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One of civilization’s bleak moments in history is the slavery incident that continues to be an embarrassment for the nations that were involved in it almost two centuries after the official abolishment of the slavery institution in most nations. While slavery is mostly attributed to the colonies in the Americas whose plantation heavily relied on the manual labor provided by the slaves, European country such as Britain and France also made use of African slaves in their home soils.
As such, slaves where present in Britain and most of them were used as household servants as opposed to their North American counterparts who worked in the plantations. The Institute of slavery had various social, economic and political implications for both the African slaves and their White masters.
While the masters sought to maintain their proprietorship of the slaves whom they considered to be their assets, the slaves were determined to obtain their freedom. In addition to this two opposing forces, there was the rise of an abolitionist movement in Britain in the 18th century. All this factors resulted in the ultimate abolishment of slavery in Britain by Parliament, which in 1834 outright abolished slavery in the British Empire.
The abolitionist movement and the Black slaves of Britain both played a role in the ultimate abolishment of slavery in Britain. While the role of the abolitionist movement in the eventual demise of slavery is applauded, that of the Black people in English society is hugely ignored. Lorimer asserts that the role of Black resistance in ending slavery was not only monumental but may in fact have a role rivaling that of abolitionists in ending slavery in England (58).
This paper shall set out to investigate the merit to this argument advanced by Lorimer that the Black slaves of England played a critical role in catalyzing the eventual abolishment of slavery in the British Empire. The paper shall review other credible sources so as to ascertain if they concur with Lorimer’s claims.
Slavery, a Definition
Slavery in Britain was defined as perpetual servitude for the black population and their progeny. The major factor that led to the need for slaves was the labor deficit in Britain and especially in her colonies. While there existed indentured servants and white laborers in both Britain and the colonies, Vickers asserts that “No British colony every founded a successful society on the basis of free white labor” (2).
This strong declaration highlights the fact that slavery was at the onset solely focused on the labor needs that the white population was incapable of providing for on their own. Some of the Black slaves who came to Britain were brought by their masters who were impressed by their services in the colonies and therefore wished to retain them on the Britain mainland.
Arguments Supporting Lorimer’s Claims
One of the arguments given by Lorimer is that the Black slaves in England used the legal avenue to hasten their freedom. The famous Somerset case which involved a slave from Virginia who on arrival to England had deserted his master only to be apprehended and placed on a ship bound for the colonies is especially quoted as being a landmark case in the fight for freedom by the slaves.
This is because the ruling by judge Mansfield greatly weakened the slavery institute by his statement that “slavery could only be introduced by positive law” (Maclachlan 10). Lorimer notes that the decision to go to court by Somerset to object his being deported to Jamaica resulted in the disambiguation of the law as with regard to the full rights of ownership of slaves by their masters (Lorimer 65).
This with other slave resistances forced the issue before the courts, therefore, exposing the vulnerability of the slave owners and the lack of legal basis to protect their rights to ownership. The decision to acquit Somerset by Judge Mansfield accentuated the limitation of the slave owners in controlling their slaves.
This slave led initiative set precedence to other cases as well as encouraged the slaves to run away from their masters since they knew that there was no legal basis for them to be apprehended and taken back to their masters. From this, it is evident that the slaves played a major role in hastening the ultimate abolishment of slavery by their actions.
In his writing, Lorimer advances that religion played a major role in the attainment of freedom by the slaves. He reveals that Black slaves used religion as a basis for their obtaining freedom. Lorimer notes that free Blacks encouraged the new coming slaves to be baptized into the religion so as to avoid being re-enslaved since being a “heathen” was grounds for enslavement (60). By doing this, Lorimer extrapolates that the Blacks were responsible for the freedom of many of their kin.
This reasoning is corroborated by Brown who documents that the antislavery pioneer, Granville Sharp, blamed the problems that Britain was experiencing as God’s wrath against England for its involvement in the slave trade (528). With this reasoning, the conversion of enslaved men and women to Christianity became grounds for being freed.
Lorimer argues that the Black slaves of Britain, therefore, manipulated religion to their own end which resulted in many of them being freed without the direct assistance of the abolitionists. As such, while religion played a role in their freedom, it is the manipulation of the same by the Blacks that resulted in their freedom.
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Lorimer states that Blacks were subjected to discrimination as a result of their skin color. While racism was never the original cause of slavery, it came about as a result of slavery. Grigg suggests that racism sprung from an irrational hatred for those who were different because of their skin color (Grigg 255). Africanus states that the Negro was exposed to prejudices unlike those suffered by any other race (3). In the mind of the British slave owners, black was associated with negative connotations such as evil.
