Modern history

Book Five



Above All a Good Soul

“One cannot put oneself into the frame of mind in which God, a very wise being, put a soul, above all a good soul, into an entirely black body.”

Montesquieu, L’Esprit des lois

“THE ATTRACTIVE AFRICAN METEOR,” as a pamphleteer employed by the bakers of Liverpool later described the Atlantic slave trade, was at its height in the 1780s.1 Well-equipped ships carried about seventy thousand or more Africans every year to enthusiastic ports all along the coastlines of North and South America and the Caribbean. Perhaps half that number were carried by captains from that most modern and freedom-loving of nations, Great Britain. About two-thirds of the captives sent from Africa were taken to colonies making sugar, the most sought-after of tropical products. There may have been three million slaves altogether in the New World. William Pitt, the British prime minister from 1783, thought that the West India trade, which depended so heavily on slaves, was responsible for four-fifths of the income reaching Britain from across the seas.2

Many subsidiary trades depended on the traffic in slaves—cotton in Manchester and Rouen, wool from Exeter, rum from Rhode Island, brandy from Rio de Janeiro, wine from Bordeaux and La Rochelle, guns from Birmingham and Rotterdam. All those concerned knew the “African trade” to be an important outlet.

Every few years, new developments, maritime or technological, appeared, to make things easier for the many practitioners. Thus, in the 1770s, slave vessels began to sail with copper-sheathed bottoms, which resisted shipworm and sailed faster.I Even in Luanda, that white man’s grave in Angola, a prudent Portuguese governor was introducing new standards of hygiene on vessels bound for Brazil, and insisting that his own officials should inspect the ships, rather than leave the task to local men.

Imperial authorities in Europe were becoming less concerned with national exclusiveness. After 1783, France opened up her slave ports in the Caribbean to foreign traders, provided that they paid a tax. The liberal viceroy of New Granada, Archbishop Caballero y Góngora, inspired an active commerce in slaves between Cartagena and the English Antilles in the mid-1780s.

The biggest French slaving port, Nantes, which sent more than fourteen hundred slaving expeditions to Africa in the eighteenth century, and was in the 1780s challenging Liverpool as the largest carrier of slaves, had “that sign of prosperity which never deceives, namely new buildings. The quartier near the Comédie [the new theater] is magnificent, all the streets at right angles and of white stone,” wrote Arthur Young. “I doubt whether there is in all Europe a better inn than the Hôtel Henri IV.”3 We catch a glimpse of these remarkable aristocrats of commerce, the slave traders of Nantes, in a memoir of Francis Lefeuvre: “They form a class apart, never mixing, save when business requires it, with the other merchants who approach them only with signs of a profound respect. . . . They are important personages, leaning on high, gilt-topped canes . . . dressed in full city regalia, their hair carefully arranged and powdered, with suits made of dark- or light-colored silks according to the season; wearing long waistcoats, and breeches, also of silk, and white stockings and shoes with large gold or silver buckles. They carry a sword. . . . What should be most admired is their fine linen and the resplendence of their shirts, which they send to be washed in the mountain streams of Saint-Domingue, where water whitens clothes much better than in French rivers.”4

In England, Temple Luttrell, MP for Milborne Port in England, reflected the accepted wisdom when he declared, in the House of Commons in 1777: “Some gentlemen may . . . object to the slave trade as inhuman and impious; let us consider that, if our colonies are to be maintained and cultivated, which can only be done by African negroes, it is surely better to supply ourselves . . . in British bottoms.”5 Not for nothing, it might be added, was he the grandson of a governor of Jamaica.

Ambitious European powers were expanding their Caribbean interests. Sweden, in 1784, received an island, the barren Saint-Barthélemy, in the Lesser Antilles, with about 408 slaves and 542 French settlers, from King Louis XVI, in return for permitting French trading privileges at home in Gothenburg. The governor of this new colony sought to build a Swedish slave trade, though that idea foundered.

But as already hinted, a phenomenal change was on its way. In Britain, in the Anglo-Saxon colonies, in France, and then in the many places where French and English ideas were influential, hostility was growing towards both the slave trade and the very existence of slavery.

•  •  •

The seventeenth century, otherwise so productive of political ideas, had little critical to say of the slave trade. Milton, it is true, wrote some fine lines in Paradise Lost which insisted that:

Man over men

He [God] made not lord, such title to himself

Reserving, human left from human free.6

But it is obscure whether he thought of Africans as included within that generous comment. Both Grotius and Hobbes considered slavery to be as reasonable as Sir Thomas More had. Locke saw slavery as a “state of war continued between a lawful conqueror and a captive.”7 He probably inspired a paragraph accepting slavery in his draft of the “Fundamental Constitutions” or “Grand Model of the new colony of Carolina”; and, as has been seen, he was also a shareholder in the Royal African Company. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, preached brotherhood by letter to the slaveowners of the West Indies, and denounced slavery in Barbados; but in Pennsylvania he, like his disciple William Penn, the founder of the colony, owned slaves.

