Portrait of a black woman (1800) is a very special painting. It is one of the first portraits of real existing african person in western art. Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826)
African slavery became well established in European colonies, including French colonies, during the 17th century. African slavery was an important economic institution by the 18th century, especially important for the Caribbean sugar islands which were a major element in Western European economies. France lost most of its empire to the British, but retained important Caribbean islands. Liberty was a byword of the French Revolution as it had been in the American Revolution. But like the Americans, the leaders of the French Revolution did not move toward abolition. In America any step toward abolition during the Revolution or the framing of the Constitution would have meant disunion as it would have been unacceptable to the southern colonies. In France it appears to reelect the bourgeoise character of the Revolution and the economic importance of Caribbean slavery to the French economy. While France did not move toward abolition, the Revolution did have substantial reverberations, both in the Caribbean and in England which affected slavery. Neither the Revolutionaries or Napoleon moved toward abolition. Neither did the restored French monarchy after the Napoleonic Wars. This in fact posed a problem for Britain which after abolishing slavery gave the Royal Navy the task of ending the Atlantic slave trade.
A new outlet for African slaves appeared in the 15th century. Portuguese explorers began voyages south along the Atlantic coast of Africa. The Portuguese were looking for a route to Asia, but as they moved south they began setting up trading posts. First the Portuguese established trading posts along the coast of West Africa, but gradually moved further south along the coast. Other European maritime powers followed suit. This was the beginning of the African slave trade. The Europeans differed from the Arabs in that they did not normally conduct raids themselves, but usually bought slaves from Arab slave brokers and African chiefs. Europeans built trading post and forts all along the coast of West Africa. From Senegal south to Cameroons there were about 60 forts that served as trading posts for the slave trade. The Europeans exchanged rum, cloth, guns, and other trade goods for their human cargo. The slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean primarily to Brazil, the West Indies and the English colonies in North America. Immense fortunes were made in the trade. As the demand for slaves expanded, whole areas of Africa were depopulated. Scholars estimate that 10-15 million Africans were transported to the New World. The European African slave trade began during the mercantilist era. It continued well into the industrial era. In fact because African slaves played a major role in the industrial revolution in Europe. The immense profits from West Indian sugar islands helped to finance the industrial revolution. And the raw material for the first real modern industry, cotton textiles, was produced by slaves. The slave trade was finally ended by the Royl Navy in the mid-19th century.
Britain Before the Revolution
Attitudes toward slavery began to change in Britain after the American Revolution and the loss of the American colonies (1776-83). America had been Britain's principal colony. Its loss resulted in a review of imperial policies. British merchants were shocked to learn that they were making larger profits after the abolition of the mercantile system which had been established to regulate trade with America. This was rigid trade rules which had required the American colonies to only trade with Britain and restricted the development of manufacturing. As a result, the British moved toward free trade policies as postulated by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. The British also began to focus more on India, a prise won from France in the Seven Years War.
The Caribbean before the Revolution
The economy of the 18th century was fueled by Caribbean sugar, almost all of which was produced by slave labor. Sugar made even small islands of great economic importance. A large island like France's Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) was enormously profitable. This is not well understood today, because modern Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the worked. Data shows that at the time of the Revolution Saint-Domingue exports totaled about $20 million. This was about half of all French exports (1789). Notably exports from all of Britain's colonies was only about $10 million. Saint-Domingue alone produced about 40 percent of all the sugar and 60 percent of all the coffee (an increasingly important crop) consumed in Europe. Britain at the time was also the most important country involved in the Atlantic slave trade. French sugar planters were dependent on the British as a source of labor. About half of all the slaves imported into the British-controlled islands were then sold to the French colonies, most going to Saint-Domingue. In terms of power politics, the British slave trade was in effect strengthening the country's principal adversary--France.
British Abolition Movement
French Caribbean sugar production and the wealth it brought may have been a factor in leading Prime Minister William Pitt to encourage Wilberforce to move his first motion in Parliament calling for the abolition of the slave trade . The measure failed as Pitt failed to support it. It was, however, the beginning of the British abolition movement.
