Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

William and Mary Quarterly

3d ser., 66, no. 4 October 2009

Introduction: Atlantic Ambiguities of British and American Abolition
By Joseph C. Miller

The essays in this Special Issue of the William and Mary Quarterly illustrate the complex complementarities of humanistic virtue, as formative nation-states in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Europe and the Americas claimed it for themselves, and economic opportunism for their individual citizens. The classic stories of Atlantic abolition—from Coupland and Williams, to Davis, Drescher, and Eltis—have posed this pairing as a paradoxical contrast, in the context of “nations” assumed as givens, with contrasting national characters. This introduction considers these rhetorics as mutually sustaining aspects of longer-term processes of creating what became the aggressive nation-states of the late nineteenth century, as national governments claimed credit for protecting those excluded from the benefits of growing commercialization and—later—industrialization. The Special Issue balances this historicization of the political dynamics generating abolitionist rhetoric and strategies with examinations of their consequences throughout Africa, from Dakar in the far west through central Africa to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. There the economic consequences—greatly intensified slaving to support export commodities that abolitionists financed and celebrated as “legitimate,” and the accompanying violence enabled by modern weaponry supplied by industrializing Europe—left deep divisions that modern nation-states in Africa still struggle to overcome.

Africa and the Abolition of the Slave Trade
By Adiele E. Afigbo

The abolition of the slave trade in Africa, a neglected subject in African history, should not be confused with the efforts launched by European powers in 1807 to rid the Atlantic passage of a trade that no longer served their interests. Abolition of the Atlantic slave trade merely cut off West African traders from their main external market. The internal African slave trade continued. In nineteenth-century Africa, Europeans promoted the so-called legitimate trade with African merchants who still also trafficked in human merchandise. The assault on the internal trade only began in earnest with European colonialism after 1885; it was an attempt to cleanse the African environment and make it more receptive to European commerce. Indigenous African businessmen—at first mainly slave traders—were squeezed out as Europeans pillaged Africa’s resources and degraded its culture. The elimination of slavery and the slave trade was a by-product of the enslavement of the entire continent.

Imperial Contexts

Was Abolition of the U.S. and British Slave Trade Significant in the Broader Atlantic Context?
By David Eltis

The new transatlantic slave trade database ( makes possible a fresh assessment of the impact of British and U.S. abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. There were in fact two slave trades shaped by the Atlantic Ocean gyres located respectively north and south of the equator. The north Atlantic traffic was mainly based in Europe; its south Atlantic counterpart operated entirely from the Americas. The 1807 legislation affected only the northern traffic and by the 1820s overall volumes had returned almost to late-eighteenth-century peaks, though the southern trade, drawing mainly on Angola, predominated. Nevertheless 1807 and subsequent attempts at suppression were important. Fluctuations in the slave trade had resulted largely from transoceanic wars, but after 1807 major shifts in annual volumes now stemmed from attempts to suppress the trade. More important, the demand for labor in the Americas expanded strongly after 1807 and without an abolition initiative against the traffic—both ideological and diplomatic—the large inflow of peoples into the nineteenth-century Americas might well have comprised enslaved Africans, most of them carried under U.S. and British flags. Finally, abolition of the slave trade accelerated the ending of other forms of migration that were wholly or in part unfree (Asian contract labor, convicts).

History’s Engines: British Mobilization in the Age of Revolution
By Seymour Drescher

In many areas of the Atlantic world, attacks on the slave trade and slavery occurred in conjunction with revolutionary upheavals and international conflict. Some historians have identified the rise, struggle, and triumph of abolition with moments of revolutionary threats to the British social, political, and imperial fabric. This essay argues that British abolition, to the extent that it was revolutionary, was a fair-weather revolution. Emerging during a remarkable conjuncture of internal prosperity and external security, it fared best over the next half century at low points of threat both at home and abroad. It became, and remained, the world’s only mass national abolition movement during that period. Its moments of civic latency and political weakness occurred precisely at times when Britain was most threatened from within or without, nationally or imperially: the period of the Franco-Caribbean revolutionary wars; the post-Napoleonic economic depression; the constitutional crises of the great reform bill; and the depression of the 1840s. Its moments of strength and effectiveness coincided with the subsidence of threats: naval supremacy in the wake of Trafalgar; Napoleon’s defeat; and resolution of the constitutional reform crisis. Because abolition was embedded in the world’s most economically productive, politically nonrevolutionary, and most powerful seaborne empire in the world, it was able to globalize in the age of revolution.