There had been for some time considerable unease over the matter of slavery in the Catholic Church. But the proclamations by Crown or pontiff continued to denounce the enslavement of the mild Indians rather than the competent Africans. Firm statements of King Philip III of Spain (II of Portugal) spoke in 1609 of “the great excesses that might occur if slavery were to be permitted in any instance.”8 But that monarch was evidently speaking of Indian slaves. Pope Urban VIII (Barberini), in a letter in 1639 to his representative in Portugal, condemned slavery absolutely, and threatened with excommunication those who practiced it. This denunciation derived explicitly, however, from the journey of Spanish Jesuits to Rome to protest against the enslavement of thousands of Brazilian Indians by the bandeirantees of São Paulo.9

Still, the proclamation of Pope Urban’s statement caused an uproar in Brazil. The Jesuits, who were known to have urged it, were expelled from their college in Rio. But, again, the controversy affected only the Indian slaves. It is true that missionaries, in letters to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, often described the evil effects of slavery on their own work, and there was a further meaningless papal condemnation of the institution in 1686. But in the Atlantic-facing ports, Catholics were as deaf to such statements as were Protestants. There is no record in the seventeenth century of any preacher who, in any sermon, whether in the Cathedral of Saint-André in Bordeaux, or in a Presbyterian meeting house in Liverpool, condemned the trade in black slaves. La Rochelle and Nantes were far apart in matters of religion, but they were as one on the benefits of the trade in slaves. The greatest preacher of the age, António Vieira, was the friend of Amazonian Indians—but not of African slaves, whose plight he seems never to have mentioned, in any of his astounding sermons. Indeed, like Las Casas 150 years earlier, he urged solving the problem of shortage of labor in Brazil by importing more African slaves, in order to enable the Indians to live better.

As will be recalled, the Dutch West India Company at first pronounced against the idea of trading slaves. Early-seventeenth-century Amsterdam, indeed, took a humane attitude to such things. The work of Bredero has been discussed.II But by the mid-1620s, these hesitations were forgotten—a reminder that humanity can diminish as well as grow, in the seventeenth as well as in the twentieth century.

Meantime, there had been just a few irritants to the slave traders in France. When it was proposed that Africans should be introduced into the French empire, Louis XIII is supposed to have paled and said no, since slavery was forbidden on French territory. He was, however, convinced that, in removing these unhappy beings from paganism, the négriers would convert them to the religion of Christ. On his deathbed, he apparently said that “since the savages would be converted to the Christian faith, they would become French citizens, capable of all the responsibilities, honours, and donations” of a Frenchman;10 and France in the seventeenth century became used to seeing blacks, mostly from the Antilles, but some from Africa direct: for example, the slave Aniaba, christened by Bossuet, the black servant of Queen Anne of Austria. In 1642, the Protestant synod at Rouen had to reproach “over-scrupulous persons who thought it unlawful for Protestant merchants to deal in slaves”:11 a helpful remark for the commerce, since Rouen was about to embark on a long, if minor, life as a slave port. In 1698, a theologian, Germain Fromageu, presiding over a tribunal in Paris for cases of conscience, denounced the many slave traders, and owners, who did not ensure that their slaves were fairly procured—that is, by war, not kidnapping. Still, these were pinpricks, and the French trade in slaves, as has been seen, enjoyed profits throughout the eighteenth century.

In spite of the denunciations of Indian slavery by the pope and others, there was little difference in the Europeans’ treatment of Indian and African slaves. Indians captured by the Anglo-Saxon colonists of North America were sometimes punished by being shipped to the West Indies. Such hesitations as the colonists felt about enslaving Indians derived from raison d’état as much as piety: it was thought dangerous to antagonize certain peoples. For that reason—not, it would seem, from delicacy of sentiment—Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island all banned the import of Indian slaves, in the early eighteenth century; Jamaica (where the indigenous population had long since died out) did the same, though not till 1741.

Some criticism could be heard in England during the second half of the seventeenth century of the profitable trade in English indentured servants: but, in 1670, a bill prohibiting the export of convicts was rejected, and another, against the theft of children, was never properly discussed. Judge Jeffreys, showing a humanity for which he is not generally renowned, wanted to imprison a mayor of Bristol who permitted the kidnapping of servants, but the merchants who benefited were not restrained.

All the same, at the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon adventure in North America, there were a few doubts about the morality of the slave trade, even of slavery as such. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties in 1641, for example, made a Delphic statement: “There shall never be any Bond-Slavery, Villeinage, or Captivity amongst us, unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us . . . provided this exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by authority.”12, III But, of course, the concept of a “just war” was less clear than it should have been.

In 1644, a New England ship returned from Africa with two slaves; a legal dispute showed that the slaves had been kidnapped, not bought, in Africa. The magistrates in Massachusetts ordered the slaves returned to Africa and the responsible seamen arrested. An early act of the General Court of Rhode Island also included the tart reflection that, though there was “a common course practised amongst Englishmen to buy negers, to that end that they might have them for service for ever,” Rhode Islanders were adjured to prevent “black mankind or white being forced by covenant bond or otherwise . . . to serve any men . . . longer than ten years.”13 This was an instruction which Rhode Islanders in particular would find it hard to fulfil.

These documents are ambiguous, giving to some modern writers evidence that slavery was abhorrent to the early settlers, and to others proof that Massachusetts was as conscious of the need for slaves as any other colony. In truth, the availability of indentured servants from Europe blunted the need for slaves until, in the early eighteenth century, people in England began to worry about underpopulation more than overpopulation; the indentured servant, however, with his commitment to work for only ten years, was always more expensive than the black slave.

