Christianity, Britain & the Slave Trade
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
Slavery has, unfortunately, been an ingrained part of human society throughout history. Virtually every civilization in the past has featured the institution of slavery. The crucial question is therefore not "what society had slavery", but rather, "what society abolished it, and on what grounds?"
This question brings us to Christianity and the British Empire. Contrary to modern assumptions, the Christian religion – with its message of equal worth – lay the ideological foundations for anti-slavery thinking. In the 17th century, Christian groups fought tirelessly to abolish the trade they rightfully called evil, and, with the help of the British Empire, finally succeeded in ending the infamous trade. The British Empire, acknowledging the evil it had helped create, went to great lengths to regret it, and abolish it.
Anti-slavery has always been an underlying sentiment in the Christian religion. It stems from the core Judeo-Christian idea that all humans are born in the image and likeness of God (as stated in the Book of Genesis in the Bible), and thus have equal worth. In the slave-built Roman Empire, St. Paul urged Christians to break with the Roman view of slaves as degraded, and exhorted slave owners to treat their slaves in love, as brothers. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female; for ye are all One in Christ Jesus,” St. Paul writes in Galations 3:28 (KJV). Other early Christians were also deeply sceptical and repulsed by the institution. St. Augustine (354 - 430 A.D) described it as evidence of mankind’s fall from grace. St. John Chrysostom (347 - 407 A.D) called it “the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery…the fruit of sin, of rebellion against…our True Father.” Other “Church Fathers” (4th century) argued strongly for the emancipation of slaves, and some, like St. Eligius (6th century), spent their wealth on buying, then freeing, vast scores of slaves.
St. John Chrysostom (347 - 407 A.D) called it “the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery…the fruit of sin, of rebellion against…our True Father.”
When Christianity was legalised in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine already made liberalising reforms for slaves to promote the idea of equal worth. The Middle Ages saw theologians and statesmen wrestle with how to restructure society to become slave-free, and around 1102, slavery was officially banned in England and most of Europe.
However, the rise of globalised trade in the 15th century revived Europe’s involvement in slavery. Labour demand in the commodity plantations in the Americas was high, so merchants began buying slaves from African tribes and kingdoms and ship them to the plantations across the Atlantic. This was legally possible because the slave trade occurred outside Europe, not within it, thereby not violating the anti-slavery laws of the Middle Ages.
Thus, in the so-called Enlightenment Era (16th-18th century), this Atlantic Slave Trade boomed, and millions were shipped over, doomed to a lifetime of forced labour. Racist dehumanisation, mixed with legal loopholes and distorted interpretations of science and religion, helped Europeans quell their conscience in the interest of business.
The Quakers – a Protestant, anti-institutional denomination – were vehemently opposed of slavery and fought consistently against it in the 17th century, notably founding schools of liberated African children. They spread awareness of the outrageous maltreatment of slaves and the sinful nature of it, and soon inspired scores of other Christians and Evangelicals to join their cause. Most notable were Charles Spurgeon (whose sermons were often burned for their disdain of slavery), preacher John Wesley, and John Newton, a former slave trader and composer of the hymn Amazing Grace. Many African abolitionists, like Olaudah Equiano, wrote books and pamphlets describing the horrid conditions and raising awareness.
In 1787, these Evangelicals formed an Abolitionist pressure group, sometimes known as the Clapham Saints or Clapham Sect. Coming to their aid was MP William Wilberforce, a fellow Christian who managed to translate their abolitionist ideas into political form in the British Parliament. They printed leaflets and held speeches to educate the public of the abuses of slavery, then gathered petitions and resorted to various political tactics to sway the Parliament to abolish it.
Soon, MP Wilberforce managed to persuade the Parliament of the evil it had helped create. In 1807, at the height of the Napoleonic wars, the Slave Trade Act was passed, officially prohibiting the slave trade across the Empire. Four years later, in 1811, the Empire made slave smuggling an Imperial felony – across the entire world. In other words, London decided that slave trade was illegal for everyone, not just the British. They gave the Royal Navy mandate to patrol and seize any ship they suspected was smuggling slaves. If found, the slaves were liberated, and the shipowner trialled. The Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, operating out of Freetown (a town for freed Africans), seized 1600 ships and freed over 150,000 Africans between the years 1808 and 1860.
The British prohibited other nations from engaging in the slave trade as well. They seized foreign ships carrying slaves, and pressured European nations and African kingdoms into signing treaties that made them vow to end the buying and selling of humans. The use of slaves in plantations, however, continued – but was also declared illegal in 1833 with the Slavery Abolition Act, initiating a gradual process of emancipation and government compensation. By 1840, all slaves across the Empire and in all colonies were free men and women.
What began with a little “sect” of Christian abolitionists, ended in changing the world – and ending the institution that had characterised human society in all history. They had been deeply repulsed by what they witnessed and passionately re-communicated the ancient Christian sentiment towards slavery and racism. The racism that surged during the slave trade was fiercely combatted by the universal Christian message of “neither Gentile nor Jew” – the idea that all humans are children of God, and therefore of equal worth. Much thanks to William Wilbeforce’s political acumen, they helped London finally realise the abhorrent immorality of slave trading, and, with the muscles of the Empire, prohibit the institution across the world. The “the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery” was picked and thrown away.
What began with a little “sect” of Christian abolitionists, ended in changing the world – and ending the institution that had characterised human society in all history.
However, slavery continued to thrive in other parts of the world, especially in the Middle East and North African regions, and in East Asia. The Ottoman Empire finally rid itself of slavery in 1924 through the rise of Ataturk. This came a decade after China, in 1910, had also made slavery illegal. Iran made it illegal in 1929, and Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1962.
Nevertheless, the battle for abolitionism has not ended. While it has been officially banned, it is far from eradicated altogether. Human trafficking and modern slavery is a $150 billion business according to Forbes, with more than 40.3 million humans held captive as slaves per 2016 (according to Global Slavery Index and International Labour Organisation). Please visit Global Slavery Index for more information and join the fight against modern slavery. Let us finish the work started by the Clapham Sect.
Global Slavery Index: https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2019/findings/foreword/
Recommendation: Watch the movie "Amazing Grace". A brilliant film that tells MP Wilberforce's story and the political struggle for the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
Cracking the 150 billion business of human trafficking by Forbes. 2020.
Hansard, 2020. Slave trade abolition bill. Access at: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1807/feb/10/slave-trade-abolition-bill
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University of York, 2020. Quakers and Slavery. Access at: https://www.york.ac.uk/borthwick/holdings/guides/research-guides/race/quakers-and-slavery/
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