How One of Today's 'Bad Guys' Ended the Scourge of Slavery

Two hundred years ago, Great Britain became the first major nation to abolish the slave trade. By the end of the century slavery had been abolished around the world. Here is the remarkable story of the abolition of the slave trade—and of its tragic return to plague the world.

by Melvin Rhodes

There is no doubt about it—the slave trade was abhorrent. Millions of people were transported across the Atlantic in the most horrific of conditions, taken against their will and sold like cattle. Indeed, cattle were treated better than the victims of this despicable trade.

March 25 was the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire—marked throughout the month with commemorative events. One such event was held in Elmina Castle, Ghana, a castle built by the Portuguese in the late 15th century and used for the holding of slaves before transit to the New World.

The following day a service of thanksgiving was held in London, attended by Queen Elizabeth and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The service was interrupted at one point by a man of African descent demanding the British monarch apologize for slavery.

Today it's popular to bash the West, and the major English-speaking nations in particular, and to blame them for many of the world's problems. In line with this, demands for an apology for slavery and reparations have been increasing in recent years.

Such demands overlook a crucial point.

Before the British parliamentary vote to abolish the slave trade, slavery was a fairly universal practice, as it had been throughout history. What Great Britain did, at a time when the slave trade was highly lucrative for all participants, was a totally radical, progressive and bold step. We can be thankful for the foresight shown by men like William Wilberforce, the leader of the antislavery movement.

Wilberforce's fight to end slavery is portrayed in the recent movie Amazing Grace. His friend John Newton, a former slave trader, wrote the famous hymn of that name following his repentance. He devoted the remainder of his life to serving others in an attempt to atone for his contribution to the slave trade.

In reviewing the 2005 book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild, African-American columnist Thomas Sowell wrote: "To me the most staggering thing about the long history of slavery—which encompassed the entire world and every race in it—is that nowhere before the 18th century was there any serious question raised about whether slavery was right or wrong. In the late 18th century, that question arose in Western civilization, but nowhere else."

The book, Sowell notes, "traces the history of the world's first anti-slavery movement, which began with a meeting of 12 'deeply religious' men in London in 1787."

It took 20 years for these men to achieve their goal of ending the slave trade. Sowell continues: "Even more remarkable, Britain [then] took it upon itself, as the leading naval power of the world, to police the ban on slave trading against other nations. Intercepting and boarding other countries' ships on the high seas to look for slaves, the British became and remained for more than a century the world's policeman when it came to stopping the slave trade" ("Today's 'Bad Guys' Ended Slavery," Lansing State Journal, Feb. 12, 2006.)

Noted French historian Alexis de Tocqueville described the decision of the British parliament to end the slave trade as "absolutely without precedent . . . If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary" (quoted by Hochschild, p. 1).

Freedom, "a peculiar institution"

With this historic perspective, we can be thankful that, at last, after thousands of years of human history, a nation had the moral conscience to do something about it—to end the trade in human beings.

What was the magnitude of Britain's undertaking? "At the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom. The age was a high point in the trade in which close to eighty thousand chained and shackled Africans were loaded onto slave ships and transported to the New World each year. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumbered free persons.

"The same was true in parts of Africa, and it was from these millions of indigenous slaves that African chiefs and slave dealers drew most of the men and women they sold to Europeans and Arabs sailing their ships along the continent's coasts.

"African slaves were spread throughout the Islamic world, and the Ottoman [Turkish] Empire enslaved other peoples as well. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of farmworkers were in outright slavery, and others were peasants in debt bondage that tied them and their labor to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave was bound to a plan-tation owner in South Carolina or Georgia.

"Native Americans turned prisoners of war into slaves and sold them . . . In Russia, the majority of the population were serfs, often bought, sold, whipped, or sent to the army at the will of their owners. The era was one when, as the historian Seymour Drescher puts it, 'freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution'" (Hochschild, p. 2.)

Britain and the African slave trade

Slavery existed in Africa well before the arrival of the Europeans. "The Atlantic slave trade depended on the fact that most of the societies of Africa—chiefdoms and kingdoms large and small, even groups of nomads—had their own systems of slavery. People were enslaved as punishment for crimes, as payment for a debt, or, most commonly of all, as prisoners of war . . .