“Dread of insurrection”: Abolitionism, Security, and Labor in Britain’s West Indian Colonies, 1760–1823
By Claudius Fergus

This article locates Britain’s abolition of its Atlantic slave trade as a critical element within a larger project of reengineering its West Indian colonies toward a sustainable climate of internal security and greater productivity of labor. It explores the convergence of the dread of “imported Africans” as the “natural enemy” of colonists with the recognition of a significant creole entity among the enslaved, despite unchecked management practices inimical to human reproduction. The pivotal occurrence linking these elements to the rise of abolitionism was Jamaica’s first widespread rebellion of enslaved peoples in 1760. This rebellion, known as Tacky’s War, sharpened colonial and metropolitan awareness of the destructiveness of the mass enslavement of native Africans while nourishing a belief in creole Africans as tractable labor and allies of the planter class. The avid promotion of the benefits of creolization against the destructiveness of emancipationist insurrections added the pragmatic rationale to the humanitarian idealism of abolition. The article suggests that the failure of the British to put down the revolution and the revolution’s ultimate triumph in the birth of Haiti underscored the urgency of abolition as well as the adoption of creolization as a new colonial paradigm for the duration of the slavery period.

Peter Thonning, the Guinea Commission, and Denmark’s Postabolition African Colonial Policy, 1803–50
By Daniel P. Hopkins

In 1792 Denmark abolished its Atlantic slave trade, and the Danish government began to explore new uses to which its slave-trading enclave on the Guinea Coast of Africa might be put. Peter Thonning, a natural historian sent out in 1799, advocated the planting of an agricultural colony. Thonning’s expertise carried him into colonial administration, and for decades he kept alive the government’s interest in the introduction of large-scale production of coffee, cotton, and sugarcane in West Africa. Thonning thoroughly documented the history of Denmark’s African colonial position and its potential within the global plantation economy for a Guinea Commission appointed in the 1830s. Denmark is a highly cosmopolitan society, and the archival record of the commission’s investigation is an excellent measure of the international movement of colonial news, aspirations, and attitudes. Thonning’s plans for a Danish colony came to nothing in the end, but, after the Danish claim was sold to Great Britain in 1850, an enormous export trade in cocoa—a crop introduced from the New World by Europeans—developed within two generations. The seeds of full-fledged African colonialism had thus been germinating since the late eighteenth century, in what is usually termed the precolonial period.

Keeping Up Appearances:
The International Politics of Slave Trade Abolition in the Ninteenth-Century Atlantic World
By Matthew Mason

An Atlantic-wide survey of the international politics of slave trade abolition in the nineteenth century reveals a transformation in moral and political sensibilities since the eighteenth century. Nineteenth-century statesmen, including those from nations continuing the slave trade, distanced themselves from any hint that they supported the trade in principle. They condemned the traffic publicly even as they privately facilitated the smuggling of hundreds of thousands of slaves. That they performed this complex dance rather than openly supplying their plantations with African slaves as they had for centuries illustrates the powerful new pressures the Atlantic slave trade faced in the nineteenth century. Those pressures stemmed from the abolitionist commitment and global power of Great Britain and the moral repugnance to this commerce prevailing throughout the Atlantic world. It bears witness to the scope and strength of one of the great moral revolutions in human history that tough-minded, calculating statesmen joined humanitarians in their need to be on the right side of this issue.

