restricted access Six. Abolition and Imperialism: International Law and the British Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade
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150 s i x Abolition and Imperialism International Law and the British Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade R o bi n L aw T h e c o n n e c t i o n between abolition and imperialism has various aspects. Most obviously, the cause of abolition of the slave trade was subsequently co-opted in justification of the European partition of Africa, notably at the Congress of Brussels in 1890.1 At a more fundamental level, it can be argued that the abolitionist project was in an important sense inherently imperialist, since it involved a proposed alternative course for the development of Africa, and thus implicitly asserted a supposed responsibility and right of Europeans to decide the future of that continent.2 And finally, the British suppression of the slave trade was in practice carried out, in part, by “imperialist” methods, that is, by coercion and intimidation of other states—albeit normally by techniques of “informal imperialism,” rather than actual annexation.3 This chapter focuses on a particular dimension of this last aspect: the tendency of the British campaign for the suppression of the slave trade to adopt methods that were in breach of international law (or, in the more usual contemporary parlance, the law of nations).The best-known instances of this propensity to illegality related to other European and American nations, in particular the unilateral British decisions to arrest suspected slave ships belonging to Portugal (1839) and to make such seizures within Brazilian national waters (1850).4 But the abolitionist 151 International Law and the British Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade campaign also came to involve a systematic encroachment on the sovereignty of states in Africa. This issue has attracted little scholarly attention hitherto, apart from a brief but valuable treatment by David Eltis (1987).5 The issue is discussed in this chapter with primary reference to two interrelated episodes in the British campaign to suppress the slave trade, on the section of the West African coast known as the Bight of Benin: the naval blockade of Ouidah, the port of the kingdom of Dahomey (in the modern Republic of Benin), and the military intervention in the coastal state of Lagos (in Nigeria), both in 1851–52. Earlier discussions of these incidents have not generallygivenanyprominencetotheissuesofinternationallawwhich they raised,6 but this aspect seems critical to their long-term significance. Principles and Precedents The issue of African sovereignty became critical for British policy when the campaign to suppress the slave trade moved from a focus on action on the demand side (closing down the demand for slaves in the Americas ) to the supply side (shutting off the supply of slaves from Africa), a development that of course reflected frustration at the failure of earlier measures to end the trade.The shift in policy owed much to the leading abolitionist,Thomas Fowell Buxton, who from 1838 lobbied the government for the adoption of a more positive African policy, submitting the detailed proposal subsequently published as The African Slave Trade and Its Remedy. Buxton’s main emphasis was on the promotion of exports of agricultural produce from Africa as a substitute for the slave trade, but he also proposed, as “preparatory measures,” the negotiation of treaties for the abolition of the slave trade with African states and more effective naval action to prevent ships embarking slaves.7 The idea of such treaties was not altogether new: there were precedents in British policy in the Indian Ocean, where treaties abolishing or restricting the slave trade had been made with the king of Imerina, in Madagascar, in 1817 and the sultan of Muscat in 1822, and already in February 1838 a memorandum drawn up in the Slave Trade Department of the Foreign Office had suggested extending the treaty system to cover “the whole line of the coast of Africa.”8 The proposed strengthening of naval patrols also raised questions of relations with African states, since the means envisaged included the pursuit and arrest of suspected slave ships close to the shore or within navigable rivers rather than cruising out at sea,and this implied the entry 152 Robin Law of British warships into their national waters—conventionally defined as extending three miles offshore (the range of cannons). In August 1838 the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, sought advice from the queen’s advocate, the government’s senior legal adviser, as to whether British warships could take such action “without regard to any supposed rights of the native states in whose...


Subject Headings

  • Slave trade -- Great Britain -- Colonies -- America -- History.
  • Imperialism -- Social aspects -- Great Britain.
  • Slave trade -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Antislavery movements -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Slave trade -- Africa -- History.
  • Great Britain -- Colonies -- History.
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