Amis des Noir
The French abolition movement began with the founding of the "Amis des Noir" (The Friends of the Blacks) just before the Revolution (1787). With the outbreak of the Revolution, the Friends became the principal group advocating abolition. The Friends basic argument was that The Rights of Man, the essence of the French Revolution, applied to all people. As part of the complicated politics of the Revolution, they plunged into the controversial issue of equal and full rights of citizenship for all free people of color in Saint-Domingue. Amis des Noir is believed to have gad about 0.5 million members. They faced the powerful Massiac Club, the well-financed voice of the French planters and maritime French bourgeoise. [Cooper]
The Revolution (1789)
Financial problems forced King Louis XVI to call the Estates General. This set in motion a series of unforeseen events. The Estates General did not prove to be a compliant assemblage and their sessions soon spun beyond the ability of Louis to control. The French Revolution erupted in Paris with the storming of the Bastille (July 1789). The force of the events which flowed from the initial action in France have led historians to refer to it as THe Revolution. The American Revolution is often given short shift by European historians. It is the French Revolution which is the turning point in European history. It sent shockwaves which were to end feudalism in France and eventually other countries and lead to the decline of monarchial government in Eruope. The Revolution also promoted the rise of nationalist sentiments which would mark 19th and 20th century events.
Impact on Britain
The British were at first unsure as to how to respond to the Revolution. Unlike Austria, there was no rush to support King Louis XVI. The British adopted a kind of semi-neutral position. Prime Minister Pitt at first saw opportunities in Britain's century-old struggle with France. The British in particular saw an opportunity to acquire more of France's colonies. Just as the French had attempted to use the American Revolution to weaken Britain, the British saw opportunities with the French Revolution. Others were interested in seeing a British-style constitutional monarchy emerge in France. ’ based on the British model. British attitudes began to shift as the Revolution began more radical and violent. The modest bourgeois movement began to spin out of control as the Paris sans-culottes mobs began to drive the revolutionary process. The Revolutionary ethis of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ caused profound disquiet in Britain even among the bourgeois.
French Caribbean Colonies (1789-91)
News of the French Revolution had an electrifying effect, especially in the French colonies. While slaves may have had an imperfect knowledge of the course of events, the Revolutionary slogan ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ was not difficult to understand. There were uprisings in both Guadeloupe and Martinique, but they were suppressed by the French authorities (1789). These were small islands. The core of France's much reduced empire at the time was Saint-Domingue. French settlers on Saint-Domingue differed as regards the development in France. This split was largely between the ‘small whites’ and the large plantation owners. The immediate issue was over the status of free mulattoes (mixed-race people). Some mulattoes even owned plantations and slaves themselves. The ‘small whites’ generally opposed any movement toward equal legal rights for the mulattoes. The small whites were not wealthy. Their social status was based on race. The slaves gradually learned of events in France and divisions among whites on the island, giving some home that their condition might improve. French Republican soldiers arrived on Saint-Domingue (March 1791). They embraced the principles of the Revolution and declared that and declared all men free and equal. The Revolutionary Government had not, however, abolished slavery.
France's new Revolutionary Government, the National Assembly, considered both feudalism and slavery. Feudalism was easy. By ending feudalism, Revolutionary authorities undercut the aristocracy and strengthened the bourgeois elements that backed the Revolution. Slavery was an entirely different matter. slavery was a very difficult problem for the Revolution. How were they to deal with slave ownership. The Assembly faced a wrenching choice. Clearly the principle of the Revolution led unquestionably to abolition. But the Revolution was under attack from powerful external and internal enemies. Organizing the armies of the Republic had to be financed and massive amounts of fiunds were needed. Freeing the slaves meant the destruction of major sources of funds. First the vast income from sugar exports. Second income from the slave trade. [Cooper] In the end the slave revolt and the Royal Navy would end both, but these were the stark options considered by the Assembly. And there were the personal interests of the Assembly delegate, It was the French bourgeoisie that had benefitted from the slave trade and sugar exports. Thus conservative Revolutionaries, especially the maritime opposed abolition. Even radical Revolutionaries hesitated because of the importance of sugar exports and respect for property. The sans-culottes, however, pushed for abolition. The issue rose to the surface as a result of news from Saint-Domingue. French settlers there arrested a spokesman for the island's mullato population. His name was Ogé. Settler tortured and murdered him. When this news reached Paris, Ogé became a hero of the sans-culottes. The most radical faction of the National Assembly was led by Robespierre. In a speech before the National Assembly during debates on the colonial question, he challenged thee delegates, "You urge without ceasing the Rights of Man, but you believe in them so little you have sanctified slavery constitutionally". He was not, however, demanding abolition. The Assembly debated the colonial question for 4 days. Finally they decided that every person of mixed-race whose parents were both free should be declared free. This in reality avoided the central issue of slavery, It affected very few people, only about 400 individuals.