An “abominable” New Trade:
The Closing of the African Slave Trade and the Changing Patterns of U.S. Political Power, 1808–60
By Steven Deyle

This article investigates how the closing of the African slave trade into the United States led to the development of a new middle passage within the American South. Virginia slave owners used their extensive political power in the early Republic to promote this new domestic slave trade, which quickly transformed southern society, making human chattel the most valuable form of property in the South. But this wealth came with a price. The slave trade tied Virginia slaveholders’ fortunes to the new southwestern empire for slavery. As enslaved Virginians poured into the Southwest via this trade, southern political power followed in their wake. When Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election threatened the security of the South’s largest capital asset, politicians from the Deep South, not Virginians, took the lead in responding to this crisis with secession. This new American slave trade brought great wealth to the nation. Yet it also made slavery too valuable for southerners to give up and played a major role in leading the nation into a bloody civil war.

African Experiences

“Eating” Luxury: Fante Middlemen, British Goods, and Changing Dependencies on the Gold Coast, 1750–1821
By Ty M. Reese

This article examines the relationship between the Gold Coast Fante and the British Company of Merchants Trading to Africa during the pinnacle, and then decline, of the Atlantic slave trade. From the early 1750s, when the British Company of Merchants Trading to Africa replaced the Royal African Company, until its dissolution in 1821, company officers worked to maintain a beneficial relationship with the Fante middlemen who dominated the coastal trade. This relationship, which the Fante controlled and continually redefined to their advantage, allowed both sides to acquire from the other what they desired; African slaves for the British and imported luxury goods for the Fante. This article, by examining the import rather than export functions of the slave trade, expands our understanding of the trade and its consequences along the Gold Coast. In the early nineteenth century, this system came under challenge first by the Asante conquest of Fante, an attempt to remove the Fante from their middlemen position, and second by Britain’s early attempts at abolition. These two events caused a breakdown in established coastal relationships and this changing dependency laid the foundations for the growth of British power on the Gold Coast.

Suppressing a Nefarious Traffic:
Britain and the Abolition of Slave Trading in India and the Western Indian Ocean, 1770–1830
By Richard B. Allen

Attempts by British East India Company officials to regulate slave trading in Bengal and then to ban the exportation of slaves from India, if not abolish slavery in the subcontinent altogether, during the 1770s, 1780s, and early 1790s highlight the need to examine the development of British abolitionism in a truly comprehensive imperial context. The concern among company officials about the exportation of enslaved Indian children in particular raises important questions about the extent to which the emergence of modern Western concepts of the “child” and “childhood” influenced abolitionists’ discourse and agenda. Continuing official concern about slave trading in southern Asia and efforts to suppress the illegal slave trade to the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius and Réunion in the southwestern Indian Ocean during the early nineteenth century further demonstrate that British attempts to abolish slave trading, and eventually slavery in the British Empire, cannot be fully understood without reference to developments in the western Indian Ocean.

Slaves, Gum, and Peanuts: Adaptation to the End of the Slave Trade in Senegal, 1817–48
By Martin A. Klein

When the French resumed possession of Senegal after the Napoleonic Wars, they found a weak economy. The slave trade, once the basis of the economy, was dying, and by 1831 was over. There was a brief unsuccessful effort at agricultural colonization, after which the colony depended economically for almost a generation on the export of gum. Crucial to the colony’s survival was a metis community, descended from temporary marriages between French men and local women, the arrival of a small group of French merchants, and the emergence of a Muslim mercantile community with extensive contacts in the interior. Though the export base of the colony was weak until the beginning of peanut exports in the 1840’s, the two island bases, Saint-Louis and Gorée Island, were very involved in local patterns of exchange, including grain, gold, hides, and cloth. This local trade did not leave behind extensive archival records. Thanks in part to the participation of the metis and the Muslim communities, the colony was marked from early times by diversity, by religious pluralism, and by participation of local people in the governing of the colony.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Transformation of the
South-Central African Interior during the Nineteenth Century
By David M. Gordon

