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Alternatives to Suppression

The evangelical, economic, and pivot explanations all ultimately undervalue Britain’s tireless global struggle against the foreign slave trade. Palmerston’s liberalism and Whig idealism fired his abolitionist campaign and transformed the cold calculus of foreign relations into a “solemn duty.”[1] This sense of duty drove the strategy of aggressive suppression in the Bight of Benin that ultimately led to the reduction of Lagos. But in the late 1840s West African policy with suppression as its cornerstone came under attack. Britain’s largest commitment measured in both blood and treasure was not her fledgling colony of Sierra Leone or her slowly expanding presence in the Gold Coast, it was the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron tasked with suppressing the foreign slave trade. After enjoying initial success and despite the expansion and improvements made to the Squadron throughout the decade, by the end of the 1840s the illicit traffic actually increased by sixty-two percent.[2]

This increase and the Squadron’s rising economic, diplomatic, and human cost led some politicians to declare the strategy a failure and demand parliamentary hearings.[3] These critics were soon joined by an unlikely ally, the powerful British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS). It attacked the Squadron as “worse than useless” and “reluctantly” concluded, “it is the duty of our Government to withdraw the Squadron.”[4] Opponents of the Squadron found their champion in Sir William Hutt who spearheaded multiple efforts in the House of Commons to end the policy of suppression. He first moved for the appointment of a select committee in 1848 questioning the feasibility of deterring a “trade which realised 2,000 per cent profit.”[5] He brought another anti-suppression measure to floor in 1850, the Hansard records,

Why the costly efforts in which Great Britain has so long been engaged for repressing the foreign slave trade have proved thus ineffectual? Without pausing to enumerate the many concurrent causes of failure, it may be sufficient to say that …Under such circumstances, to repress the foreign slave trade by a marine guard would scarcely be possible if the whole British Navy could be employed for that purpose. It is an evil which can never he adequately encountered by any system of mere prohibition and penalties….  It was not, however, solely on the ground of expense that he objected to the system. He objected to it on account of its futility. He objected to it on account of its cruelty. He objected to it because he disliked to see a great and noble country engaged in a conflict carried on by means so violent and, at the same time, so utterly inadequate to the end proposed, as to cut us off from the co-operation and sympathy of other States.[6]


Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Design of the medallion created as part of anti-slavery campaign by Wedgwood, 1787

Symbol of the BFASS (“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” designed by Josiah Wedgwood 1787)

As the most visible component of British anti-slavery efforts the Squadron’s defenders far outweighed its critics. Various humanitarian, evangelical, political, and economic interests rose to its defense. Some humanitarians dissented from the BFASS, deeming the Squadron as necessary to end the abominable traffic. Evangelicals needed its support to spread their Protestant message in Africa. Politicians required it to protect Britain’s African position in a hostile world. The remnants of the West India Interest supported it as a means to raise the labor costs of Brazilian and Cuban sugar. And a small but growing number of merchants and manufacturers viewed it as the key to opening African markets. Above all, Hutt’s proposal violated the spirit born in the wake of the American War of Independence that compelled British subjects to re-evaluate its empire in moral terms.[7] Speaking in defense of suppression the Prime Minister, John Russell, declared, “every one, I think, must admit that it would cover us with shame and humiliation if we had left that great work unfinished, and allowed the slave trade to begin again.”[8]


Henry G. Grey, 3rd Earl Grey

Henry G. Grey, 3rd Earl Grey

Although this motley group remained unified and succeeded in defeating Hutt’s measure 232 to 154 it splintered over how to move forward and reverse the rise in the slave traffic.[9] Many argued for reducing the demand for slaves by undermining the slave economies of Brazil, Cuba and the United States. Humanitarians found themselves in an uncomfortable alliance with the West India Interest arguing for the passage of new discriminatory duties on slave-grown cotton and sugar.[10] Free traders, convinced that free labor would “beat slave labour out of the field” if it received “proper encouragement,” sought to improve productivity through capital investment and political reform in India and the West Indies.[11] Others advocated that the supply of slaves be cut at the source instead of relying on interdiction. In an age of anti-colonial sentiment, this required no less than the transformation of African societies through the indoctrination of British values. The Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, the 3d Earl Grey, and his under-secretary Herman Merivale proposed leading this civilizing mission out of the separatist Colonial Office.[12] They argued that the introduction of commerce, culture, and Christianity was prerequisite to ending the acceptance of selling a man as opposed to his labor.[13]




 Introduction | Debate (God | Gold | Gezo – Kosoko Pivot) | Alternatives to Suppression | Palmerston’s Position | John Beecroft | Lagos and Dahomey | Toward Conflict | casus belli | Appendices 


[1] Hargreaves, Prelude, 34.

[2] See Appendix C. The size of the West Africa Squadron quadrupled and was improved by the adoption of steamships. See Christopher Lloyd, The Navy and the Slave Trade: the Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century (Longmans, Green and Co, 1949).

[3] Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 96 (Feb. 1848), cols. 1091-1131.

[4] The Anti-Slavery Report: Under Sanction of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (London) 1 February 1850, 23. Slavers employed new tactics to evade the Squadron and adapted to the Equipment Act of 1839 which broadened evidence of guilt to include the presence of extra timber, rope, food and water. The BFASS was alarmed by reports of extended middle passages and increased slave mortality.

[5] Mr. Hutt, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 96 (Feb. 1848), col. 1093.

[6] Mr. Hutt, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 109 (Mar. 1850), col. 1109.

[7] Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[8] Lord John Russell, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 114 (Mar. 1851), col. 1218.

[9] Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 109 (Mar. 1850), col. 1184.

[10] The Sugar Duties Act of 1846 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 liberalized agricultural trade and exposed the British market to greater volumes of slave-grown products.

[11] Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Lords, 3d ser., vol. 102 (Feb. 1849), cols. 1077-1097; Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 109 (Mar. 1850), cols. 1093-1184; Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 97 (Mar. 1848), cols. 971; Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 115 (Apr. 1851), cols. 969-1006.

[12] John D. Hargreaves, Prelude to the Partition of West Africa (MacMillan and Co Ltd: London, 1970), 38. Separatism called for the separation of the colonies from England and opposed further territorial expansion. It gained prominence during the 1838 Canadian debates.

[13] Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 21-23.

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