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Slavery, Diplomacy and Empire

Britain and the Suppression of the Slave Trade, 1807–1975

Keith Hamilton is an historian in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Senior Editor of the series, Documents on British Policy Overseas. His most recent publication (co-edited with Edward Johnson) is Arms and Disarmament in Diplomacy (2008).

Patrick Salmon is Chief Historian in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Professor Emeritus of History in the University of Newcastle. His publications include: (with John Hiden) The Baltic Nations and Europe: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (1995); (editor) Britain and Norway in the Second World War (1995); and Scandinavia and the Great Powers, 1890–1940

Throughout the nineteenth century British governments engaged in a global campaign against the slave trade. They sought through coercion and diplomacy to suppress the trade on the high seas and in Africa and Asia. But, despite the Royal Navy’s success in eradicating the transatlantic commerce in captive Africans, the forced migration of labour and other forms of people trafficking persisted. This collection of essays by specialist international, naval and slave trade historians examines the role played by individuals and institutions in the diplomacy of suppression, particularly the personnel of the Slave Trade Department of the Foreign Office and of the Mixed Commission Courts; the changing socio-religious character and methods of anti-slavery activists and the lobbyists; and the problems faced by the navy and those who served with its so-called ‘Preventive Squadron’ in seeking to combat the trade.

Other contributions explore the difficulties confronting British diplomats in their efforts to reconcile their moral objections to slavery and the slave trade with Britain’s imperial and strategic interests in Ottoman Turkey, Persia and the Arabian Peninsula; British reactions to the continued exploitation of forced labour in Portugal’s African colonies; and the apparent reluctance of the Colonial Office to attempt any systematic reform of the ‘master and servant’ legislation in force in Britain’s Caribbean possessions. The final chapter brings the story through the twentieth century, showing how the interests of the Foreign Office sometimes diverged from those of the Colonial Office, and considering how the changing face of slavery has made it the world-wide issue that it is today.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-298-3
Hardback Price: £49.95 / $75.00
Release Date: May 2009
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-573-1
Paperback Price: £25.00 / $34.95
Release Date: December 2012
Page Extent / Format: 256 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes, plate section


Foreword The Rt Hon David Miliband, MP
Editors’ Preface Keith Hamilton and Patrick Salmon

Keith Hamilton and Farida Shaikh

1. Zealots and Helots: the slave trade department of the nineteenth-century Foreign Office
Keith Hamilton

2. Judicial Diplomacy: British officials and the mixed commission courts
Farida Shaikh

3. Slavery, Free trade and Naval Strategy, 1840–1860
Andrew Lambert

4. Anti-slavery Activists and Officials: “influence”, lobbying and the slave trade, 1807–1850
David Turley

5. “A course of unceasing remonstrance”: British diplomacy and the suppression of the slave trade in the East
T. G. Otte

6. The British “Official Mind” and Mineteenth-Century Islamic Debates over the Abolition of Slavery
William Clarence Gervase-Smith

7. The “taint of slavery”: the Colonial Office and the regulation of free labour
Mandy Banton

8. The Foreign Office and Slavery and Forced Labour in Portuguese West Africa, 1894–1914
Glyn Stone

9. The Anti-slavery Game: Britain and the suppression of slavery in Africa and Arabia, 1890–1975
Suzanne Mie


[T]here can be little doubt that throughout the nineteenth century Britain led the international fight against slave trading. . . . As, however, the authors of this volume reveal, there are limits to what diplomacy can achieve, especially when it comes to putting universally accepted principles into universal practice in a world of sovereign states. Despite all the efforts of governments, non-governmental organizations and individual activists, slavery persists.
From the Foreword by The Rt Hon David Miliband, MP

