Home page
The slavery debate - Part 1

Hector W. McNeill
This series

This is the first part of a four part series on the slavery debate.

We seek in this series to provide relevant information on the reality of segments of society who still remain subject to prejudice and discrimination which was initiated in slavery and yet, in spite of slavery having been "abolished", flourishes today in Britain, in the European Union and the United States.

We also cover lesser known movements where slaves were entirely successful in freeing themselves but such information was censored by mainstream institutions for fear of the examples set by such brave people.

Too many institutional mindsets remain geared to upholding discrimination based upon the personal prejudice of those who serve in them and we provide examples of how this undermines any pretence as to the existence of any generalised and effective protection of human rights.

Part 1 - The business

Part 2 - Invisible chains
Part 3 - Afastados, no cantinho deles
Part 4 - Why humans rights laws fail

The business

Tony Blair has seen fit to state solomly that he felt a "deep sorrow" for the country's past association with the slave trade. His statements have been hailed as historic by his own party and as not going far enough by those who wish to see some form of compensation for those who have suffered from their past generations having been slaves.

Religions looking the other way

The extent of slavery and its ramifications up until today are one of the best kept historic secrets. During its formative period society was very much influenced by state religions and it was the failure of predominant religions to act against slavery which was one of the most disgraceful aspects of this whole affair. By looking the other way religious leaders gave some moral "space" for the people involved in the trade as well as those who owned and exploited slaves. In basic terms there were four principal institutional religions involved and which could have acted decisively against slavery; they did not. These were the Christian Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches on the one hand and Islam on the other. Christian Catholic and Anglican societies in the form of Portugal, Spain, France and England transported something like 11 million slaves from Africa to North, Central and South America. This trade lasted for something like 400 years. Of this total only 5% in fact went to North America and yet the most vocal and in-depth analysis of the venture has come from the USA.

The Orthodox Church in Romania oversaw the enslavement of Roma in that country around 1348 and their eventual release in 1838, something like 500 years of slavery. In the Moslem world trans-Saharan and East Coast trade in slaves which continued for over 1,400 years, is estimated to have carried off in excess of 100 million of which 80% died on route resulting in something in excess of 20 million being eventually enslaved.

Saudi Arabia removed legalised slavery from their statute books only in 1962, Peru in 1968, India in 1976, Mauritania in 1980 and Niger 2004. In Niger they are still in process of being freed.

Historic perspective

Europeans often refer to Athenian democracy as an example and yet 75% of the Athenians were slaves and had no vote. At the time of the dawning of the first millennium 50% of the population of Rome were slaves. Under Roman law if a slave owner was found to have been murdered all his slaves were executed. Long before Europe became involved directly in the so-called slave trade, slavery was indigenous to Africa and Arab countries. It was also common amongst some South American Indian tribes before Columbus arrived.

Merchantilism based upon monopoly

Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire first authorised trade in slaves in 1519. Pope Alexander VI's Bill on the Line of Demarcation of 1493 barred Spain from Africa so Spain issued "Asientos" (monopoly) to other nations to supply her South American colonies. The first to take up this franchise was Portugal followed by Holland and then France. Through the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, the Asientos were transferred from France to Britain. Britain's involvement in slave trading was first authorised in 1613 by King Charles 1st (who lost his head) and was reintroduced in a retrograde act by his son, Charles II by Royal Charter in 1672.


According to Thomas (The Slave Trade) and referring to the trans-Atlantic trade, some 4 million slaves went to Portuguese controlled Brazil, 2.5 milllion to Spanish colonies, 1.6 million to French West Indies, 500,000 to Dutch West Indies and 500,000 to North America. Thus over 95% went to South and Central America and less than 5% went to North America.

The majority of analysis, media presentations, reports and documents describing slavery however, concern the North American experience, the other 95% has been largely ignored. On the other hand, the Arab slave trade which was many times the size of the Atlantic slave trade and was by far the longer running remains one of history's best kept secrets.

