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Palmerston’s Position


Viscount Palmerston

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, KG, GCB, PC (20 October 1784 – 18 October 1865)


In contrast to the colonial secretary the foreign secretary believed the elimination of the slave trade would be the cause, not the consequence, of mental and material improvement in Africa. Palmerston wrote to Lord Grey that any civilizing mission would fail without the prior destruction of native slave interest, “the habits and practices connected with the slave trade render the men who carry it on and the African districts in which it is practised, unfit for legitimate commerce and unfit for civilisation.”[12] Palmerston was a dominant and divisive figure in nineteenth-century British politics. He cut his teeth serving successive Tory governments as Secretary at War from 1809 until 1828 when he resigned along with the Canningites in protest of Wellington’s refusal to adopt

Lord John Russell Prime Minister 1846-52, 1865-66.

Lord John Russell
Prime Minister 1846-52, 1865-66.

reforms. He returned to the government in 1830, joining the Whig cabinet of the 2d Earl Grey as head of the Foreign Office. Secretary Palmerston continuously battled not only his fellow cabinet members but also the prime minister and the palace for control over foreign policy.[13] He held this post for all but five years until 17 December 1851 when his polarizing style made him a convenient sacrifice in the political maneuvers of Russell.[14] After Russell’s government fell the following year, his domestic popularity secured his return to office as Home Secretary in the coalition government of Earl Aberdeen. When that government collapsed in 1855 due to the Crimean War, it left a reluctant Queen Victoria with “no other alternative” than to ask Palmerston to form a government. He then served as Prime Minister from 1855 to 1858 and again from 1859 until his death in 1865.[15]



Dugald Stewart

Dugald Stewart (November 22, 1753 – June 11, 1828)

Educated by the eminent Dugald Stewart, the Smithian disciple, Scottish philosopher, and political economist, Palmerston’s intellectual foundation was deeply in liberalism.[16] He advocated that all statesmen read the works of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John R. McCulloch and interpret the world “in the terms which they prescribed.”[17] Palmerston not only adopted their conclusions but also the premise that their general theories of human behavior and systems applied equally to all men regardless of nation or race and were therefore superior to alternative explanations tailored to particular cases. He went so far as to chastise members of Parliament for racialism. Mocking their beliefs that other races were inherently different, “not constituted like ourselves, not impelled by the same passions, governed by the same feelings, and amenable to the same general principles as regulated the conduct of all mankind.”[18]


His belief in the universality of European political and economic philosophy combined with a faith in British exceptionalism to shape his worldview. He sought to create a world guided by and secured for the interests of Great Britain. A world in which her subjects could travel to any place and declare civis Britannicus sum.[19] This new world order was to be built on trade; though not for strictly economic reasons. Liberal economics held that trade was mutually beneficial at all levels of society, making it a valuable tool for diplomats to forge strong bonds of friendship between peoples and states. Thus, the creation of a global system of commercial treaties could secure British peace and prosperity. “The exchange of products,” Palmerston declared in 1842, would be “accompanied by the diffusion of knowledge, by the exchange of material benefits, engendering mutual kind feelings, multiplying and confirming friendly feelings.…[C]ommerce may go forth leading civilization with one hand, peace with the other, to render mankind happier, wiser, better.”[20] He pursued this policy by courting ‘like-minded’ independent states across the world, simultaneously strengthening Great Britain while preventing rival European states from growing too powerful.[21]

In West Africa this global strategy merged with Palmerston’s solemn duty to end the foreign slave trade. Although economic imperialism was not a factor in the reduction of Lagos, liberals did view the introduction and expansion of ‘legitimate’ commerce in Africa as an essential component of suppression. Victorian conventional wisdom held that ‘legitimate’ trade would inevitably bring progress to that ‘unhappy’ continent, both “activists and policymakers understood morality and self-interest not as opposing principles but as interconnected parts of a single great process of reform.”[22] While British patrols interdicted slave vessels to “atone for sins of past generations,” merchants and missionaries would “stimulate Africans to free, healthy and productive labor within their own continent.”[23] From Granville Sharp’s Sierra Leone Company to Thomas Fowell Buxton’s Niger Expedition of 1841 the desire to transform Africa into a land of farms and Africans into industrious Protestants had a long history in British anti-slavery. While most of these dreams went unrealized, reformers found sustenance in the few cases of success like that of Gold Coast native merchants who overturned traditional hierarchies by replacing the chiefs as foci of material and social collection and redistribution.[24] Palmerston outlined his strategy before the House of Commons in 1848,

