Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER II. - Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1 
The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, 2 vols. (London: L. Taylor, 1808). Vol. 1.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
As it is desirable to know the true sources of events in history, so this will be realized in that of the abolition of the Slave-trade—Inquiry as to those who favoured the cause of the Africans previously to the year 1787—All these to be considered as necessary forerunners in that cause—First forerunners were Cardinal Ximenes—the Emperor Charles the Fifth—Pope Leo the Tenth—Elizabeth queen of England—Louis the Thirteenth of France.
It would be considered by many, who have stood at the mouth of a river, and witnessed its torrent there, to be both an interesting and a pleasing journey to go to the fountain-head, and then to travel on its banks downwards, and to mark the different streams in each side, which should run into it and feed it. So I presume the reader will not be a little interested and entertained in viewing with me the course of the abolition of the Slave-trade, in first finding its source, and then in tracing the different springs which have contributed to its increase. And here I may observe that, in doing this, we shall have advantages, which historians have not always had in developing the causes of things. Many have handed down to us events, for the production of which they have given us but their own conjectures. There has been often indeed such a distance between the events themselves and the lives of those who have recorded them, that the different means and motives belonging to them have been lost through time. On the present occasion, however, we shall have the peculiar satisfaction of knowing that we communicate the truth, or that those, which we unfold, are the true causes and means. For the most remote of all the human springs, which can be traced as having any bearing upon the great event in question, will fall within the period of three centuries, and the most powerful of them within the last twenty years. These circumstances indeed have had their share in inducing me to engage in the present history. Had I measured it by the importance of the subject, I had been deterred: but believing that most readers love the truth, and that it ought to be the object of all writers to promote it, and believing moreover, that I was in possession of more facts on this subject than any other person, I thought I was peculiarly called upon to undertake it.
In tracing the different streams from whence the torrent arose, which has now happily swept away the Slave-trade, I must begin with an inquiry as to those who favoured the cause of the injured Africans from the year 1516 to the year 1787, at which latter period a number of persons associated themselves in England for its abolition. For though they, who belonged to this association, may, in consequence of having pursued a regular system, be called the principal actors, yet it must be acknowledged that their efforts would never have been so effectual, if the minds of men had not been prepared by others, who had moved before them. Great events have never taken place without previously disposing causes. So it is in the case before us. Hence they, who lived even in early times, and favoured this great cause, may be said to have been necessary precursors in it. And here it may be proper to observe, that it is by no means necessary that all these should have been themselves actors in the production of this great event. Persons have contributed towards it in different ways:—Some have written expressly on the subject, who have had no opportunity of promoting it by personal exertions. Others have only mentioned it incidentally in their writings. Others, in an elevated rank and station, have cried out publicly concerning it, whose sayings have been recorded. All these, however, may be considered as necessary forerunners in their day. For all of them have brought the subject more or less into notice. They have more or less enlightened the mind upon it. They have more or less impressed it. And therefore each may be said to have had his share in diffusing and keeping up a certain portion of knowledge and feeling concerning it, which has been eminently useful in the promotion of the cause.
It is rather remarkable, that the first forerunners and coadjutors should have been men in power.
So early as in the year 1503 a few slaves had been sent from the Portuguese settlements in Africa into the Spanish colonies in America. In 1511, Ferdinand the Fifth, king of Spain, permitted them to be carried in greater numbers. Ferdinand, however, must have been ignorant in these early times of the piratical manner in which the Portuguese had procured them. He could have known nothing of their treatment when in bondage, nor could he have viewed the few uncertain adventurous transportations of them into his dominions in the western world, in the light of a regular trade. After his death, however, a proposal was made by Bartholomew de las Casas, the bishop of Chiapa, to Cardinal Ximenes, who held the reins of the government of Spain till Charles the Fifth came to the throne, for the establishment of a regular system of commerce in the persons of the native Africans. The object of Bartholomew de las Casas was undoubtedly to save the American Indians, whose cruel treatment and almost extirpation he had witnessed during his residence among them, and in whose behalf he had undertaken a voyage to the court of Spain. It is difficult to reconcile this proposal with the humane and charitable spirit of the bishop of Chiapa. But it is probable he believed that a code of laws would soon be established in favour both of Africans and of the natives in the Spanish settlements, and that he flattered himself that, being about to return and to live in the country of their slavery, he could look to the execution of it. The cardinal, however, with a foresight, a benevolence, and a justice, which will always do honour to his memory, refused the proposal, not only judging it to be unlawful to consign innocent people to slavery at all, but to be very inconsistent to deliver the inhabitants of one country from a state of misery by consigning to it those of another. Ximenes therefore may be considered as one of the first great friends of the Africans after the partial beginning of the trade.
This answer of the cardinal, as it showed his virtue as an individual, so it was peculiarly honourable to him as a public man, and ought to operate as a lesson to other statesmen, how they admit any thing new among political regulations and establishments, which is connected in the smallest degree with injustice. For evil, when once sanctioned by governments, spreads in a tenfold degree, and may, unless seasonably checked, become so ramified, as to affect the reputation of a country, and to render its own removal scarcely possible without detriment to the political concerns of the state. In no instance has this been verified more than in the case of the Slave-trade. Never was our national character more tarnished, and our prosperity more clouded by guilt. Never was there a monster more difficult to subdue. Even they, who heard as it were the shrieks of oppression, and wished to assist the sufferers, were fearful of joining in their behalf. While they acknowledged the necessity of removing one evil, they were terrified by the prospect of introducing another; and were therefore only able to relieve their feelings, by lamenting in the bitterness of their hearts, that this traffic had ever been begun at all.