Although Britain banned the slave trade in 1807 this was hardly pioneering given that slavery had been banned in England in 1102 and the few cases of slaves coming to court in England to seek freedom from their English masters met with success (they were freed). It was the nature of political parties and religions in responding to the pressures of merchantile lobbies which caused Britain to be so slow in banning the trade; the usual seeking wealth as a means to promoting the power of institutions over people.

Quakers pioneer anti-slave actions and movements

The pioneers in fighting slavery were without any doubt the Quakers. As far back as 1688, a group of Quakers including Francis Daniel Pastorius a German Quaker organised a petition to ban slavery in Germantown in Pennsylania (he was the mayor). Germantown stood as a beacon for freedom but for some time there were practical difficulties facing Quakers in advancing their evolving principles against slavery. One of the main problems was that in most other communities Quakers were in a minority. The mainstream interests had responded to the Quaker moves to free their slaves by introducing laws to enable others to re-capture and re-enslave them. This challenged the Quakers since the slaves they freed would end up enduring far harsher conditions than they did within Quaker households.
Harriet Tubman risked her life to free slaves by returning to the United States on several occasions to lead slaves to freedom in Canada...
Quakerism operates on the basis of individual conscience and on a direct relationship between one's witness and actions taken based upon conscience and in addition a personal responsibility for outcomes. In other words one has to right wrongs on a personal basis. Quakers have no credence in the convenience of a confession to a cleric as a basis for alleviating one's conscience. This helps instill a particularly practical approach to social injustice. As a result, this mainstream action slowed down the process of freeing slaves. However, an anti-slavery movement had started with a pamphlet written by George Keith, a Scottish Quaker, living in Pennsylvania in 1693. This was sustained through a patient but persistent encouragement by Quakers to discourage their members from purchasing slaves. They also encouraged the freeing of slaves under those circumstances where there was no risk of their being re-enslaved. To facilitate the process of freeing slaves without risk of exposing the freed individuals to savagery of the mainstream society, there was a significant movement of Quakers from "unfriendly" locations so that they could free their slaves with a clear conscience. By 1758, the Quakers were the first organization in the world to prohibit the owning of slaves; the few Quakers who wished to continue to own slaves were disowned by the Society.

In those areas where mainstream society were resistant to the freeing of slaves, the Quakers became active in a practical fashion by helping slaves escape to freedom in Canada. This was organised through a cell-structured organization where local people helped escaping slaves travel between safe houses. Each local person only knew the section they managed. In 1786, George Washington complained about how one of his runaway slaves had been helped by a "society of Quakers, formed for such purposes." With the advent of railroads in the very early 1800s this escape route became known as the "Underground Railroad" which, of course, was neither underground nor was it a railroad. Although started by Quakers and others, the majority of operatives were finally ex-slaves such as Harriet Tubman. She escaped from Maryland in 1849 at the age of 29 and then made many return trips to America to help others to freedom. She is credited with having helped more than 300 slaves escape including her aged parents and family members.

The Atlantic slave trade

In Britain, William Wilberforce set out in 1787 to suppress the slave trade and his efforts met with success in 1807. Without wishing to diminish the significance of this event it is important to note that the perceptions on the trade in slaves had been savaged by the rising conscience and moral indignation initiated by the examples set by the Quakers in terminating the purchase and the use of slaves. State after state in North America banned the import of slaves. These acts, although of course beneficial in reducing "demand" for slaves were typical high profile acts were typically worthy of scurrilous political parties making headlines. This was because in reality there was no need to import any more slaves since the stock of slaves was sufficient as a breeding stock to supply future requirements and thereby making further imports an expensive and irrelevant option. In reality, the "trade" for slaves into America was a declining activity in economic terms long before 1807. So whereas the institutional religions and government would hail the 1807 Act as some milestone in international quest for equality and freedom it was no more than a timely admission that the strength of the merchantile lobby had weakened with the decline in the profitability of the trans Atlantic slave trade.

Don't educate the slaves

One of the remarkable trends in the United States before and after the ban on the slave trade was the introduction of prohibitions on the promotion of literacy and education amongst slaves. We will expand on this issue in part 2.