Opinion: Abolition laws

POSTED: 06/24/14 1:38 PM

The possibility to trade and appropriate Africans and Asians as slaves remained in existence in some parts of the world until far into the 19th century, but protests against the practice kept increasing, Piet Emmer writes in an op-ed in the Volkskrant. Especially churches in England, Wales and Scotland (Quakers, Methodists, Baptists) managed to place the abolition of the slave trade and slavery on the political agenda. In 1807 the House of Commons approved a law that prohibited the slave trade to English citizens. In 1814 the Netherlands followed and afterwards practically all western countries, mostly under pressure from England.

Making a flourishing international and profitable trade voluntarily impossible was never done before and this is why an English historian from that time called the abolition somewhat pathetically “one of the few golden pages in the history of mankind.” Finally a warm feeling from the inside.

Unfortunately, Emmer writes, on Saturday June 14 the cold shower followed in the form of the contribution “Slave trade actually got a restart in 1814” on the opinion page of the Volkskrant written by Pepijn Brandon and Tamira Combrink. They suggest that the English and Dutch abolition laws against the slave trade hardly had any effect and that therefore there was even a second slavery.

The ban only affected the trade between Africa and the New World, not the trade in slaves who were already in North and South America. Brandon wants to put an end to the myth that the abolition of slavery was a triumph for the white Dutch civilization, as the text on his web site socialism.nu states – Emmer writes. Gone is that warm feeling.

However, Emmer strongly disagrees with Brandon’s position. The abolition laws against the slave trade did have an effect, he writes. Those laws made sure that the total Transatlantic Slave Trade did not grow any further between 1800 and 1825 and declined sharply after 1825.

The slave supply to the Caribbean plantation territories declined even immediately from 1,158,452 slaves during the years 1775 – 1825 to 497,616 during the 1800-1825 period. What restart?

Brandon and Combrink’s assumption that an international profitable branch of commerce like the slave trade could be terminated with the stroke of a pen is completely unworldly. We do not even manage to do that with the drugs trade these days, even though we have far more advanced investigation methods than we had around 1800. It is and remains a humanitarian miracle that, in spite of ever-increasing profits and the ever-increasing demand for slaves in the plantation territories, the slave trade did not grow, but declined.

The illegal slave trade was brought to a halt after France and the United States began to thwart the activities of their slave trade shipping companies and after England had cornered Spain, Portugal and Brazil with a trade boycott. In all this, the African countries were a big handicap because traders in those countries met no resistance at all to supply slaves to anybody who was ready to pay for them.

Emmer’s amazement about Brandon and Ccombrink’s position does not stop there. Evenly amazing, he writes, is their dismay about the fact that the trade in slaves who were already in the New World, remained legal until the abolition of slavery. Such indignation indicates a thorough lack of historical insight in the political and economic relationships around 1800. Such a ban would after all limit the right to property. Without financial compensation that is also impossible today and for this there was no money in the England of 1807 – entangled as it was in a war with France.

There is a second misconception. Emmer writes. Brandon and Combrink opine that there are hardly any studies into the inter-colonial slave trade and therefore they assume conveniently that that trade was so extensive that it made the abolition laws irrelevant.

Adroitly they avoid again mentioning numbers with the exception of the 18,000 slaves that were supposedly shipped to Suriname after 1816 – a number that clearly stems from the large slave trade fairy tale forest.

Again the numbers show that Brandon and Combrink are wrong. The trade between the colonies in the West Indies was compared to the legal and illegal slave trade from Africa tiny. For all English territories (1807 – 1833) it was a bit more than 800 slaves per year and for Curacao (1819-1847) around 130 per year.

All these numbers indicate that the abolition laws dealt the slave trade a dramatic blow. There are few laws that have had so much effect internationally.

The abolition laws were irrelevant in Africa, but not in the Atlantic territories, Emmer points out. In Africa, the slave trade and slavery increased, because due to the strongly diminished export via the Atlantic coast, prices on the domestic market fall. This allowed more Africans to buy slaves.

Emmer’s conclusion: Brandon and Combrink remain silent about these aspects: “If they spoke out about them, they would have had to shed a favorable light on the white civilization.”

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