Can States be Moral? The Curious Case of British Abolitionists
Today dear reader, we set sail back to March 25, 1807 when the British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807. What seems a piece of historical trivia is also the start of an interesting anomaly within IR theory. Britain’s 60 year crusade against the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is the most notable example of an IR oxymoron: international moral action. This post will deal with an overview of the British abolitionist effort and what (if any) lessons it may hold for people interested in injecting morality into the discourse of international relations.
A Short History of Abolishing the Trade
Students of American history are no doubt familiar with the British efforts to buttress their war effort in the War of Independence by promoting the emancipation of slaves in the North American colonies. Yet it was not until 1787 that the abolition movement gained a national voice in with the London Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The London Committee helped pool together the various abolitionist movements into a nationwide effort.
The London Committee also allowed for an important change in the movement’s leadership. Given the association of various dissident movements (e.g. Quakers, Unitarians, Methodists) with other reform causes such as Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform, the ascension to the abolitionist leadership of safely conservative Anglicans like Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce made the movement appear less radical. Such a change was an important consideration in the years of revolutionary unrest being sown by the French Revolution and the Tory reaction to this movement.
The abolitionists sought to end slavery as a whole (which we will recall was abolished in Britain in 1772 by the “purity” of British air and soil…) by strangling the source of new trade. It was in essence a supply-side attempt to end slavery by removing the supply of new slaves to the West Indies and South America, making the use of slave labor less economical.
This last point is perhaps not understood by people who claim slavery could have been ended “naturally”. The economic costs that made slavery unattractive by the latter half of the 1800s in most of the western hemisphere didn’t happen in a vacuum, but due to the British efforts to end the slave trade. The invention of the cotton gin allowed slavery to persist in the US because it made the gains worth keeping and breeding slaves despite the rise of slave prices due to the abolition of importation.
Through his friendship with William Pitt the Younger, Wilberforce introduced abolition bills in the Commons nearly every year between 1795 through 1807. Initially the anti-Revolutionary rhetoric of the times made reform more difficult. As the Tory majorities began to face a crisis of legitimacy, abolition of the slave trade appeared an attractive way to show the majority was interested in more than retaining the status quo. This was aided by the fact that a fair number of Wilberforce’s “caucus” of Saints in Parliament were Tories of one stripe or another, removing some of the revolutionary stigma of abolition.
The period of 1806 – 1807 was decisive as the invasion hysteria of the early 1800s died away due to Trafalgar. Abolitionists first won a concession to abolish the trade in former French possessions in the West Indies and later expanded to the rest of the world in 1807.
Until 1815 the Napoleonic War allowed Britain a relative free hand in enforcing provisions of the Slave Trade Act. That said, there were limitations on how far the Act allowed the Royal Navy to crack down on the slave trade. While British traders made up the vast majority of the trade circa 1806, they quickly found shelter by hiding behind flags of allied states such as Spain and Portugal. Readers of Napoleonic Naval fiction would know that overly zealous naval officers were occasionally given crippling fines in the prize courts when they stopped and punished slave-traders flying under these colors, as poor Jack Aubrey found to his cost in The Yellow Admiral.
From 1815 onward to about 1840, the British continued their enforcement of trade interdiction, often using diplomatic tactics bordering on brinksmanship. There was considerable resistance to allowing British interdiction of slave trade, particularly by the French, Spanish and Americans who viewed it as a breach of their sovereignty. As a result of limited success in forming lasting international commitments, the British focused their efforts on emancipation during this period, culminating in the total (but gradual) abolition of slavery within British territories in 1833.
From then on the British redoubled their commitment to international action, particularly with regard to the Cuban and Brazilian trade. By 1867, the British were able to force an end to the importation of slaves to the last hold-out in Cuba, effectively ending the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade through a sustained effort that took 60 years.
What did it Cost?
The immediate cost of emancipation was a large cost for the British merchant sector. As arguments from the likes of Horatio Nelson suggested, the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade made up a substantial portion of British maritime trade. The British West Indies trade which relied upon sugar and slaves made up about 21% of their total trade in the period of 1803 – 1807 (helped by the British capture of French west indian possessions) and the British Empire controlled a majority of both the sugar and slave trade in 1807. This would be akin to the Occupy Movement successfully convincing the US government to put an end to complex financial instrument trading from an economic perspective.
The abolition of the trade to the West Indies and large import restrictions on sugar produced by slave-importing regions had a large economic cost over the next 60 years, as the British were at a competitive disadvantage. Further the effort of maintaining a large naval presence in West Africa cost a substantial amount of money and lives. Overall the abolition effort was estimated to cost about 2% of GDP from the period of 1807 to 1867. If we take the high-end estimates of the costs of the current US war efforts at face value, the past decade’s costs to the US economy were about the same. (A $3 trillion/10 years effort over the past decade works out to about 2.1% of GDP assuming a 14 trillion US GDP)
Finally in a nation preoccupied with national debt (around 800 million pounds, or 225% of GDP) and tax relief in the 1830s, the fact that the Parliament’s indemnity to West Indies planters of a fee of 22 million pounds was an enormous cost. It required a 4% increase in all taxes over that decade. (One wonders what Grover Norquist would have said…)
All these costs of course come before the large, national interest costs that the British suffered as a result of their efforts. Tensions between Britain and France, as well as Britain and the US were largely created on the back of incidents caused by slave trade suppression. Nationalist outrage against British “violations of sovereignty” often led to popular denunciation of Britain’s anti-slavery efforts as a ploy for British hegemony. Within the British Parliament there were also calls for ending the effort. Economic costs particularly during times of industrial unrest in the 1840s prompted calls for empathy with those resisting the abolition effort. Indeed, in a bit of Ron Paul-esque performance William Hutt once addressed the Commons asking how the British public would react if “British vessels, engaged in smuggling, had been chased, burnt, sunk, or run ashore by American or Russian ships of war?”
What does this mean for us?
In the end, the British public kept up this effort despite large economic costs, large international pressure to end the efforts and a substantial domestic constituency that wished an end to abolitionist efforts. Why? The strength of a morally determined minority that could hold bipartisan sway essentially forced the end of an odious international practice and established a new norm.
For a modern reader this may seem hopelessly anachronistic or archaic. Why does this matter? Afterall we all know that slavery as an evil was going to end eventually, right?
Compared to the Dissenters of the 1800s, we today have substantially greater access to everything from the ballot box to means of communication. There are issues out there that are equally horrific to slavery, but regarded as justifiable causes of the state. Yet momentum, even those that are held in thrall of powerful special interests and money can be broken with the right perseverance. The lesson for all of us is that these things take time and effort, but states can become moral actors and trajectories can be changed. This is perhaps the most applicable for climate change activists, but it can be generalized to other moral efforts. So I leave with a parting question: What is required of a modern William Wilberforce?
I am deeply indebted to Robert Pape and Chaim Kaufmann for their brilliant work on this subject. Much of the arguments presented regarding the importance of the domestic constituencies were formed on the basis of their analysis.
To examine their work please see:
“Explaining Costly Moral Action”