I am a White, middle-aged man. This article is from my perspective looking at History at the deplorable trade in Humans. I encourage everyone to look a little further.
I do not write about Politics directly, though some of my articles do sometimes touch on subjects that are often involve in politics – clearly this is one. There have been many forms of Slavery over Human History and there are several examples of States abolishing Slavery. In this article I’m looking mostly at the African Slave Trade and looking at recorded History.
Common conception in the UK is that we were the first to abolish slavery, in 1807. That’s a rather blinkered view; but then much of what we are taught in the UK has a British (often more accurately English) or at least European bias. The truth is usually out there for people to read, often without having to dig far either. It isn’t always that the facts have been altered, just that some facts have been omitted.
Slavery was not a recognised status in Britain in any statute. However clearly there were Slaves on British Mainland, mostly being used as domestic servants. In the late 1700s the estimate was somewhere in the region of 15,000 Black people held as, or in the form of, Slaves.
This was tested in British Common Law in 1772 when a Slave, James Somerset, had his case heard in court.
Somerset was bought as a Slave in the British Colony of Boston by a Customs Officer named Charles Stewart. Stewart returned to Britain in 1769 and at some point in 1771 Somerset escaped. He was recaptured and imprisoned on a ship to transport him to Jamaica to be sold as a work-slave on a plantation.
Somerset had been baptised and his God Parents brought a case of unlawful imprisonment. William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, heard the case and after giving the parties a chance to settle the matter between themselves retired to reach a decision. The case resulted in James Somerset being freed and set a precedent in British law that no Slave brought to Britain could be removed against his own wishes to be sold abroad.
However that precedent did not stop the movement, including recapturing and exportation of Slaves. There is documentary evidence of newspaper adverts regarding this practice. Further the Earl of Mansfield later decreed that a Slave in England need not be paid for work undertaken. So clearly a Slave brought to England was still a Slave unless when forced to leave England someone intervened.
Portugal made the most strident steps in Europe at the time. In 1761 Portugal had abolished Slavery in mainland Portugal and the Indian Colonies. Black Slave Trade was outlawed in 1774 and children of slaves that had been born in Portugal were emancipated. There was clearly a two-tiered system in place with people of different ethnicity being treated in a variety of ways. Moreover Slavery in the South American colony of Brazil was still legal under Portuguese law. The Portuguese island of Madeira didn’t outlaw Slavery until 1777. Slavery wasn’t outlawed in Portuguese territories in Africa until 1869. Brazil, independent from Portugal since 1825, passed a law in 1831 banning the importation of Slaves but didn’t ban Slavery inside Brazil until 1888 after slowly implementing other reforms.
France abolished Slavery in all of its territories in 1794. However Napoleon reversed this in 1802, something that clearly contradicts any slogan of ‘liberty’. The French didn’t release all Slaves in its colonies until 1899.
The American States that rebelled against Britain suspended the Slave Trade in 1795 and Slavery slowly became illegal in some States, the first was in 1777 when Vermont freed males aged over 21 and females aged over 18. Pennsylvania followed in 1780 with a law that anyone born to a Slave was not a Slave, though anyone who was a Slave at the time of the law being passed remained a Slave. Pennsylvania finally ended Slavery in 1847. Abraham Lincoln declared Emancipation in 1863 but the law was not passed until 1865.
So given the above Britain’s claim of being the first to free slaves in 1807 doesn’t stand up to historical record. And there is more yet to discredit the claims. Despite Slavery being banned already in Portugal and Britain a treaty banning Slave Trade between the countries was made in 1818 after Britain had paid Portugal to stop the trade North of the Equator in 1815. That of course was Trade that technically was not on British or Portugal mainland.
All of this though makes all claims by Europe, or countries ruled by Europeans, to have abolished Slavery as a little disingenuous.
So if not in Europe or America which country did, in truth, abolish Slavery first? In all forms and for all people that came under its control?
1804 Haiti gained independence from France. A Slave revolt in 1791, led by Toussaint Louverture and aided by free people of colour such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a Black French Officer. They repelled Spanish and British invaders and sided with France when they abolished Slavery. They then resisted Napoleons forces sent to reclaim the territory in 1802. There was infighting between the revolutionaries and sadly many white non combatants were slaughtered after independence, though those that fought with the new regime, such as a large number of Polish soldiers were spared.
However history clearly shows that Haiti abolished all Slavery first.