the early 1660s, when the events described
in Behn's Oroonoko (NAEL 8, 1.2183)
are supposed to have taken place, England was
not yet a major power in the slave trade. Portugal
had been actively engaged in the traffic in
African slaves for more than two centuries;
Spain had built a lucrative sugar empire by
importing slave labor to the New World; and
as early as the 1560s, the English captain
John Hawkins had plundered slaves from Africa
and Latin America. But only in 1660, when Charles
II helped found a new company, the Royal Adventurers
into Africa, did England fully enter the trade.
The first ships took slaves from the African
Gold Coast (Guinea) to Surinam and Barbados,
a flourishing sugar island in the Caribbean;
by the early eighteenth century, the leading
colony for sugar and slaves was Jamaica. The
trade continued to grow. In 1713 Great Britain
was awarded the contract (asiento) to
import slaves to the Spanish Indies, and the
South Sea Company, which bought the contract,
excited frenzied speculation. This was a risky
business, but the profits could be immense.
Bristol, then Liverpool, developed into prosperous
slave ports, trading manufactured goods to
Africa for human cargo, which crossed the Atlantic
on ships that returned to England with sugar
and money. By the 1780s, when Britain shipped
a third of a million slaves to the New World,
the national economy depended on the trade.
human cost was terrible. Though slavery in
Africa had long been common, the deadly voyage — the
Middle Passage — across the Atlantic
made it something unfamiliar, brutal, unendurable.
Torn from their homes, slaves were often packed
into spaces too small to allow them to turn,
with barely enough food and drink and air to
keep them alive. It is estimated that 10 percent,
on average, died on each crossing; on a bad
voyage the figure might rise above 30 percent.
Revolts and mutinies were common, though seldom
successful (since the slaves had nowhere to
go), and were ruthlessly punished. Nor did
those slaves who survived the crossing feel
fortunate for long. On the labor-intensive
Caribbean sugar plantations, so many died that
new shiploads were constantly needed (the situation
was different in North America, where slaves
lived on to reproduce and grow in numbers).
Black people also lost their ties to the cultures
in which they had been born. Mixed together
from different regions of Africa, without a
common language or background, they came to
be identified merely by the color of their
skin. It was convenient for owners of slaves
to regard them as less than human.
loss of humanity rebounded on Britain as well.
The English had long regarded themselves as
a people uniquely devoted to liberty, whose
spirit was embodied in the rights of Magna
Carta (1215). James Thomson spoke for patriotic
pride in the chorus of "Rule, Britannia" (NAEL
8, 1.2840): "Rule, Britannia, rule
the waves; / Britons never will be slaves." But
British rule meant slavery for others. The
deep contradictions of this position were reflected
in the political philosophy of John Locke and
the interpretations of law by William Blackstone.
Some Britons avoided shame by arguing that
slavery had uplifted negroes, since it had
introduced them to Christianity and civilization;
one African American poet, Phillis Wheatley,
expressed her gratitude for this conversion.
But many Britons were troubled. Humanitarian
feelings grew in strength throughout the later
eighteenth century. A famous, sentimental exchange
of letters between the black
writer Ignatius Sancho and Laurence Sterne,
the author of Tristram Shandy, displays
their mutual sympathy for the victims of the
slave trade. Such cruelty was a libel on human
By the 1780s a wave of abolitionist fervor
swept through Great Britain, led by the Quakers
and, in Parliament, by William Wilberforce
(1759–1833). The Society for the Abolition
of the Slave Trade, founded in 1787, inspired
many abolitionist poets to join the campaign.
A few years later the French Revolution, and
the wars that followed, caused a conservative
backlash in Britain. Boswell, who had earlier
argued the case for slavery against Samuel
Johnson (NAEL 8, 1.2849), wrote a poem advocating "No
Abolition of Slavery" in 1791. But Wilberforce
won in the end, and a bill abolishing the British
slave trade became law in 1807. That did not,
of course, put an end to illegal trade, let
alone slavery itself. The conflict between
boasts of liberty and the enslavement of human
beings passed from Britain to America, where
its consequences would be written in blood.
Yet the eighteenth century, which witnessed
the high tide of the slave trade, also gave
rise to the ideals of freedom, equality, and
human rights that led to its doom.