should be based on the Golden Rule, to treat others as you would have them treat you”.

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To some scholars, “it was the suffering of the white crews-condemned by contemporaries as the ‘rapid loss of seamen’ which marked the beginning of the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade” (Newton 2008). Slaves had started organizing resistance deep in the sea where they attacked the white ship crews and killed a number of them. This endangered the lives of ship crews and most of them started refusing to participate in the voyages to Africa in search of slaves. To these scholars, in addition to the economic reasons there were also a number of reasons that contributed to the end of slave trade. A valid example is the slave resistance acts such as the 1794 Haitian revolution that was a success. All the above reasons with many others that have not been mentioned played a key role in bringing slave trade to an end.

The motivation for ending slavery was not primarily ethical

As shown by Williamson (2010) ethics is “a system of accepted beliefs which control behavior, especially systems based on morals. Ethics has also been defined as the study of what is morally right or wrong”.

I don’t believe the abolition of slave trade and slavery was primarily ethical. There are a few instances though where its abolition can be thought of as ethical. It’s widely accepted that slave trade in itself was unjust, unethical and inhuman. The campaigns launched by Christian organizations for its abolition on the grounds of equality and justice to all human beings were based on ethical grounds. However, this cannot prove the argument that its abolishment was primarily ethical. If there was at all any ethical motivation, then it was too minimal. In the first place, any traces of ethical consideration would have hindered the introduction of this kind of trade that deals in the purchase and selling of human beings.


As discussed above, the major reasons for abolishing slave trade and slavery emanated from the actions of the slaves, ex-slaves, middleclass whites, religious organizations and some individuals who were opposed to slave trade. It’s due to the consistent pressure from these groups that forced an end to slavery. Economic conditions also had a major impact in the abolishment of the trade. It was apparent that more losses than profits were being incurred in the business. As a result, the only logical measure was to end slavery to stop incurring more losses.

Most of the traders who participated in the trade starting from the local chiefs who captured and sold the slaves were primarily motivated by their personal interest. They did all in their capacity to acquire these slaves whom without them, little economic gains would be realized. However, the role played by these slaves in the American civil war changed the status quo. Continued marginalization of the plight of slave trade only led to more problems than solutions. Increased rebellions also destabilized the society. Participation of the white middle class in the fight against slavery was also for personal gains. Their major motivation was the continued realization of huge amounts of profits by the upper class whites while they acquired less. From the above, we can conclude that the motivation for ending slavery was not primarily ethical.

List of references

Brown, J. (2005) Slavery: Body and blood. International journal on slavery, 7(2), pp. 54-74.

Curtin, H., & Philip, D. (2009) The Atlantic slave trade. London: McGraw Hill.

Heinegg, P. (2005) Free African Americans. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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Newton, J. (2008) Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. London: Buckland & Johnson Publishers.

Rawley, D., & James, A. (2001) The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. New York NY: Oxford university press.

The Pennsylvania Association of History and Biography. (2000) The Abolishment of Slavery. International Journal on Slavery, 94(9), pp. 326-363.

Williamson, M. (2010) Slavery. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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