These attitudes in North America were given some support by a petition of the Reverend Richard Saltonstall who, in 1645, denounced not only the murder of certain black slaves who were said to have been brought to New England from Africa, but also “the act of stealing negers, or of taking them by force . . . on the Sabbath Day,” as being “contrary to the law of God and of this country.”14 But Cotton Mather, one of the founders of Yale, and a constant advocate of fair treatment of slaves, seemed, in several of his 450 published works, uncomfortable about the “fondness for freedom” in so many captives’ minds: as slaves in America, he said, voicing an opinion shared by thousands of Europeans, “they lived better than they would have done as free men in Africa.”15 All these contradictions derived from the fact that there were no laws in English North America stating positively that slavery was legal, but it was assumed to be so from immemorial usage.

These dignified ambiguities in North America did not last. Joseph Dudley, a cold, ambitious, and effective governor of Massachusetts, was found reporting that the province had 550 slaves in 1708, mostly in Boston and mostly bought in the West Indies. In Rhode Island, hostility to slaves (if it was indeed ever profound) came to be limited by the desire of its assembly to realize duties on their import. Slaves came there, though “the whole and only supply to this colony is from . . . Barbados.”16

Some English Protestant voices were heard attacking slavery in the late seventeenth century—just when English participation in the trade was beginning. The Puritan Richard Baxter, for example, compared English slaveholders to Spanish conquistadors: an accusation intended to be highly insulting. It was better, he thought, to call those who owned slaves demons than Christians. Then the remarkable Aphra Behn, the first Englishwoman to make a living as a writer, praised, in 1688, in her Oroonoko, or the History of a Royal Slave, about a Cormantine from the Gold Coast, with a face of “perfect ebony,” killed after leading a doomed slave revolt in Surinam—the Dutch colony which Mrs. Behn had known as a child, where her alleged father had been lieutenant-governor during its shortlived time as an English colony. A dramatic version of the novel in 1696 (by Thomas Southerne) presented these noble slaves’ predicament to fascinated audiences in both England and France for nearly a hundred years. Oroonoko, it is true, offered “gold or a vast quantity of slaves” in return for his own liberty—thereby indicating an egotism which would not please later antislave agitators. Yet Aphra Behn’s contribution to the preparation for the abolitionist movement can scarcely be exaggerated. She helped to prepare literary people’s minds for a change on humanitarian grounds. She was more influential than popes and missionaries.17

In the early eighteenth century, the indications that some kind of ethical dimension should affect the trade grew more and more frequent. Thus, in 1707, a secretary of the Royal African Company, no less—Colonel John Pery—wrote to a neighbor, William Coward, who was interested in promoting a slave voyage, that it was “morally impossible that two tier of Negroes can be stowed between decks in four feet five inches.” He went on to admit that any limitations would risk the profitability of the expedition: to add one tier in such circumstances was feasible.18

Twenty years later, in 1729, the ship’s surgeon Dr. Thomas Aubrey would recall that his captain on the slave ship Peterborough had asked: “What the devil makes these plaguey toads die so fast? To which I answer: ’Tis inhumanity, barbarity and the greatest of cruelty of the commander and his crew. . . .” He advised slave merchants to be as careful of slaves as if they had been white men. “For, though they are heathens, yet they have a rational soul as well as us; and God knows whether it may not be more tolerable for them in the latter day [of judgment] than for many who profess themselves Christians.”19

The eighteenth century in England was scarcely a sentimental era, yet it produced a positive anthology of poetry which directly or indirectly condemned slavery. These verses were in the style of the famous and successful Scottish poet James Thomson who, in his immensely popular Seasons (first published 1730) would describe a shark, which was following a slave ship,

Lured by the scent

Of steaming crowds, of rank disease, and death,

Behold! he, rushing, cuts the briny flood,

Swift as the gale can bear the ship along;

And from the partners of that cruel trade,

Which spoils unhappy Guinea of her sons,

Demands his share of prey—demands themselves!20

The reflection gains poignancy if it be recalled that Thomson was the author, in 1740, of the most famous patriotic verse in English, “Rule, Britannia,” where it is famously stated that (even if they might be slave merchants) the British would never be slaves.

Daniel Defoe, Richard Savage, William Shenstone, and even Alexander Pope asked, just as explicitly,

Why must I Afric’sIV sable Children see

Vended for Slaves, though form’d by Nature free . . . ?

and imagined, as Pope did,

Some happier island in the wat’ry waste,

Where slaves once more their native land behold.21

Sir Richard Steele, in “Inkle and Yarico,” also spoke of the issue of slavery in touching terms. So did Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy.

Yet such allusions were partly persiflage. It was a fashionable thing for these elegant gentlemen to affect outrage at the sufferings of Africans. Their contemporaries were always talking of slavery in one context or another: “the slave of pomp” is a frequent figure of speech in the works of Savage, as is “slave to no sect” in Pope. But they had little idea of the implications of what they were saying, even though such publications as John Atkins’s Voyage to Guinea, Brazil, and the West Indies, of 1735, candidly described the business of slaving (Atkins had been a surgeon in the navy). Defoe, a polemicist more than a poet, did not pursue the subject (which he touched on in Robinson Crusoe): iniquity in England consumed his attention. He himself had been anyway concerned in the creation of one of the largest of slave-trading enterprises, the South Sea Company. The poet Thomson accepted the sinecure of surveyor-general to the Leeward Islands, which included several prosperous slave-powered islands, such as Nevis and Saint Kitts. Yet the contributions of these writers were, in the long run, very important. They helped to create a state of mind in which cultivated people in Europe’s most free country, which was also the biggest slaving nation, began to deplore the institution of the trade in Africans if not of slavery itself.