Haitian Slave Revolt and Independence Struggle (1791-1803)
The National Assembly in Paris had a major impact on the direction of events on Saint-Domingue (1789-94). First the white settlers were driven toward succession from France because of the modest victories of abolitionist forces. The reaction on Saint-Domingue to the National Assembly's decision on the status of mulattos was an outburst of violence. Settlers ran riot. They lynched mullatoes they could lay their hands on and n=burned the Tri-Color flag of the Republic. Seemingly unconsidered was the reaction of slaves which constituted the great bulk of the population. Unlike North America where slaves were a minority, even in the South, the white and mulatto population on Saint-Domingue was very small. THe slaves, however, had some knowledge of events in France and were quietly organizing. The slave revolt that took place exhibited a surprising degree of planning given the restrictions on the slaves limited their movement and activities. Thousands of slaves were involved in the initial revolt (1791). The fact that there was no leak from such a large group is one indicator of organization. The insurrections killed their masters and their families and burned the plantations to the ground. This in effect destroyed the foundation on which a national economy could be based, but the slaves were motivated by a desire to destroy slavery not to build a nation. Toussaint L’Ouverture quickly joined the insurrectionists and emerged as a powerful leader. He organized unruly bands into an actual army. This was the beginning of a 12 year struggle for liberty. The slaves not only defeated the white settlers, but invading British, Spanish, and French armies. The Haitian Revolution is one of the few successful slave rebellions in history. This long complicate revolutionary struggle carried on by the slaves of Saint-Domingue finally ended with freedom and the founding of the Republic of Haiti (January 1, 1804).
It was a slave revolt on Jamaica that ultimately undercut opposition in Britain the abolition and ending the slave trade.
Parliament legally abolished slavery throughout the empire with passage of the Emancipation of Slaves Act (1833).
It was the Royal Navy that eventually ended the slave trade. The slave trade had been a lynch pin in thr triangular trade that has been a key element of the British economy and helped bring great wealth to Britain. It had in part helped to finance the growth of the Royal Navy. The expansion of the British merchant fleet under the protection of the Royal Navy resulted in Britain dominating the slave trade by the 18th century. British ships beginning about 1650 are believed to have transported as many as 4 million Africans to the New World and slavery. The British Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars banned the slave trade (1807). This was a decision made on moral grounds after a long campaign in Britain against slavery at considerable cost at a time of War. After Trafalgar (1805) the powerful British Royal Navy could intercept suspected slave ships under belligerent rights. After the cessation of hostilities this became more complicated. The only internationally recognized reason for boarding foreign ships was suspected piracy. Thus Britain had to pursue a major diplomatic effort to convince other countries to sign anti-slavery treaties which permitted the Royal Navy to board their vessels if suspected of transporting slaves. Nearly 30 countries eventually signed these treaties. The anti-slavery effort required a substantial effort on the part of the Royal Navy. The major effort was carried out by the West Coast of Africa Station which the Admiralty referred to as the ‘preventive squadron’. The Royal Navy from this station for 50 years conducted operations to intercept slavers. At the peak of these operations about 25 ships and 2,000 officers and men were deployed. There were about 1,000 Kroomen, African sailors, operating West African Station. The Royal Navy deployed smaller, shallow draft vessels so that slavers could be pursued in shallow waters. Britain also targeted African leaders who engaged in the slave trade. A British forced in one operation deposed the King of Lagos (1851). The climate and exposure to filthy diseased laden slave ships made the West African station dangerous. The officers and men were rewarded with Prize money for both freeing slaves and capturing the ships. The Royal Navy's task in East Africa and the Indian Ocean was even more difficult. This was in part because of the support for slavery among Islamic powers (both Arabian and Persian). The slave trade persisted into the 1860s, in part because of the continued existence of slavery in the United states. Even though the slave trade was outlawed in America, the American Navy was not used to aggressively restrict the slave trade. This did not change until President Lincoln signed the Right of Search Treaty in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. The Cuban trade ended (1866).
American Civil War (1861-65)
Slave produced cotton was America's principal export commodity. It was imported by textile producers in Britain and France. America had about 4 four million slaves of whom about 60 were employed on cotton plantations. Many British industrialists wanted the Government to support the South. Prince's Albert's final gift to the British nation before his untimely death was to recommend against that. British industrial workers sided with the slaves despite the personal cost as a result of the Norther blockade of the South.
Cooper, Anna Julia. Slavery and the French Revolution, 1788-1805 (The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988). Translated with forward and introductory essay by Frances Richardson Keller. Anna Julia Cooper is as interesting as her book. She was born into slavery in the United States just before the Civil War (1859). At the age 66 she presented her study as her doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris (1925).