We have endeavoured to promote the diffusion of legitimate traffic on the coast of Africa. One of the methods which for some time past has been pursued with considerable success is to conclude treaties with the native chiefs, binding them to abstain themselves from the slave trade—binding them to prevent any one else from carrying it on within their territories—and giving power to the British and French cruisers to land their men, and to destroy any barracoons which may be erected for the purpose of forming a depot for slaves…. I hope that we shall encircle the coast of Africa with a chain of these engagements, and that we shall induce the chiefs to pursue legitimate commerce, instead of sending into slavery those men who ought to be engaged in producing the elements of commercial barter. This system of treaties, coupled with repressive means, affords, I think, the best system that can be adopted for putting an end to the slave trade; and every year that passes will render it less likely and more difficult that it should be renewed again.[25]

Many African sovereigns and chiefs signed treaties hoping to attract British trade and gain advantages over their rivals. For those resistant parties Palmerston turned to the teachings of political economists.[26] They stressed that states were not monolithic entities but aggregations of competing interests open to outside pressures. In ‘uncivilized’ and ‘semi-civilized’ polities, like the kingdoms of Africa, the largest interest would hold power free from constitutional restrictions and unchecked by higher philosophy. By using the institutions and power of the state the dominant interest would oppose and invariably crush the rise of the conflicting interests. Applied to the slave trade this meant that wherever it enjoyed official sanction the forces of progress could not succeed. The lawlessness and disorder caused by the slave trade (dehumanization, internecine warfare, and the absence of property rights) created an insurmountable bar to real sustaining improvement.[27] If no domestic opposition could rise and dislodge an entrenched slave interest Palmerston resolved to intervene; he wrote, “it rarely ever happens that a foreign government gives up its selfish interests, its passions, or its prejudices to the forces of argument or persuasion…unless there is compulsion.”[28] Coercion was therefore justified if it broke “the closed circle of African backwardness” and led to the adoption of behaviors concordant with supposedly universal moral and economic principles.[29] Coercion was also diplomatically attractive since a previously marginalized group would rise to power as new, pro-British, rulers willing to sign a treaty.

A slave barracoon in Sierra Leone c. 1840s.

A slave barracoon in Sierra Leone c. 1840s.

At the foreign secretary’s urging Great Britain unleashed a reign of terror on slave interests. Palmerston pushed for an international ban on trade with known slavers as to deny them the supplies needed for transatlantic voyages.[30] He supported the expansion of the West Africa Squadron from an average of six ships in the 1820s to twenty-six ships in the years leading up to the reduction of Lagos.[31] Then he increased the efficacy of the Squadron by demanding the authority to search foreign-flagged ships, brushing aside Tory concerns that such measures violated the sovereignty of other nations. In 1839, after several years of diplomatic impasse with Portugal to ban the slave trade south of the line, Palmerston declared that nation to be “morally at war” with Great Britain and called upon the Admiralty to seize Portuguese vessels.[32] Even after Portugal signed a new treaty he pushed them further to allow “Her Majesty’s ships to enter the rivers, harbours, and creeks within the limits of the Portuguese sovereignty” to root out slavers.[33] Like a global game of whack-a-mole Palmerston doggedly pursued slavers, pressing one state after another to permit the search and seizure of their vessels as slavers sought flags of protection. When slave captains adopted the American flag, the Foreign Office disregarded the historic sensitivity of British search and seizure of American vessels and filed repeated complaints with the United States on the “systematic abuse” of its flag.[34]


The slave factory of Lomboko was located at the mouth of the Gallinas River inbetween the British settlement at Sierra Leone and the American settlement and Monrovia

Palmerston was even more aggressive with littoral African rulers than he was with western powers. He was a vocal advocate for military action against coastal slave centers. He approvingly commented on the 1840 assault against the Gallinas that, “it is like taking a wasps nest which is more effectual than catching the wasps one by one.”[35] As the Squadron expanded its reach southward it raided coastal installations at Luanda, Cabinda, Ambriz, and along the Congo River destroying scores of barracoons and liberating over a thousand slaves.[36] Unfortunately, in 1842 with the Whigs out of power the new conservative government suspended this highly effective tactic finding that the practice “cannot be sanctioned by the law of nations, or by the provisions of any existing treaties.”[37] After five frustrating years in the opposition Palmerston resumed his post as foreign secretary in July 1846 when the Whigs returned to power under Russell. Together they pushed for the resumption of military action arguing that “the destruction of barracoons and the capture of forts on the coast of Africa are most powerful means for the suppression of the slave trade.”[38] In February 1849, the Squadron instituted a tight blockade of the Gallinas and launched a second assault, landing 300 men to destroy the slave factories and barracoons.[39] It followed this action with another operation in July in nearby Cape Mount, Liberia.[40]

The destruction of slave barracoons along the African coast.