The Church of Rome continued to make intermittent hostile complaints. In 1683, for example, Alderano Cardinal Cybo, the papal secretary of state, wrote to the Capuchin mission in Angola from Rome, in the name of the Sacred College, that he understood that “the pernicious and abominable abuse of selling slaves was yet continued . . . and requiring us to use our power to remedy the said abuse; which, notwithstanding we saw very little hope of accomplishing, by reason that the trade of this country lay wholly in slaves and ivory.”22 All the Capuchins did was to try to stop Protestants, such as the Dutch and English, from buying slaves. But that venture was equally impossible. It is true that, in 1684, two Capuchin friars did start talking in Havana against the slave trade. The governor sent them home to Spain on the first boat, and the Council of the Indies declared that they should never be allowed to return to America. Then, at the very end of the seventeenth century, the bishop of the Cape Verde Islands, Frei Victoriano Portuense, denounced the frequent failure to baptize slaves: “Knowing the manifest injustices by which the people are made slaves in Guinea, the only excuse . . . is to say that these Gentiles are being taken out to receive the light of the church.” But he added, perhaps speaking ironically: “My scruples are not so great that I totally condemn this trade, seeing that it is tolerated by so many men of letters and great theologians.”23

A curious conversation occurred in the Congo in the late seventeenth century between Father Merolla, an Italian Capuchin friar, and an English captain (the Capuchins were, in those years, the most exemplary of the religious orders, the only missionaries who worked in the fever-stricken interior of the Congo). The latter accused the former of trying to persuade the king of Congo not to sell slaves to him. Father Merolla said the king of Portugal had given orders not to make any such sales to heretics. The English captain said that the duke of York, the president of the Royal African Company, was a Roman Catholic. Fr. Merolla said he was sure that the duke did not want his representatives to sack African towns and kidnap slaves, as one English captain had done the previous year. He thought that he would write and tell his fellow countrywoman Mary of Modena, duchess of York, how badly the English were conducting themselves. The captain became furious. In the end, however, the king of Congo did trade privately with the English, behind the back of the Capuchins.24

Still, the only place where any government actually intervened to ameliorate conditions in the slave trade remained Portugal. Many provisions about the good treatment of slaves had been issued to the governors of Angola, but these usually took the form of general admonitions to protect the slaves, rather than specific standards. In 1664, a law in Lisbon specified the minimum amount of water which should be carried on a slave ship from Angola. In 1684, as has been seen, another decreed formal restrictions on the ratio of slaves per ton of shipping: the slave-carrying capacity of each ship would thenceforth be listed in its registration papers. The figure varied from 2.5 to 3.5 slaves per ton, depending on the character of the ship (if a decked ship, or one with portholes, etc.). Child slaves (molleques) could be loaded at five per ton, but they could only be carried on the open decks. Adequate water—a canada, or a little less than three pints a day—should be provided for each slave. Other clauses of the law concerned the provision of food, and the duration of the voyages. This might have seemed a beginning of better times for slaves, but bribery of officials prevented the enactment of these rules; and anyway, as suggested earlier, a canada was inadequate.V

In all the richer parts of the New World, Dominicans and Jesuits, Franciscans and Carmelites still had slaves at their disposal. The French Father Labat, on his arrival at the prosperous Caribbean colony of Martinique in 1693, described how his monastery, with its nine brothers, owned a sugar mill worked by water and tended by thirty-five slaves, of whom eight or ten were old or sick, and about fifteen badly nourished children. Humane, intelligent, and imaginative though Father Labat was, and grateful though he was for the work of his slaves, he never concerned himself as to whether slavery and the slave trade were ethical. He was required, on one occasion in 1695, to buy twelve slaves from a consignment which had arrived at Basse-Terre from Africa, having been brought by a ship belonging to a Monsieur Maurelet of Marseilles, one of the least active of the French slave ports. Labat made the purchase without self-reproach, though he did later comment on the sad condition of these captives who, he thought, had arrived “tired, after a long voyage.” The only occasion on which he used the word “infamous” to describe what he saw was when he observed an African dance. He was convinced that the Church had a special responsibility to “inspire in the Africans the cult of the true God,” to purge them of idolatry, and to make them “persevere to the death in the Christian religion which we had caused them to embrace.”25

Once again, the Vatican spoke out against slavery at the beginning of the eighteenth century: knowing that the dominions of the king of Portugal still had the largest number of slaves in the Christian world, the saintly and active Umbrian Pope Clement XI caused the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to ask his nuncios in Madrid and Lisbon to act so as to bring about “an end to slavery.” But there was no response whatsoever. Clement had, anyway, offended the Bourbon kings of France and Spain by taking the side of the Habsburgs in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Inquisition was at that time still more concerned about the possibility that some slave dealers were secret Jews than about the trade. For example, with regard to the asiento of the Portuguese Cacheu Company, at the end of the seventeenth century, the Holy Office at Cartagena de Indias denounced to the Spanish Crown three Portuguese agents who were responsible for the traffic there—Felipe Enríquez, Juan Morín, and Gaspar de Andrade—for being “of the hebraic nation.” These three men had allegedly even been seen, in Cartagena, after a delivery of slaves, both killing lambs and keeping the Sabbath in the Jewish manner. But the accusations never bore fruit; the persons concerned were able to escape castigation easily.