This volume collects essays on British antislavery strategies and activism, the Foreign and Colonial Offices’ policies and activities, and the work of the Mixed Commission Courts. Despite certain limitations and flaws, it will be of interest to scholars of the British slave trade and its suppression.
... After making vast profits from the trade in enslaved Africans, Parliament finally responded to pressure from antislavery organisations and passed the 1807 Act outlawing this trade. As subsequent Acts were passed, traders found new ways to circumvent their restrictions and the trade continued, unabated, notwithstanding treaties with other countries forbidding the commerce in enslaved Africans. It was not until the 1840s that a Royal Naval Squadron with suitable vessels in sufficient numbers was dispatched to the coast of West Africa to capture slaving vessels. Courts, sometimes staffed by Britons alone and other times, in the case of Mixed Commission Courts, staffed by judges from countries that had signed such treaties, were set up to judge the captured slave traders.
... Many contributors to the book allude to the idealism of British officials involved in this process, an emphasis that ignores the profits earned by the judges and the Royal Navy and therefore lends an excessively rosy glow to the history. The unqualified and often incompetent judges were paid from the profits of the sale of slaving vessels: some British officials grew very rich from these captures. These funds were also used as prize money for the Royal Navy.
... Foreign and Colonial Office officials were also often less than idealistic or disinterested. The political importance of Portugal to Britain necessitated careful and often toothless diplomacy. One example of political pressures preventing any meaningful action can be found in Britain’s treatment of the ongoing slavery (as “forced labour”) in Sao Tomé and Principe, from which British companies imported cocoa, in the period between 1894 and 1910. And how to explain British law officers who sometimes actually questioned the legality of declared policies, such as the statute of 1839 empowering Britain to seize and try Brazilian vessels? Brazil was a colony of Portugal. British funds were used in Brazil to influence governments and abolitionists; if the aim is declared to the humanistic, can we not also accurately label it as bribery?
... This collection’s primary limitation is an excessive focus on diplomacy without a sufficiently detailed or sceptical analysis. To detail diplomatic activity without a full political, historical, and commercial context results in a biased picture that fails to explore the many possible reasons and motivations for diplomacy. For example, activities could be undertaken both to prevent conflict and to exert pressure regarding a particular issue. And what was the effect of the diplomacy? Was publicity – that is, presenting a positive picture of Britain abroad – deemed sufficient motivation for diplomacy? Without adequate enforcement – and the essays in this book indicate wholly inadequate enforcement – Acts passed and treaties signed remained pieces of publicity, of diplomacy, and were perhaps used to cover up what was really going on.
Victorian Studies

Hamilton, a historian in the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and Salmon, a historian in the FCO who also teaches history at the U. of Newcastle, UK, compile nine essays by international, naval, and slave trade historians from the UK and US, who consider the roles played by individuals and institutions in the suppression of the slave trade by the British government in the nineteenth century. They discuss the personnel of the Slave Trade Department of the Foreign Office and the Mixed Commission Courts; the socio-religious character and methods of anti-slavery activists and lobbyists; the problems faced by the navy in combating the slave trade; British diplomats’ competing moral objections to slavery and interests in the trade; British reactions to the exploitation of forced labor in Portugal’s colonies; and the reluctance of the Colonial Office to the reform of legislation relating to Britain’s Caribbean possessions. Papers were first presented at a seminar, held in October 2007, on the theme of ‘Whitehall and the Slave Trade,’ at the Foreign Commonwealth office on the bicentenary of the 1807 act abolishing the slave trade.
... The last chapter brings to mind an issue that has puzzled this reviewer for many years: What explains the attraction of Islam to Black Americans, i.e., the American-founded Nation of Islam, when the mother land of Islam, Saudi Arabia, continued to endorse slavery for generations after nations dominated by non-Islam religions had banned slavery? Adding to that puzzlement was the practice of Muslims in East Africa of continuing to engage in slave trading long after that was discontinued by non-Muslim nations.
... Collectively, the individual chapters recount the long struggle to eradicate slavery. It is a needed reminder that merely passing a law or several laws was not sufficient to eliminate this scourge, which exists yet today, but in different forms, as evidenced by the growth of the sex slavery trade throughout the world.
Reference & Research Book News

