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lthough not the first country to ban slavery, Britain was the first powerful nation to do so. Through this ban, Britain also committed itself to ending the slave trade globally. The Royal Navy would be commissioned to patrol the Atlantic and stop all slave traders caught trying to make the crossing. The ban on slavery affected the British economy two-fold. Both by the newfound lack of cheap labor and the cost of policing the trade. The question is. Why did Britain abolish slavery and commit itself to policing it?

All equal under God

The most obvious reason for the abolition is the ethical concern of slavery. Being the biggest Christian empire at the time, a lot of Britain’s higher-ups saw it as their duty to uphold and enforce Christian dogma.

William Wilberforce by John Rising, 1790, pictured at the age of 29, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lobbyists such as William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian, spearheaded the movement. The stepping stone of the movement, the Slave Trade Act of 1807, banned all slave trade within the empire, although the institution of slavery was untouched.

It would take until 1833 for slavery to be outright banned throughout the empire. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 guaranteed freedom to any man on British soil. As compensation for the slave owners who lost all of their workers, the empire paid £20 million to keep them complacent. According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, in 2019, this would be worth £1,662,160,222.

With the decision made in 1833 also came the commitment of Britain to police the international slave trade. Royal Navy frigates were commissioned to patrol the Atlantic in search of slave traders.

The combination of maintaining the Royal Navy, paying off the slave owners, and losing out on the cheap produce of slave labor put Britain into a lot of debt. Money had to be borrowed to pay for everything, and only under David Cameron in 2015 was the debt paid off.

Better late than never

Another question we should pose is why did Britain decide that this was the right time to outlaw the slave trade. Surely an empire of its size could afford to put a stop to this obviously unethical practice. By the time of the ban, the abolitionists’ lobby had been present in the British parliament for several years. So what took so long? Two big factors need to be considered.

America was full of slave owners. Around this time, a big export of the south was cotton, and slave labor was the main driving force behind this enterprise. While the Thirteen Colonies were still under British rule, there was a large movement within the British parliament to keep slavery due to how lucrative it was. Naturally, with the large profits of the slave owners came large power; thus, going against them was close to impossible.

Panorama picture of the “King Cotton” fields. Source: Library of Congress

After the breakaway of the Thirteen Colonies, the number of slave owners in the empire fell sharply. The reform could now be pushed through without as much backlash.

Another large factor was the expansion and further integration of the British East Indies. By the early 1800s, India became one of Britain’s most lucrative colonies. The profit gained from the ownership of large parts of India meant that the empire could take a financial hit. This made the thought of abolishing slavery look a lot less impossible.

One big step forward

Britain outlawing slavery as well as going as far as policing the slave trade across the Atlantic is widely regarded as the most significant step made towards the outlawing of slavery. Having both the economic and military power to feasibly put this law into practice meant that, for the most part, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade stopped. After the Slave Trade Act of 1807, the slave trade only continued in fringe cases, with most of it being stamped out with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

The impact of this law would be felt throughout the world, most notably in America, where it would cause a mass split within the newly formed United States. The South, which organized itself into the Confederate States of America, supported slavery due to the large part it played in the economy of most of the states. The cotton industry was still the backbone of the south at the time, and the abolition of slavery would mean a mass loss of profit within the states. The North supported the abolitionists’ movement, and by 1865 they came out as the clear victors of the civil war. After gaining control of the south, the United States would go on to enforce the ban.

The United States is only one example of how this decision created ripples of change throughout the world. Without Britain taking this very crucial step, world history would look a lot more different.

We could say for certain that human rights, in general, wouldn’t have progressed as much without this decision making our current world look very different. In the end, we can never truly know how the course of history would have changed.

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