In English America, the voices of doubt about, or hostility to, slavery were a good deal more frequent. In 1676, for example, a Quaker, William Edmundson, a wild friend and companion of George Fox, the Society’s founder, dispatched a letter from Newport, Rhode Island, to Quakers in all slave-owning places. He put forward the theory that slavery should be unacceptable to a Christian. It was “an oppression on the mind.” This caused the aged Roger Williams, the father of the colony, to denounce him as “nothing but a bundle of ignorance and boisterousness.”26 Edmundson also justified rebellions of slaves in Barbados, where two Quakers (Ralph Fretwell and Richard Sutton) had been fined by the governor for the crime of “bringing Negroes into their meetings for worship.” There were similar accusations, and similar fines, in Nevis.

Twelve years later, in 1688, in Germantown (Philadelphia), a group of German Quakers originally from Krisheim, in the Rhineland, signed a petition against the idea of slavery, not just the trade.VI In both 1696 and 1711, at the Society’s annual meetings in Philadelphia, “advice” was given to guard against future imports of Africans, and instruction to ensure good treatment of those already bought. Cadwallader Morgan, a Quaker slave merchant, after some soul-searching, decided, “I should not be concerned with them.”27 Can one say that this was the beginning of the abolition movement in Pennsylvania? Scarcely, for the protests were ignored, Friends remained prominent as slave traders as well as owners of slaves, and few took into account the “advice” for years afterwards. Though they had compunction about the matter, Jonathan Dickinson and Isaac Norris, both Quakers of Philadelphia, continued to trade slaves. There was even a ship belonging to members of the sect in the early eighteenth century called the Society.(Her captain was Thomas Monk, who loaded 250 slaves in Africa in 1700, and lost all but twenty-two of them in the Middle Passage.)28

But other Friends made isolated, if neglected, protests in that colony over the next thirty years. In 1716, a Quaker tract written in Massachusetts, arguing that the slave trade adversely affected white immigration, had included the radical statement that the slaves had a perfect right to liberty, and so might resort to armed rebellion. The Friends asked: “Are not we of this country guilty of that violence, treachery and bloodshed which is daily made use of to obtain them?”29 Benjamin Lay, a hunchback originally from Colchester in England—who had settled in Abington, near Philadelphia, after living in Barbados and seeing scenes of cruelty to slaves, “which had greatly disturbed his mind”—was driven, by seeing a naked slave hanging dead in front of a fellow Quaker’s house (killed because he had tried to run away), to a series of eccentric but sensational protests: for example, dressing in homemade cloth to avoid using material made by slaves, and breaking his coffee cups to discourage the use of sugar. Lay once stood at the door of a Quaker meeting house with one leg bare and half buried in deep snow. To those who sympathized, he said: “Ah, you pretend compassion for me, but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields who go all winter half-clad.” He also once filled a sheep’s bladder with blood and then plunged a sword into it at a Quaker meeting, saying, “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow-creatures.”30

All these protests were individual actions by unrepresentative people. A more characteristic reaction was that of some Baptists in South Carolina who wrote home to England to ask for guidance as to how to treat a brother member of their church who had castrated his slave. They received the reply that they should not risk dissension in the movement over “light or indifferent causes.”

Still it was not only these dissenters who were concerned: in 1700, a conventional judge in Boston, Samuel Sewall, wrote a pamphlet, The Selling of Joseph which, despite receiving “frowns and hard words,” made the first reasoned criticism of the slave trade, and indeed of slavery itself. (Sewall, a Congregationalist, was one of the judges who had in 1692 condemned the witches of Salem; he himself may once have been concerned in the slave trade.)

In 1754, the annual meeting of the Society of Friends in Philadelphia at last took a definite step against the traffic in slaves. Recalling in an open letter that it had often been “the concern of our annual meeting to testify their uneasiness and disunity with the importation and purchasing of negro and other slaves,” this time they said plainly that “to live in ease and plenty by the toil of those whom violence and cruelty have put in our power” was inconsistent with both Christianity and common justice. After several paragraphs giving vivid examples, the document appealed to Quakers to make the case of the Africans “our own and consider what we should think, and what we should feel, were we in their circumstances.”31

This change was the consequence of further agitation in the Society coincident with the doubts about how to react to Indian raiding on the colony of Pennsylvania, inspired by such candid, dedicated, and determined Friends as William Burling of Long Island, Ralph Sandiford of Philadelphia and, above all, John Woolman, a tailor from New Jersey who, in 1754, after a visit to Quaker slaveholders in Virginia and North Carolina, had published his candid pamphlet Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes.Woolman thereafter devoted his life to visits, usually on foot, to prominent Quaker slaveholders to try to convince them, by calm and rational appeals, of the “inconsistency of holding slaves.”32 He even went to Newport, Rhode Island, the great slaving port of North America, where he addressed his fellow Quakers on the matter, and seems to have had some effect. In 1758, the yearly meeting of Quakers at Philadelphia agreed with Woolman that no Quaker could keep a slave without risking damnation, since no master could be expected to resist the temptation to exploit the slave. That same year, the Quakers in London, at their annual meeting, also condemned both slavery and “the iniquitous practice of dealing in negro and other slaves,” and threatened to exclude from a place of responsibility within the Society of Friends anyone who participated in the trade. Another resolution, at the Quakers’ annual meeting in England in 1761, decided, since “divers under our name are concerned in the un-Christian traffic in Negroes,” to condemn the practice, and to disown those who did not desist. This was strong stuff for Quakers. Once they were committed, there was, however, no drawing back; the yearly meeting of 1763 Philadelphia further condemned all who invested in the trade or supplied cargoes for it.33

Thus a prominent Bostonian could later write: “About the time of the Stamp Act [1765], what were before only slight scruples in the minds of conscientious persons, became serious doubts and, with a considerable number, ripened into a firm persuasion that the slave trade was malum in se.”