British efforts to abolish the slave trade in the northern half of the Atlantic after 1807 had the initial effect of shifting the slave trade to south-central African ports. As a result of British diplomatic and commercial ties with Portugal, Brazil, and east African polities and the British occupation of the Cape of Good Hope, abolitionist influences extended to the south Atlantic as well, relocating the slave trade to previously marginal ports that were connected by caravan traders to the south-central African interior. Governed predominantly by Lunda and Luba principalities, the south-central African interior became a significant source of slaves for the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades. British-financed commerce in ivory and rubber also fueled slavery and the slave trade in the interior. The author demonstrates that the integration of the south-central African interior into a global market following the gradual end of the Atlantic slave trade contributed to sharpened social cleavages, the development of a class of predominantly female slaves, increased indebtedness, militarization, and the widespread erosion of Luba and Lunda governance by despotic warlords.

Living Legacies

Social Exclusion: An Aftermath of the Abolition of Slave Trade in Northern Igboland, Nigeria
By Apex A. Apeh and Chukwuma C. Opata

The abolition of the Atlantic trade in slaves did not bridge the gulf between the descendants of former masters and their slaves. In Nsukka and Nkanu areas of northern Igboland, Nigeria, distinctions persist between the freeborn and the descendants of ex-slaves, whom they still call Ohu and Osu. Here, slave status has become a permanent and inherited stigma. The Amadi deny the Ohu the right to intermarry, take some prestigious titles, or assume the headship of lineages. This led the Ohu to establish independent settlements in border areas where they have asserted their independence. These settlements did not only separate the groups but also became a strategically expedient buffer for the Amadi. The attempt to integrate the Ohu is welcomed in the communities where there are people of Ohu descent. Non-African researchers may not understand that denial of the Ohu the opportunity to dance to the Igede music is a form of exclusion. Legislation is not the answer; the social exclusion of people of slave descent is a cultural issue that demands only cultural solutions. Until the leaders allow Amadi-Ohu marriage and permit the Ohu to occupy traditional positions such as Onyishi, integration will remain a mirage.

Modern Trokosi and the 1807 Abolition in Ghana: Connecting Past and Present
By Sandra E. Greene

This article investigates the relationship with the British 1807 abolition of the slave trade and a system of child slavery in Ghana called trokosi that was discovered to be in existence in the 1990s. It examines the effect of the 1807 abolition on the coastal communities of Ghana and demonstrates that British efforts to interdict the trade on the central coastal line of Ghana pushed the export trade to those coastal areas east of the Volta River where British and other European efforts to stop the export trade in slaves were quite limited. As a result of this shift, the Anlo area immediately east of the Volta River saw a major increase in the export slave trade. This expansion, however, threatened the preexisting political and social hierarchies in Anlo. Priests who had previously been well respected found themselves increasingly marginalized. Taking advantage of their roles as judicial mediators, the priests of a number of shrines reconfigured an older system that allowed them to impose fines on convicted criminals by demanding instead the payment of prepubescent girls. By linking the emergence of the trokosi system of child slavery to the British 1807 abolition of the slave trade, the author indicates that Britain’s efforts to abolish the West African slave trade led unwittingly to the emergence of a new form of slavery that continued to exist for another two hundred years.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade in Ghanaian Academic Historiography: History, Memory, and Power
By Ella Keren

This article examines the treatment of the transatlantic slave trade in Ghanaian historiography. It seeks to evaluate the role and importance of academic historians as agents of collective memory and to consider their relationships with other participants in the process of remembrance. A considerable compatibility was found between this scholarly memory and the formal national memory produced and disseminated by the state. Until the last decade of the twentieth century, slavery and the slave trade were largely marginalized; the article seeks to explain why this silence made sense and for whom as well as the different ways in which it was constructed. From the last decade of the twentieth century a contrary process of breaking the silence surrounding the slave trade began in an attempt to bring it closer to external collective memories, particularly those of African Americans, who had previously been excluded from Ghanaian collective memory and academic history. The Ghanaian state is a key agent in the shaping and reshaping of the collective memory of slavery and the slave trade, and professional historians act as its auxiliaries.