The destruction of slave barracoons along the African coast.

Palmerston’s aggressive policies and combative style left him open to political attacks. To defend himself he readily proclaimed the decline of the Brazilian and Cuban slave trade or the passage of foreign anti-slavery legislation like Brazil’s Queiroz Law as vindication for some of his most controversial policies.[41] However it is would be a grave mistake to interpret these comments as evidence that he believed the slave trade finished, and therefore that any subsequent action must stem from ulterior motives.[42] A clearer picture emerges from his official correspondence. Palmerston wrote to the British Ambassador in Rio de Janeiro that the Queiroz Law as little more than a “useful

Slave Trade Statistics: number of slave voyages by disembarkation region

Slave Trade Statistics: number of slave voyages by disembarkation region. Provided by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

addition to the Law of 1831” and dismissed Brazil’s “profuse declarations and promises, [as] such things have never been wanting.”[43] British consuls across Brazil reported that the law was ineffective; that slavers convicted under it won their appeals and that the arrival and outfitting of slaving voyages continued unabated in Alagoas, Pernambuco, and Santa Catarina.[44] Palmerston found further reason to doubt the “sincerity of those declarations which the Brazilian Government make of their desire to fulfill the obligations of Treaties” when it approved the elevation of one of its citizens, the “notorious slave-dealer” José Bernardino de Sa of Rio de Janeiro, by Portugal to the title of Baron of Villa Nova de Minho.[45] In addition, the Brazilian government refused his requests to establish mixed commissions to adjudicate cases of illegal enslavement and resisted British demands that they facilitate the return of ‘emancipados’ to Africa.[46] Due to these factors in September 1851, the same month he issued his casus belli against Lagos and Dahomey, Palmerston concluded that “a continued prevalence of slave-trading speculations, and a continued unwillingness or powerless of the Brazilian Government to suppress the traffic by its own means” necessitated the continuation of naval patrols on both sides of the Atlantic.[47] Compounding British frustrations in Brazil were the frequent breaches of treaty obligations by Iberian powers. In August he notified the Spanish Government that owing to its inability to “cause its subordinate officers in Cuba to carry into execution the Treaty engagements of the Spanish Crown for the suppression of Slave Trade… Great Britain must deem itself obliged to take the matter into its own hands.”[48] Two months later Palmerston complained to his ambassador in Lisbon that “the Treaty between Great Britain and Portugal is constantly violated or evaded.”[49] It is clear from these remarks that rather than believing that the slave trade was in terminal decline, Palmerston remained convinced as ever that more aggressive measures were needed to stamp out that evil trade.


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


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

[2] 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.

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

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

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

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

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

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

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

[12] Viscount Palmerston to Earl Grey, 11 December 1849, F.O. 84/780; quoted in Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 24.

[13] The failure to form a liberal government in December 1845 under John Russell owed in large part to the refusal of the 3d Earl Grey to join the cabinet if Palmerston held the post of foreign secretary. Grey’s objection to serving with Palmerston “rested to a large extent on fears about Palmerston’s inability to avoid costly foreign entanglements.” Brown, Palmerston, 53, 75.

[14] Russell wrote, “with great reluctance’ to Palmerston to ask for his resignation. The ‘complaints are too frequent, & too well founded’, he argued. And while professing to ‘concur in the foreign policy of which you have been the adviser’, he could not ‘but observe that mis-understandings perpetually renewed, violations of prudence & decorum too frequently repeated have marred the effects which ought to have followed from a sound policy and able administration” (Brown, Palmerston, 119). The periods of time when Palmerston was not foreign secretary were periods of conservative government, during which time Palmerston served as a leading voice in the opposition.

[15] Brown, Palmerston, 205.