The direct consequence of this Quaker activity was that, in 1767, a proposal was, for the first time, introduced into a real legislature against the slave trade: in the House of Representatives of Massachusetts. Though this bill failed, a substantial duty was laid thereafter on each slave imported.

Another point of view was, meantime, developing slowly in British North America. This was that the import of slaves into the Americas should be restricted, not because of doubts about the morality of the slave trade but from fear of the consequences of having too many slaves: rebellion above all. After 1770, this opinion had as much influence over the growth of the abolition movement as did philanthropy. For example, even in South Carolina, as early as 1698, an act was passed to encourage the use of white servants, because of “the great danger” of revolution and upheaval which the presence of too many slaves might pose. In 1730, William Gooch, lieutenant-governor of Virginia, a Suffolk-born landowner who later fought in the British siege at Cartagena de Indias, wrote home to London that there were thirty thousand slaves in Virginia (in a population of 114,000), “and their numbers increase every day as well by birth as by importation. And in case there should arise a man of desperate courage amongst us, exasperated by a desperate fortune, he might with more advantage than Catiline kindle a servile war.VII Such a man might be dreadfully mischievous before any opposition could be formed against him, and tinge our rivers, wide as they are, with blood. . . . It were therefore worth the consideration of a British parliament . . . to put an end to this unchristian Traffick of making merchandise of our fellow creatures. . . . We have mountains in Virginia to which they may retire as safely . . . as in Jamaica. I wonder whether the legislature will indulge a few ravenous traders to the danger of public safety. . . .”34

This view was also expressed, privately, in 1736, from his lovely estate of Westgrove, near Jamestown, Virginia, by Colonel William Byrd, son of the London-born merchant of the same name who had “imported, used and sold many slaves [from Barbados],” in a letter to Lord Egmont, the president of the trustees of the newly founded colony of Georgia.VIII He envied Georgia’s prohibition on the import of slaves—a ban which would be only briefly maintained—and commented: “I wish, my Lord, we could be blest with the same prohibition. They import so many negroes hither that I fear this colony will some time be confirmed by the name of New Guinea. I am sensible of many bad consequences of multiplying these Ethiopians amongst us. They blow up the pride and ruin the industry of our white people who, seeing a rank of poor creatures beneath them, detest work, for fear it should make them look like slaves. Another unhappy effect of many negroes is the necessity of being severe. Numbers make them insolent and then foul means must do what fair will not. We have, however, nothing here like the inhumanity which is practised in the islands [the West Indies] and God forbid that we ever should. But these base tempers require to be rid with a taut rein, or they will be apt to throw the rider. . . . Private mischiefs are nothing if compared to the public danger. We have already 10,000 men of the descendants of Ham fit to bear arms.”35

Similar views were also expressed in Georgia itself; thus certain Scottish colonists of Darien declared that it was shocking “to human nature that any race of mankind . . . should be sentenced to perpetual slavery; nor in justice can we think otherwise of it, than they are thrown amongst us to be our scourge one day or another for our sins; and as freedom to them must be as dear as to us, what a scene of horror must it bring about. . . .” George Whitfield, who spent some time in the colony as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe, wrote an open letter to the other Southern colonies in which he complained not so much about the slave trade (of which matter, he curiously said, he was not capable of deciding the legality) as about the fact that the settlers treated their slaves worse than they did their horses.36

Slave revolts were understandably on everyone’s mind. More than a dozen major ones took place during the eighteenth century in Jamaica, where escaped slaves carried on guerrilla war in several colonies in the forested mountains. There had been a slave revolt on Long Island in 1708, and others in the city of New York in 1712 and 1733; in 1739, a group of slaves in South Carolina seized arms and began to march south to Florida—to, that is, as they ignorantly supposed, freedom.

The official position in South Carolina was interesting for a different reason. Advising the king to reject the petitions of merchants of London and Bristol in 1733 against a duty on the import of slaves, the council chamber of that colony insisted: “The importation of negroes, we crave to inform Your Majesty, is a species of trade that has exceedingly increased of late in this province where so many negroes are now trained up to be handicraft tradesmen, to the great discouragement of Your Majesty’s white subjects, who come here to settle with a view to employment in their several occupations, but must often give way to a people in slavery.”37 Lewis Timothy, printer of the Laws of South Carolina, and for a time a partner of Benjamin Franklin, wrote in the South Carolina Gazette(which he owned) in 1738 that the slave merchants were ruining the colony by persuading so many planters to buy Negroes: “Negroes may be said to be the bait proper for catching a Carolina planter, as certain as beef to catch a shark. How many under the notion of eighteen months’ credit have been tempted to buy more negroes than they could possibly expect to pay for in three years?”38

Several colonial assemblies in North America would soon vote to impose prohibitive duties on the import of slaves, precisely out of anxiety lest the import might grow out of control and public order be threatened. In 1750, for example, Pennsylvania imposed a duty on the import of slaves which was supposed to be prohibitive. In Virginia, in 1757, Peter Fontaine, the Huguenot rector of Westover, wrote to his brother Moses about their “intestine enemies, our slaves,” though he added: “To live in Virginia without slaves is morally [sic] impossible. . . . A common labourer white or black if you should be so much favored as to hire one, is a shilling sterling or fifteen pence currency a day . . . that is, for a lazy fellow to get wood and water £19-16s-3d per annum; add to this [only] seven or eight pounds more and you have a slave for life. . . .”39