After the death of cardinal Ximenes, the emperor Charles the Fifth, who had come into power, encouraged the Slave-trade. In 1517 he granted a patent to one of his Flemish favourites, containing an exclusive right of importing four thousand Africans into America. But he lived long enough to repent of what he had thus inconsiderately done. For in the year 1542 he made a code of laws for the better protection of the unfortunate Indians in his foreign dominions; and he stopped the progress of African slavery by an order, that all slaves in his American islands should be made free. This order was executed by Pedro de la Gasca. Manumission took place as well in Hispaniola as on the Continent. But on the return of Gasca to Spain, and the retirement of Charles into a monastery, slavery was revived.
It is impossible to pass over this instance of the abolition of slavery by Charles in all his foreign dominions, without some comments. It shows him, first, to have been a friend both to the Indians and the Africans, as a part of the human race. It shows he was ignorant of what he was doing when he gave his sanction to this cruel trade. It shows when legislators give one set of men an undue power over another, how quickly they abuse it,—or he never would have found himself obliged in the short space of twenty-five years to undo that which he had countenanced as a great state-measure. And while it confirms the former lesson to statesmen, of watching the beginnings or principles of things in their political movements, it should teach them never to persist in the support of evils, through the false shame of being obliged to confess that they had once given them their sanction, nor to delay the cure of them because, politically speaking, neither this nor that is the proper season; but to do them away instantly, as there can only be one fit or proper time in the eye of religion, namely, on the conviction of their existence.
From the opinions of cardinal Ximenes and of the emperor Charles the Fifth, I hasten to that which was expressed much about the same time, in a public capacity, by pope Leo the Tenth. The Dominicans in Spanish America, witnessing the cruel treatment which the slaves underwent there, considered slavery as utterly repugnant to the principles of the gospel, and recommended the abolition of it. The Franciscans did not favour the former in this their scheme of benevolence; and the consequence was, that a controversy on this subject sprung up between them, which was carried to this pope for his decision. Leo exerted himself, much to his honour, in behalf of the poor sufferers, and declared “That not only the christian religion, but that Nature herself cried out against a state of slavery.” This answer was certainly worthy of one, who was deemed the head of the christian church. It must, however, be confessed that it would have been strange if Leo, in his situation as pontiff, had made a different reply. He could never have denied that God was no respecter of persons. He must have acknowledged that men were bound to love each other as brethren. And, if he admitted the doctrine, that all men were accountable for their actions hereafter, he could never have prevented the deduction, that it was necessary they should be free. Nor could he, as a man of high attainments, living early in the sixteenth century, have been ignorant of what had taken place in the twelfth; or that, by the latter end of this latter century, christianity had obtained the undisputed honour of having extirpated slavery from the western part of the European world.
From Spain and Italy I come to England. The first importation of slaves from Africa by our countrymen was in the reign of Elizabeth, in the year 1562. This great princess seems on the very commencement of the trade to have questioned its lawfulness. She seems to have entertained a religious scruple concerning it, and, indeed, to have revolted at the very though: of it. She seems to have been aware of the evils to which its continuance might lead, or that, if it were sanctioned, the most unjustifiable means might be made use of to procure the persons of the natives of Africa. And in what light she would have viewed any acts of this kind, had they taken place, we may conjecture from this fact,—that when captain (afterwards Sir John) Hawkins returned from his first voyage to Africa and Hispaniola, whither he had carried slaves, she sent for him, and, as we learn from Hill’s Naval History, expressed her concern lest any of the Africans should be carried off without their free consent, declaring that “It would be detestable, and call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertakers.” Captain Hawkins promised to comply with the injunctions of Elizabeth in this respect. But he did not keep his word; for when he went to Africa again, he seized many of the inhabitants and carried them off as slaves, which occasioned Hill, in the account he gives of his second voyage, to use these remarkable words:—“Here began the horrid practice of forcing the Africans into slavery, an injustice and barbarity, which, so sure as there is vengeance in heaven for the worst of crimes, will sometime be the destruction of all who allow or encourage it.” That the trade should have been suffered to continue under such a princess, and after such solemn expressions as those which she has been described to have uttered, can be only attributed to the pains taken by those concerned in it to keep her ignorant of the truth.
From England I now pass over to France. Labat, a Roman missionary, in his account of the isles of America, mentions, that Louis the Thirteenth was very uneasy when he was about to issue the edict, by which all Africans coming into his colonies were to be made slaves, and that this uneasiness continued, till he was assured, that the introduction of them in this capacity into his foreign dominions was the readiest way of converting them to the principles of the christian religion.
These, then, were the first forerunners in the great cause of the abolition of the Slave-trade. Nor have their services towards it been of small moment. For, in the first place, they have enabled those, who came after them, and who took an active interest in the same cause, to state the great authority of their opinions and of their example. They have enabled them, again, to detail the history connected with these, in consequence of which circumstances have been laid open, which it is of great importance to know. For have they not enabled them to state, that the African Slave-trade never would have been permitted to exist but for the ignorance of those in authority concerning it—That at its commencement there was a revolting of nature against it—a suspicion—a caution—a fear—both as to its unlawfulness and its effects? Have they not enabled them to state, that falsehoods were advanced, and these concealed under the mask of religion, to deceive those who had the power to suppress it? Have they not enabled them to state that this trade began in piracy, and that it was continued upon the principles of force? And, finally, have not they, who have been enabled to make these statements; knowing all the circumstances connected with them, found their own zeal increased and their own courage and perseverance strengthened; and have they not, by the communication of them to others, produced many friends and even labourers in the cause?