This notion of evilness and barbarism by Africans was further reinforced by the perceived savagery and heathenism of Africans in the African continent. It was also easier on the conscience to lord over a race of people who were perceived to be inferior and therefore not deserving to be treated as equals.
Christianity also played a part in advancing racism as the clergy used the bible to legitimize belief in black inferiority. The Britons who were by the large a religious people therefore believed that perpetuation of slavery was of sound biblical standing. As such, the Blacks belonged to the lowest social class and their sole purpose was to serve their white masters for life.
Lorimer states that the freed slaves were responsible for the formation of modern civilization in parts of West Africa, for example, Sierra Leone. He claims that the free blacks who were repatriated to Sierra Leone were a potent political and social force in the African motherland (75). Brown reveals that some African preachers indeed saw West Africa as the “New Zion” where the now freed slaves would return to bring civilization and the gospel to their motherland (531).
However, not all freed slaves viewed repatriation as a good option and many of them chose to remain in Britain as laborers since they feared being re-enslaved on returning to Africa. This resulted in some of the slaves opting to stay in Britain as free men and women. The argument by Lorimer that the Black ex-slaves played a huge role in Africa is corroborated by Brown who notes that their activism resulted in social change (531).
Arguments Against Lorimer’s Claims
The move towards eventual abolishment of slavery can be proposed to have started with the ending of the transatlantic trade. This is because it is the transatlantic trade that led to a vast importation of slaves from Africa into Britain. Quirk notes that the anti-slavery pioneers in Britain fought valiantly for the ending of Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic trade (535). This was from recognition on their part that so long as the trade persisted, it would be impossible to effectively tackle the slavery issue in Britain.
Their dedication paid off with the eventual end of the slave trade which led to a decrease in the number of slaves in Britain. After this, the abolitionists concentrated on abolishing the slavery institute itself. These facts negate Lorimer’s claim that the actions of the Black slaves in Britain were the force that resulted in an eventual end of slavery. The slaves did not play any part in lobbying for the end of the transatlantic trade which was the natural precursor to the calls for an end to slavery.
If the Transatlantic trade had been allowed to continue undeterred, it is unlikely that there would have been a move towards abolishing slavery. As such, it would be erroneous to attribute the end of slavery in Britain to the Blacks who played a minimal role as compared to the abolitionists.
While Lorimer notes that there was a general move towards the abolition of slavery in Britain, there also existed strong parties who supported slavery and viewed it as critical to Britain’s economic well being and military superiority. One such proponent of Slavery, Albert, in a letter to the then Right Honorable William Pitt forcefully stated that if abolishment of slave trade succeeded, Britain would suffer immeasurable losses in her Marine influence and public revenue both at home and in her colonies (5).
It is highly implausible that the Black slaves (educated or not) could have defended themselves against the articulate arguments made by the proponents of slavery in Britain. For example, Alfred in his letter to the Honorable William Pitt made a passionate appeal that the abolition of slavery was tantamount to “domestic cruelty” to the great people of Britain (11).
Against such well-read and passionate slave trade advocate, the sole actions of the Black slaves in Britain would have had little effect in swaying public opinion to their favor. However, some of the arguments presented by the pro-slavery advocate were out rightly absurd. For example, Alfred advanced that an end in the slave trade would result in the inevitable death of the slave at the various slave coasts as a result of the lack of a purchaser (12).
This argument is weak since it blatantly overlooks the fact that the Africans lived in a sustainable environment and did not require to be sold off as slaves so as to survive. All in all, the appeal that proponents of slavery made to the well being of Britain even if at the expense of the African slaves resonated with majority of the population and without the help of the White abolitionists, the Africans would not have succeeded in their calls for freedom.
One of the factors that resulted in an end to slavery was the new prominence with which man’s natural state of freedom was viewed. This resulted in most people in the society viewing slavery as repugnant in nature and a gross violation of man’s natural state of freedom (Maclachlan 5). With such sentiments being held by the society, the judicial system began to be sympathetic to slaves and rule in their favor.
Lorimer reveals that up until this point, slave owners in Britain had been confident in the sympathy of the legal establishment to their causes (64). However, all this changed following the “age of enlightenment” in which many civilized European nations actively supported the concept of individual liberty and by extension, favored the total abolishment of slavery (Maclachlan 6). The freedom of the Blacks in Britain was therefore a result of this change in opinion concerning the institute of slavery.