In 1769, New Jersey also imposed a prohibitive duty of fifteen pounds a head on imports of slaves. In 1771, a duty of eight to nine pounds brought the trade to an end in Maryland for a time. North Carolina, unlike its southern neighbor never a big employer of slaves, experienced some protests. Thus the freeholders of Rowan County resolved “that the African trade is injurious to this colony, obstructs the population of it by freemen, prevents manufacturers and other useful immigrants from Europe from settling amongst us, and occasions an annual increase of the balance of trade against the colonies.” Three weeks later, the Provincial Congress resolved: “We will not import any slave . . . nor purchase any slave . . . imported or brought into this province by others from any part of the world after the first day of November next.”40 Slaves who arrived after the date concerned were to be reshipped to the West Indies. About the same time, the Rhode Island Assembly prohibited the import of slaves and determined that any slave brought in would be freed. But the Assembly was then too weak to ban slave traders operating out of Newport. None of these prohibitions, it is worth emphasizing, was decided upon for reasons of humanity. Fear and economy were the motives.

What became the main argument against slavery and the traffic in Africans, outrage at the very idea of slave traffic, was slow to gather civilized support, even in England, France, and North America. Elsewhere, the process was still more lethargic, being confined to isolated statements by writers whose works, however well intentioned and high-minded, gained little currency. Among these, for example, were two Portuguese polemicists: first, André João Antonil who, in Cultura e Opulencia do Brasil por Suas Drogas e Minas, published in Lisbon in 1711, demanded amelioration, not abolition; and, second, Frei Manuel Ribeiro da Rocha who, in Ethiope Resgatado, Empenhado, Sustenado, Corregido, Instruido e Libertado, published in Lisbon in 1758, went so far as to demand an end to the slave trade and the substitution of free for slave labor. He remarkably argued that all slaves should be prepared for eventual freedom, for he thought the slave trade was illegal “and ought to be condemned as a deadly crime against Christian charity and common justice.”41 However contemptuous the Anglo-Saxons might later be about such Portuguese attitudes to the slave trade, this was a denunciation before anyone in Britain or North America had gone nearly so far.

Just one indication is available to show that, in these years, the moral side of the slave trade was at least being considered by some practitioners. In August 1736, Antonio de Salas, the Spanish governor in Cartagena de Indias, wrote to his king, Philip V, to complain that the South Sea Company was importing “black Christians” into the Spanish empire, specifically from the region of the river Congo. The king understood the point: it was not lawful, he replied, “to enslave anyone born free, nor is it lawful that any Christian should enslave another.”42 But now that the slaves had arrived, he declared, they were better off in the hands of the Spaniards than in those of English Protestants. It seems that those slaves remained in Cartagena, and the outbreak of war with England in 1739 prevented Philip from having to reconsider his policies. Anyway, the collection of laws relating to the Indies which had so painstakingly been put together in Madrid in the 1680s contained only brief references to black slaves.

The great wave of ideas, and emotions, known in France, and those who followed her, as the Enlightenment, was (in contrast to the Renaissance) hostile to slavery, though not even the most powerful intellects knew what to do about the matter in practice. For example, the playwright Marivaux, the great Voltaire, the brilliant Montesquieu, the assiduous Diderot, and the contributors to the Encyclopédie, as well as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, all condemned, or mocked, or denounced, slavery; but they assumed that all they had to do was to launch ideas into the cafés and governments would follow their advice, even if it was merely implicit. As early as 1725, Marivaux wrote his one-act play L’Ile des esclaves, in which two haughty Athenians, shipwrecked on an island inhabited by escaped slaves, exchange places with their own servant-slaves. Marivaux’s affection for the slaves derived from his contempt for antiquity. The theme of this work was: “The difference in human conditions is only a test to which the gods make us submit.” His Athenians are cured of inhumanity when they return to Athens. Though now the play seems mild, it was a success, being played twenty times in Paris and once in Versailles.43, IX

The grand figure of the Enlightenment was, of course, Voltaire, who laughed at “those who call themselves whites . . . [but] proceed to purchase blacks cheaply in order to sell them expensively in the Americas.”X He also mocked the Church of Rome for having accepted slavery. In his Scarmentado, in 1756, he depicted a variation on the theme of Marivaux: A shocked European slave captain finds his ship and crew seized by Africans. The crew are enslaved. What right have you, the captain asks, to violate the law of nations and enslave innocent men? The African leader replies: “You have long noses, we have flat ones; your hair is straight, while ours is curly; your skins are white, ours are black; in consequence, by the sacred laws of nature, we must, therefore, remain enemies. You buy us in the fairs on the coast of Guinea as if we were cattle in order to make us labor at no end of impoverishing and ridiculous work . . . [so] when we are stronger than you, we shall make you slaves, too, we shall make you work in our fields, and cut off your noses and ears.”44 Voltaire too caused Candide to observe a young slave who had an arm and a leg cut off as the price demanded for the sugar which had to be sent to Europe. He also criticized slavery in his Dictionnaire philosophique in 1764, in rather an indirect manner, and argued that “people who traffic in their own children are more condemnable than the buyer; this traffic shows our superiority.”45, XI Not surprisingly, in view of that remark, he seems to have gambled in the slave trade himself. He accepted delightedly when the leading négrier of Nantes, Jean-Gabriel Montaudoin, offered to name one of his ships after him.46