"Once European ships started cruising the African coast offering all kinds of tempting goods for slaves, kings and chiefs began selling their human property to African dealers who roamed far into the interior. Groups of captives, ranging from a few dozen to six or eight hundred, were force-marched to the coast, the prisoners' hands bound behind their backs, their necks connected by wooden yokes. Along the coast itself, a scattering of whites, blacks and mulattos worked as middlemen for the Atlantic trade" (Hochschild, p. 16).

And then William Wilberforce and his compatriots entered the picture. Driven by a resolute Christian morality, within a generation they persuaded the British government to outlaw slavery in 1807, when the slave trade was still enormously profitable. Playing a hugely important role, the British Royal Navy also served the cause, patrolling the coast of Africa for slave ships and freeing slaves wherever they encountered them. By the end of the century, slavery was outlawed nearly everywhere.

Britain's enthusiasm for ending the slave trade "led it to much greater involvement in African affairs. Additional colonies were acquired (Sierra Leone, 1808; Gambia, 1816; Gold Coast, 1821) to serve as bases for suppressing the slave trade and for stimulating substitute commerce." This "contributed to the expansion of both its commercial and colonial empire" (The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Macropedia, "Colonialism," p. 892).

Certainly, many British people profited from the slave trade before its abolition, but the British Empire became much wealthier after the trade was ended. The abolition of the slave trade advanced the growth of the Empire as the British people, descendants of biblical Ephraim, were receiving the birthright promise of becoming "a multitude of nations" (Genesis 48:19; and see our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy). Many of the peoples of the new colonies would later serve alongside Britain in both world wars.

After the abolition of the slave trade, it took another 26 years to end slavery itself throughout the British Empire. The end of the four-year transition period coincided with Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne, giving the new queen a prestigious boost at the beginning of her 64-year reign.

One runaway slave fleeing the United States settled just outside of Windsor, Ontario, and founded an institute for others who followed. Josiah Henson's headstone bears a replica of Victoria's crown, in appreciation of the freedom he found within the British Empire, whose head was Victoria, whom he later met while on a visit to London. His autobiography was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

America follows Britain's lead

A quarter-century later, America would also overturn its history of slavery. Some 365,000 mostly white males of British descent died fighting for the Union side in the American Civil War, enabling peoples of African descent to be free. No other nation sacrificed so many people for such a noble cause.

The United States, descended from the biblical Manasseh (again, see our free booklet), was to follow Great Britain as the world's dominant power. A history of both nations, written by historian Angus Calder, is appropriately titled Revolutionary Empire. The two branches of the Anglo-Saxon "empire," the British Empire and the United States, were a fulfillment of the promises made to the patriarch Joseph's sons, by his father Israel (Genesis 48:15-19). They were to be a blessing to the world, as promised to their ancestor Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3).

It wasn't only on the high seas that the British were stamping out slavery. Toward the end of the 19th century the British high commissioner for Northern Nigeria, Frederick (later Lord) Lugard, made it a priority when administering the 300,000 square miles of his territory.

"In the south were pagan tribes and in the north, historic Muslim city-states with large walled cities whose emirs raided the tribal territories to the south for slaves . . . His policy was to support the native states and chieftainships, their laws and their courts, forbidding slave raiding and cruel punishments . . ." Lugard was "following the explorer David Livingstone's lead in fighting Arab slave raiders in eastern Africa" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Macropedia, "Lord Lugard," p. 176).

Slavery returns to Africa

Sadly the story doesn't end there. Once again, five decades after Britain gave its colonies independence, slavery is back in every single African nation, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"The trafficking of human beings is a problem in every African country, says UNICEF", states an April 23, 2004, BBC News article. "The report, which covers 53 African nations, says children are the biggest victims in what is a very complex phenomenon. It describes how they are forced into slavery, recruited as child soldiers or sold into prostitution. In Africa, children are twice as likely to be trafficked as women."

The report "found that 89% of the countries had trafficking to and from neighbouring countries, but 34% also had a human trade to Europe . . . Of the countries surveyed, 26% said trafficking was taking place to the Middle East." Sadly, few voices are being raised in Africa calling for an end to this despicable trade.

The trade in human beings, which includes the sex trade, is now estimated to be the biggest business in the world, accounting for a full 10 percent of the world's total commerce. The biblical book of Revelation foretells an end-time trading system that includes trafficking in "the bodies and souls of men" (Revelation 18:13).

Clearly, the world is long overdue for another William Wilberforce and another nation to take the initiative in ending the modern-day slave trade as Great Britain did 200 years ago.