This is what resulted in the favorable results that the slaves had in court. This being the case, the fact that the slaves took their grievances to court which favorable results was a result of the change in community’s view of slavery.
Lorimer’s suggests that the Blacks played a major role in bringing about their freedom by presenting their cases to the courts and making appealing arguments. While it is true that the Blacks did rely on the judicial system to air their grievances, the positive response was as a result of the changing perception on slavery by the society in general.
Brown notes that the fact that Christianity played a role in the abolishment of slavery is somewhat contradictory considering the fact that it was the Christian Europe that had devised and carried out the infamous transatlantic slave trade (26). This is contrary to the thoughts advanced by Lorimer that Christianity was the benevolent force behind abolishment of slavery.
The slavery institute was credited for the expansion of Christianity throughout America and as a matter of fact, Christian religious leaders were in fact responsible for providing the ideological support for the institution of slavery (Brown 518). Maclachlan documents that the Europeans involved in slave trade could “fall back on the notion that slaves would be compensated for a life of cruel drudgery by the benefits of the Christian faith” (1). As such, the church was in fact responsible for the growth of slavery.
Cugoano laments that in the land where Christianity was planted, and where one would have expected the virtues and harmony that epitomize the religion to be evident, there was “bramble of ruffians, barbarians and slave holders, grown up to a powerful luxuriance in wickedness” (24). In addition to this, religion was manipulated to ensure that the slaves acted as their masters wished. Brown reveals that some priests taught that a yearning for liberty was a vice and that wrongdoing among the slaves could result in eternal damnation (522).
While Christian religion did play a positive role in slavery, this role was mostly restricted to the improvement of the treatment of slaves and not the overthrow of the slavery system. However, the close association between Christian missionaries and the slaves did result in the creation of bonds and the missionaries became sympathetic to the cause of the slaves. This eventually led to a denouncing of slavery as a violation of divine law and therefore a sin.
The arguments presented by Lorimer almost entirely fail to acknowledge the role that slaves played in the Britain economy. A letter from Innes, a West-India Merchant, stated that the abolishment of the slave trade would result in mass unemployment to ship builders, manufactures and other people whose work somehow associated with slaves (19).
Slaves were seen as a means to an end and their role in the plantations was significant. Abolishing slavery would deprive Britain of the much-needed labor force. With such huge consequences at hand, the Black slaves could not bring about their own freedom since their freedom would have been equal to the economic doom of the British Empire. It was only through the aid of British philanthropists and the abolitionist movement that the right to freedom by the slaves was given any consideration.
While Lorimer does not discount the role that abolitionists played in ending slavery, he theorizes that slave insubordination and desertion in the 1760s resulted in the virtual disappearance of slavery in England by the end of the 18th century. This is a false deduction since in the colonies such as America were the abolitionist movement was not as vocal, the slaves were subjected to harsh repercussions that made insubordination and desertion very risky affairs.
In the America colonies, slave codes which were a body of colonial and state laws that dealt with how the slaves were governed in colonial America were en enacted resulting in a comprehensive code for their overall control of slaves. Slave codes were mostly motivated by the fear that followed the Negro insurrection of 1712 whereby slaves revolted against the harsh and unjust treatment that they were subjected to. Slave codes by the large imposed even greater limits to the already limited rights of the African Slaves.
The Fugitive Slave Act enacted in 1793 gave the federal and colonial authorities the power to arrest any suspected deserting slaves (Connors). This law legitimized the seizing of alleged The authorities were therefore empowered to issue warrants for the arrests and subsequent return to the original owner of any African-American who was suspected to be an escaped slave. The law also made the aiding and abetting of a runaway slave a federal crime that was punishable by law.
This law licensed the exercise of violence against the alleged escaped slave. Whipping, branding and dismemberment of runaway slaves were therefore legitimized mostly to act as deterrence to the slave population. In almost all cases, the slave codes were detrimental to the interests of the slaves. Undoubtedly, if such laws were in place in Britain, slaves would not have engaged in their insubordinate behavior or even dared to desert their masters due to the legal ramifications that they would have been subjected to.
Lorimer represents the Black slaves as a benevolent peace loving people wronged by the system. Lorimer indicates that the Blacks rebellion was in the form of resisting the master’s authority by bargaining for wages (70). This depiction of the slaves as a peaceful people is refuted by the letter from Innes who records that there were numerous rebellions of the Negroes both in the colonies and in the motherland after talk of their being made free was known (27).