[16] Dugald Stewart shaped the intellectual climate of his time. Learned men came across the western world to attend his lectures and his opinions were sought out by statesmen like Thomas Jefferson. Stewart’s philosophical teachings on contemporary problems inspired “the creation of the Edinburgh Review and made it into the most powerful Whig force in the country” while his lectures “played a large part in the establishment of political economy as a university subject.” International Association of Scottish Philosophy. “Dugald Stewart 1753-1828,” accessed 23 April 2013, available from

[17] Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 11.

[18] Viscount Palmerston, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 150 (June. 1858), col. 2226.

[19] Palmerston, “Civis Romanus Sum Speech,” Broadlands Archive, University of Southampton, accessed 20 Mar. 2013, available from In this 1850 speech before the House of Commons Palmerston said, “as the Roman in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus sum [‘I am a Roman citizen’]; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong.”

[20] Viscount Palmerston, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 60 (Feb. 1842), col. 619.

[21]Hopkins, “International Economic Order,” 247. While serving in the opposition Palmerston rose in the House of Commons to criticize the waning influence of Great Britain. He stated, “Influence abroad is to be maintained only by the operation of one or other of two principles—hope and fear. We ought to teach the weaker Powers to hope that they will receive the support of this country in their time of danger. Powerful countries should be taught to fear that they will be resisted by England in any unjust acts either towards ourselves or towards those who are bound in ties of amity with us.”Viscount Palmerston, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 76 (Aug. 1844), col. 1873.

[22] Kristen Mann, Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 84-89.  The connection between commercial and humanitarian aims was made explicit by King Passall of Sanga Tanga who refused to sign a slave trade treaty in the absence of legitimate trade stating, “he see neither English nor Spanish vessels, and he is like a man groping about in the dark. He cannot sign the Treaty now, but gives hopes of doing so after he has seen 2 or 3 British merchant-vessels.” F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class A, no. 169.

[23] Hargreaves, Prelude, 26-27.

[24] Edward Reynolds, Trade and Economic Change on the Gold Coast, 1807-1874 (New York: Longman Group Ltd, 1974), 107.

[25] Viscount Palmerston, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 96 (Feb 1848), col. 1124.

[26] Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 11.

[27] Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 23.

[28] Viscount Palmerston to Francis Baring, 3 September 1850, Broadlands Papers; quoted in Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 27.

[29] Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 25.

[30] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, no. 274.

[31] 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).

[32] Leslie Bethell, The Abolition of the Brazilian slave trade; Britain, Brazil and the slave trade question, 1807-1869 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 160.

[33] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1847-1848, 36: Class B, no. 101.

[34] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1847-1848, 36: Class C, no. 95; F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1849-1850, 38: Class B, no.315; F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, nos. 667, 668, 686-689. During the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain routinely searched and seized American vessels and impressed sailors. It was one of the principle sources of tension between Great Britain and the United States in the Early Republic. This issue was so sensitive that the American government waited until July 1862, in the midst of its civil war, to grant Great Britain the right to search its vessels suspected of participating in the slave trade.

[35] Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 138. The Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa criticized the resulting treaty, “the treaty concluded with the Chiefs is not satisfactory. It contains no article relative to the final abolition of the Slave Trade by the natives” (Friend of Africa [London], 15 May 1841).

[36] Friend of Africa (London), January 1843.

[37] United Kingdom. House of Commons, “Report from the Select Committee on the West Coast of Africa; Together with the Minutes and Evidence, Appendix and Index,” Reports of the Committees, vol. 8. Sessional Papers, 1842, vol. 12, Appendix 42.

[38] Lord Russell, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 109 (Mar.1850), col. 1093.

[39] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1849-1850, 38: Class A, no. 162.

[40] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1849-1850, 38: Class A, no. 183.

[41] The Eusebio de Queiroz Law abolished the foreign slave trade in Brazil and declared it an act of piracy.

[42] Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3d ser., vol. 118 (Jul. 1851), cols. 661-693.

[43] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1850-1851, 40: Class B, no. 97. The Brazilian General Assembly passed legislation in 1831 criminalizing participation in the foreign slave trade in accordance with the 1826 Anglo-Brazilian Treaty banning the foreign slave trade.

[44] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, nos. 158, 164.

[45] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, nos. 85, 91.

[46] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, nos. 118. 144.

[47] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, no. 164.

[48] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, no. 552.

[49] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, no. 421.

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