The politics of morality: The debate surrounding the 1807 abolition of the slave trade.
JNBC/SOCARE/IOJ Bicentenary Conference
Date of Meeting
December 5 - 8
Place of Meeting
Half Moon Hotel, Montego Bay, Jamaica
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Also published in Caribbean Quarterly. Vol. 56, Nos. 1&2, March- June, 2010
The factors surrounding the ending of the British trans- Atlantic Trade in Africans in 1807 is arguably one of the most political topics in Caribbean historiography. This is so since the concept of morality is deeply embedded in the debate. The recent blockbuster movie, 'Amazing Grace' depicting William Wilberforce as an outstanding humanitarian who sought to abolish the sin of the trade in Africans is a good example of morality at work. Most revisionist historians of the Caribbean, such as, Lowell Ragatz, Eric Williams and Selwyn H.H. Carrington, are, however, critical of morality as the leading factor in the abolition of the trade in 1807. Instead, these scholars have argued convincingly that economics was the singular most important reason for the 1807 Abolition Bill. This chapter extends this economic argument by examining the socio-economic context of late 18th and early nineteenth century Jamaica, at that time one of Britain's important sugar colonies. I will state categorically that the British authorities publicly used the rhetoric of morality because it was politically convenient in their campaign to end the trans Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans. However, in their private letters they urgently encouraged the Jamaican planters to alter the declining social and economic context of British Caribbean slavery. These British officials understood the immediacy of reforming the nature of slavery as practiced in the British Caribbean. They understood that the 'peculiar institution of slavery' had to become more cost effective and economically profitable. Thus, I will show that the alleged humanitarians drew heavily on sound economic arguments in tandem with their moral arguments in the campaign to end the trade in Africans. Interestingly, these humanitarians in Britain, which included a number of freed Africans, all understood the economic necessity of abolishing the trade. They all seemed to have been converts of Adam Smith's theory of Slave labour becoming more expensive to maintain.....