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Arguments and Justifications

Election Pamphlet by the Abolition Society 1831

What were the arguments of the pro-slavery lobby?

The pro-slavery lobby put forward a number of arguments to defend the trade and show how important it was to Britain:

  • The trade was necessary to the success and wealth of Britain. The merchants and planters warned that abolition would mean ruin for Britain, as the whole economy would collapse. This argument was put forward many times, for example, in 1749, when a pamphlet was written outlining these agruments.
  • If Britain did not engage in the trade then others would. If Britain ceased to trade in slaves with Africa, our commercial rivals, the French and the Dutch, would soon fill the gap and the Africans would be in a much worse situation. This was an argument used in a speech to parliament in 1777.
  • Africa was already involved in slavery. They stated that Africans enslaved each other. Indeed, Britain was engaged in a moral trade because they were helping people, captured in African wars, who may otherwise be executed. 
  • Taking Africans from their homeland actually benefited them.  They argued that African societies and cultures were unskilled, uneducated and savage. For example, Michael Renwick Sergant, a merchant from Liverpool claimed: ‘We ought to consider whether the negroes in a well regulated plantation, under the protection of a kind master, do not enjoy as great, nay, even greater advantages than when under their own despotic governments'. In his publication 'The history of the British West Indies' (published 1819), Mr Edwards also uses this argument when he describes a woman who said she prefered Jamaica to Guninea as people were not killed there. Here the extract.
  • The enslaved people were unfit for other work. Many people were very prejudiced in their beliefs. Many ordinary people in Britain were uneducated and travelled little further than their own village, making it easier for those involved in the trade to influence public opinion.
  • The enslaved people were not ill-treated unless rebellious. Conditions on the slave ships were acceptable.  Several of those involved in the trade, merchants, ships' captains and plantation owners, provided evidence to parliament regarding this. One example is the report of Mr. Norris to the privy council in 1789.
  • Slavery was accepted in the bible. The pro-slavery supporters used the bible to suggest that the Slave Trade was tolerated and approved of by God in the days of Abraham. In a book by an unknown author - The Negro and the Free Born Briton compared; or a vindication of the African slave trade 1790 - the author argued that slavery was lawful from a religious, political and commercial view.

What were Arguments of the anti-slavery lobby?

The anti-slavery society countered the claims of the pro-slavery lobby by providing evidence to disprove the arguments: 

  • There were alternatives to the trade. Much of the evidence that Thomas Clarkson collected during his travels illustrated  the potential for practical alternatives. The seeds, minerals and crafts that he carried in 'the Clarkson box' were used to demonstrate this.
  • If something is wrong, it is wrong whether others do it or not. The anti-slavery supporters argued that just because other countries engaged in the trade this did not provide a valid reason for Britain to also participate, even if it was profitable. This argument was used by Baron Grenville in his speech to the House of Lords when he said, "...Can there be a question that the character of the country ought to be cleared from the stain impressed by the guilt of such traffic,..."   The argument was also cleverly countered in William Cowper's Poem 'A Pity for Poor Africans'.
  • The slavery that existed in Africa was very different from the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  Those enslaved in Africa were usually prisoners of war or victims of political or judicial punishment. The enslaved people could keep their name and identity and slavery did not extend to future generations. 
  • The African people were in no way inferior and should be treated as equals. The Quaker teacher, Anthony Benezet, was always horrified at the suggestion that the Africans were in anyway inferior. His claimed his experiences, gained during 20 years teaching black pupils, proved this was not the case. However, it was the books and speeches of African writers of the time, such as Olaudah Equiano, that had the greatest impact in dispelling such misconceptions. Even some of those involved in the slave trade were willing to admit that raciest views were wrong, as illustrated by the writings of Captain Thomas Philips
  • The trade was damaging to Africa. William Wilberforce summed this up in his speech of 1789: "...Does anyone suppose a slave trade would help their civilization? Is it not plain, that she must suffer from it?  ....Does not everyone see that a slave trade, carried on around her coasts, must carry violence and desolation to her very centre?... Does the king of Barbess want brandy? He has only to send his troops in the night time, to burn and desolate a village; the captives will serve as commodities that may be bartered with the British trader."
  • The Africans suffered greatly from being removed from their homeland.  They collected evidence to show that many resisted or preferred death to transportation. Many more died on the voyage to the Caribbean. Conditions on the ships were terrible, as illustrated and the speech made by William Wilberforce to parliament in 1789 and by testimony from people like ship's doctor James Ramsay . The replacement rate statistics also showed the appallingly low life expectancy of slaves on the plantations (7-9 years on some large plantations).
  • It was morally wrong and, as a Christian country, Britain should not be involved. The anti-slavery society also used the bible to back up their arguments. They pointed to biblical text like Luke 16:13: "No man can serve two masters" . In answer to the claims of the pro-slavery lobby, Granville Sharp, for example, wrote in his pamphlet 'The just limitation of slavery in the Laws of God': "...If we carefully examine the scriptures we shall find that slavery and oppression were ever abominable in the sight of God..."

Audio Library - Proslavery Arguments
Audio Library - Anit-Slavery Arguments

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