Hamilton and Salmon’s Slavery, Diplomacy and Empire is the product of a seminar hosted in 2007 by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to commemorate the bicentennial of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. This is generally a study of the “official mind,” built primarily on the archives of the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office. The collection covers an admirably long time frame, from 1807 to 1975. Six essays examine the nineteenth century, and three reach well into the twentieth century. The collection looks beyond abolition and the American plantation complex to include official responses to other forms of slavery in other regions, especially in East Africa and the Middle East. This breadth is uncommon and commendable in the study of British abolitionist politics. While the contributors often laud the British government for its historic leading role in opposition to slavery, they commonly acknowledge that slavery was always a secondary concern for British officials. These officials regarded their priorities as the international balance of power centered on Europe and the protection of national sovereignty, whether Britain’s or that of an ally. Furthermore, colonial officials “on the spot” were reluctant to disrupt local economies and possibly foment rebellion through the reform of labor systems. Officials were periodically forced to strike an artful balance between international policy, or the socioeconomic stability of an imperial territory, and the abolitionist cause of a humanitarian lobby. As Suzannie Miers explains in her incisive concluding essay, all of these factors shaped the “anti-slavery game,” which commonly ended with little or no practical effect.
... This collection focuses on bureaucratic structures and the officials who developed these structures and exerted influence on policy. Keith Hamilton’s essay typifies this approach in illuminating the transformation of the Slave Trade Department over several decades into the Consular-Africa Department in 1883. This department exerted considerable influence on British foreign policy in the era of the “new imperialism,” during which the Foreign Office confronted rejuvenated antislavery politics as Europe sought a moral mandate for its imperial expansion into Africa. Turning to the Middle East, T.G. Otte addresses British diplomacy and various forms of slavery in the second half of the nineteenth century, emphasizing the key roles of consular officers in establishing slave trade conventions with Egypt and Turkey. William Gervase Clarence-Smith then examines how several British officials, stationed in Islamic societies of Britain’s formal and informal empires after the 1830s, interpreted the status of slavery and the prospect of abolition in terms of Islamic law. One of the most successful essays in the collection is Mandy Banton’s study of the process through which the Colonial Office reviewed Masters and Servants laws throughout the Empire between 1830 and the 1950s. Banton exposes serious conflicts between officials in London and colonial legislatures and local consular officials, demonstrating that over time the laws became increasingly punitive as the Colonial Office became disinterested. She shows that the Colonial Office never had a strong policy with which to defend the rights of free laborers in the British Empire.
... The collection consistently demonstrates that British officials subordinated abolition to international relations and sovereignty. This is abundantly clear in Andrew Lambert’s essay on slavery and British naval strategy between 1840 and 1860. Whereas the British navy stopped the slave trade to Brazil by 1851, it did not stop the slave trade to Cuba, because Britain had a strategic interest in supporting Spanish sovereignty there against the United States. Similarly, Glyn Stone shows that the Foreign Office resisted humanitarian pressure to intervene against forced labor in Portuguese West Africa before the First World War in order to avoid compromising Britain’s “ancient alliance” with Portugal. Even under bilateral treaties against the slave trade, British officials sometimes permitted national rivalry to undermine cooperation, as one sees in Farid Shaikh’s essay on Mixed Commission Courts in the first half of the nineteenth century. These courts were established jointly by Britain and other governments to determine the status of passengers aboard vessels of their respective nations that were seized under suspicion of transporting slaves. Despite problems of rivalry and staffing, some judges were committed to enforcing the letter of the law, even if this resulted in the release of slave traders and their human cargo. The Journal of Modern History

The machinations of colourful rogues such as James Bandinel, the department’s first manager, come alive in Hamilton’s own first chapter. The roster of those serving on mixed commission courts, as diplomat Farida Shaikh relates in her chapter 2, was just as notoriously uneven as their metropolitan colleagues were, with many judges succumbing to disease or violence in diverse places such as Havana, Rio de Janeiro, Luanda, and eventually New York. Only when official attention moved from the Atlantic to the Near East and Africa after 1870 did the professional support, stature, and success of those charged with ending the slave trade improve greatly. As the enforcers became more established, they, like their late Georgian predecessors, were always grappling to find that right balance of idealism and pragmatism that would enhance perfidious Albion’s image and influence globally. That balance obviously changed with respect to time and space. In dealing with weaker sisters such as Spain, Portugal, and Brazil in the Atlantic, the full force of the British Navy was deployed to catch slavers and to free their cargoes, but dealing with the land-based Ottoman and Persian Empires, among others, in Asia later in the nineteenth century required much more quiet diplomacy and, most interesting, moral persuasion respecting Islamic beliefs and precepts, as chapters 5 and 6 discern. The closing article by noted historian Suzanne Miers provides a timely update, reminding all of us that chattel slavery, like the British Empire itself, has been greatly reduced yet not completely eradicated from the face of the earth. Accordingly, this reviewer recommends this comprehensive collection for research libraries that support experts in modern British and world history.
The Historian

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