In addition to this, the freed slaves who returned to Africa were accused of corrupting the morals of the native black community, therefore, resulting in a lot of social discourse. This acts of violence and social mayhem run contrary to the image of the Black slave that Lorimer paints through his essay.
Both the Black slaves in Britain and the abolitionist movement played a role in the eventual abolition of slavery in Great Britain. However, the role of the White abolitionist was monumental in advancing the cause for the slaves.
Before the freedom of the Blacks could be achieved in Britain, there had to be a will by the society to make this happen. Philmore, one of the advocates for the abolitionist movement, made a strong case for the Blacks by stating that the black skinned and white skinned being all belonged to the same human race (7).
Such appeals resulted in a shift in view of blacks as inferior to a view of Blacks as equals and hence deserving of decent treatment as fellow human beings. The decline in slavery also resulted from the erosion of support for forced labor by the society which led to a negative view of the slave owners (Maclachlan 1). This being the case, the arguments advanced by Lorimer fail to give the necessary significance on these social changes which played a major role in the ending of slavery.
While the aims of the abolitionists may not always have been noble, it is clear that they are the people who made it possible for the Black slaves in Britain to eventually obtain their freedom. Through their valiant calls for the abolishment of slave trade and subsequently slavery, the abolitionists brought about the freedom of the Black slaves.
The abolitionists also printed out pamphlets and other material which was aimed at sensitizing the public on the evils of slavery. It can be hypothesized that this increased awareness on the plight of the slaves was what resulted in the ending of slavery. Maclachlan advances that this awareness resulted in the birth of the notion that slavery “constituted a relic of the barbarous past” which modern Europe could no longer identify with (6).
However, this is not to say that Blacks did not play a role in attaining their freedom. The blacks also contributed to the publicizing of their plights by going to court. This together with their insubordinate behavior and an increase in the frequency of their deserting of their masters resulted in having a slave being a liability to the master. The blacks also supported the moves by the abolitionists and together, they brought about the eventual end of slavery in Britain.
This paper set out to investigate the merit to Lorimer’s argument that the Black slaves of England played a critical role in catalyzing the eventual abolishment of slavery in the British Empire. From the discussions presented herein, it can authoritatively be stated that the role of Blacks in bringing about the abolishment of slavery is only secondary to that of the Whites.
This is because the White abolitionists played the more significant role of bringing about the end of the slave trade and raising social awareness of the plight of the slaves, therefore, obtaining the freedom for the slaves. By relying on authoritative sources for support, this paper has shown that the Black slaves in England could not have achieved much if they did not have the support of the abolitionists.
As such, history is justified in accentuating the actions of the abolitionists. However, the part that Blacks played in the abolishment of slavery however minimal should not be disregarded. As such, historians should endeavor to give the little credit that is due to the Blacks as Lorimer insists in his essay.
Africanus. “Remarks on the slave trade, and the Slavery of the Negroes. In a series of letters.” Eighteenth Century Collections Online. London, 1788.
Alfred. “Letters of Alfred, to the Right Honourable William Pitt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and first Lord of the Treasury, upon the important subject of the slave trade in general; but, referring particularly to his speech, as printed, of the 2d of April, 1792.” Eighteenth Century Collections Online. London, 1793.
Brown, Christopher Leslie. “Christianity and the campaign against slavery and the salve trade.” Cambridge Histories Online, 2006.
Connors, Tiffany. How the Underground Railroad Worked. 2008. Web.
Cugoano, Ottobah. “Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species, humbly submitted to the inhabitants of Great-Britain, by Ottobah Cugoano, A Native of Africa.” Eighteenth Century Collections Online. London, 1787.
Grigg, John. British Colonial America: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO, 2008.
Innes, William. “The slave-Trade indispensable: in answer to the speech of William Wilberforce, Esq. on the 13th of May, 1789. By a West-India-Merchant.” Eighteenth Century Collections Online. London, 1790.
Lorimer, Douglas. Black Resistance to slavery and racism in Eighteen-century England.
Maclachlan, Colin M. “Slavery, Ideology, and Institutional Change: The Impact of the Enlightenment on Slavery in Late Eighteenth-Century Maranhao.” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1979.
Philmore, J. Two Dialogues on the Man-Trade. London: Charing-Cross, 1760.
Quirk, Joel. “Ending Slavery in all its Forms: Legal Abolition and Effective Emancipation in Historical Perspective.” International Journal of Human Rights 12, no. 4. December, 2008.