Montesquieu, more profoundly, believing as usual in the determining influence of climate on manners, thought that slavery, if inappropriate for Europe (at least then!), might have a natural basis in tropical countries, where “heat enervates the body” and no one could be expected to work unless he was made afraid of punishment. Unlike Voltaire, Montesquieu was much interested in the question, as was natural in one who had been president of the parlement of Bordeaux, a slave port. The core of his argument inL’Esprit des lois was that slavery was bad both for the master and for the captive: for the first, because the institution led him into all kinds of bad habits, causing him to become proud, impatient, hard, angry, louche (voluptueux), and cruel; and for the second, because the condition prevented him from doing anything virtuously. Montesquieu added an ironical passage: “If I were to try and justify our right to make slaves of the blacks, this is what I would say: The Europeans, having exterminated the peoples of the Americas, have had to enslave those of Africa, in order to ensure the clearance of a great deal of land. Sugar would be too expensive if one could not get slaves to produce it. The slaves I am talking about are black from head to toe, and they have such ruined noses that one can’t begin to complain of them. . . . One cannot put oneself into the frame of mind in which God, who is a very wise being, took it upon himself to put a soul, and a very good soul at that, into such an entirely black body.” He continued: “The blacks prefer . . . a glass necklace to one of gold, to which properly civilized [policées] nations give such consequence. [So] it is impossible for us to suppose these creatures are men because, if one were to allow them to be so, a suspicion would follow that we are not ourselves Christian.”47

The author of L’Esprit des lois, like Marivaux, may not seem to be radical in the twentieth century. But his mocking insistence that slavery had to be discussed seriously was very important at the time. His remarks influenced everyone who thought of the matter thenceforth, even the modest reflections of the great Gibbon, in chapter II of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They were also the subject of an impassioned essay, Les Chaînes de l’esclavage, for the Académie Française in 1774, by the young Jean-Paul Marat, a tutor in Bordeaux in the early 1760s to the children of Pierre-Paul Nairac, the greatest slave merchant of that city.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, more extreme than anyone else, with regard to the issue of slavery as to everything, insisted that the essence of the institution was its dependence on force; and so, in his Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité (1755), he condemned slavery absolutely, describing it as the final manifestation of the degrading and idiotic principle of authority. In his Du contrat social (1762), he added: “However we look at the question, the right to enslave is null and void, not only because it is illegitimate, but also because it is absurd and meaningless. The words ‘slavery’ and ‘right’ are contradictory.”48 Then Diderot’s great Encyclopédie (in the volume published in 1765), in its article on the slave trade (by Louis de Jaucourt, a hardworking and self-effacing scholar who seems to have taken many of his ideas from the Scottish philosopher George Wallace), stated, without equivocation: “This purchase [that is, of slaves] is a business which violates religion, morality, natural law, and all human rights. There is not one of those unfortunate souls . . . slaves . . . who does not have the right to be declared free, since in truth he has never lost his freedom; and he could not lose it, since it was impossible for him to lose it; and neither his prince, nor his father, nor anyone else had the right to dispose of it.” The Encyclopédie also stated firmly that if any slave entered France and was baptized he automatically became free. That was a procedure which was explained by “long usage” which had “acquired the force of law.”49

These firm statements made antislavery part of new French radical thought; and, for once, radical thought coincided with Catholic thinking: in 1741, Pope Benedict XIV (Lambertini) repeated the prohibitions on slavery discussed a century before by Pope Urban VIII, in the decree Immensa. Benedict was, like so many of his predecessors, concerned primarily with prohibitions on Indian slavery in the New World, but the declaration clearly covered black slavery, too; and the papal nuncio in Lisbon later reported, among the causes for his distaste for the Jesuits in the Portuguese dominions, that the Society of Jesus “engaged in a slave trade.”50 But Benedict had even less importance than Urban in the commercial mind. Presumably some slave merchants thought that they had satisfied their consciences when they christened their ships Liberté, Ça-Ira, and Jean-Jacques, instead of Saint-Hilaire or Saint-François, and other saints’ names favored in the past.

IThe first naval vessel to be copper-sheathed was the frigate Alarm in 1761, and the second the discovery ship Dolphin.

IISee page 162.

IIIThe publication of these laws in 1672 left out the words “and such strangers.”

IVThe romantic “Afric” figures often in poems such as these, reaching, via Milton, Swift, and Gay, its consummation in the preposterous line of Bishop Heber’s hymn, which speaks of “Afric’s sunny fountains.”

VSee page 421.

VIThese Germans had opposed the slave trade from early on: some Germans held slaves, but most of them thought the institution evil. The German press in North America differentiated itself from the English one in this respect, and generally did not carry advertisements for the sale of slaves, nor notices about escaped ones.

VIIDid he mean Spartacus?

VIIIThis was the eccentric John Perceval, who also had plans to make himself king of the Jews.

IXJ. M. Barrie plagiarized the idea for his The Admirable Crichton.

X “Ceux qui se disent blancs vont les acheter des nègres à bon marché, pour les revendre cher en Amérique.”

XI“Un peuple qui trafique en ses enfants est encore plus condamnable que l’acheteur; ce négoce démontre notre supériorité.”

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