Africans should be given more credit for abolishing the slave trade, writes Bronwen Everill of the University of Cambridge.
Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa, owes its name to the freed slaves who were brought back to Africa by members of a British movement to end slavery. Founded in 1787 by a group of 400 black Britons from London, the colony eventually became a haven for nearly 100 people resettled by the British Naval Anti-Slavery Squadron.
As a historian interested in the impact of abolitionism, I have studied this story and the founding of modern Sierra Leone.
It is mistakenly believed that Britain was the first to abolish the slave trade. This is not the case, but his decision to abolish the slave trade was supported by his powerful navy. Sierra Leone's role in history, however, shows that to enforce this abolition, the British Navy had to rely on the support of states and political entities that had previously opposed the slave trade.
The Africans played a role that was overlooked in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. The rich history of Sierra Leone attests to this.
The foundation of Sierra Leone
The Atlantic slave trade began around the 1520s, but the Sierra Leone region did not contribute significantly to the trade until the mid-1700s. From 1763, the number of enslaved people shipped each year from the coast of Sierra Leone by British, Portuguese and French traders only rarely descended below to 1 and was often close to 000. Even at that time, the number of captives accounted for about half the number of people transported from the Gold Coast (Ghana), a quarter of the number transported from the Bight of Benin and a tenth of the number transported from the Angolan coast.
Yet from 1808 it was Sierra Leone – rather than another slave trade site – that became the scene of British anti-slavery operations. Indeed, Sierra Leone was then the seat of an established and rapidly expanding colony, made up of members of the black British diaspora, many of whom had previously been enslaved. And the success of this settlement was possible in part because of the interest and commitment of the Temne, Susu and other African peoples living in and around the Sierra Leone peninsula.
In 1787,, the first group of black Britons arrived on the peninsula as part of a self-reliance project and with the support of London-based abolitionist leaders Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano. The first colony had encountered difficulties and did not enjoy the support of the Temne, whose land it rented.
The expansion of the colony
In 1791, another group arrived in the colony and sought a new colonization treaty. This group chose to immigrate to Sierra Leone from inhospitable Nova Scotia (Canada), where they had been settled by the British government as [“black loyalists”], after fleeing slavery during the American Revolution (1776-1783). A new organization, the Sierra Leone Company, took over management of the colony from London. Their records show that in the early 1790s, the Dark ones saw the arrival of these settlers as an opportunity.
King Naimbana, for example, who brokered the treaty between the Sierra Leone Company and the Temne, sent his son to London for his education. During their negotiations, company officials noted that the people they were in contact with were eager for opportunities to trade in imported goods without resorting to selling others.
Africa's role in ending slavery
As I have found in my research, it was African demand that contributed to the success of the colony and its mission to move the coast trade away from the slave trade. The documents kept at the Huntington Library in California show that local buyers paid a higher price for the “SLC” brand – a price paid in goods and currency, rather than enslaved captives. In 1793, a British representative wrote a letter to the Sierra Leone Company complaining that “slave traders had become accustomed to bringing rifles marked SLC for trade, which enabled them to obtain a quick sale and a double price in the Rio Nunez”, north of the colony. He is also concerned that this was happening with fabrics bearing the “SLC” mark.
Although he was not sure of their enthusiasm for the abolition of the slave trade, the British official affirmed that “they had plenty of proposals to trade with us and to plant cotton and coffee”. And a deputy of a Susu chief launched a verbal attack against the slave traders in these terms:
You slave traders are the source of all our problems. You are the ones who are setting the people against each other in this country. And what do you bring us in return? We have our own fabrics. If you disappeared tomorrow, we wouldn't be naked. If you disappeared, we would only need a few guns and powder.
This support from the Susu and Temne around Sierra Leone to the colony, its trade and its African diaspora meant that the colony seemed a natural choice for the British when looking for a way to enforce their trade law. of Slaves (Slave Trade Act) of 1807 to end the slave trade in the Atlantic. The British had set up an anti-slavery naval patrol in the colony, as well as a court to deal with captured slave ships.
The Sierra Leone Company was happy to hand over control to the British government, but it was the people on the ground who, through their successful trading relationships, had built a thriving city with markets, housing, infrastructure and, most importantly, , a sense of security for the thousands of resettled slaves who would soon see their population increase dramatically.
It is mistakenly believed that Britain was the first to abolish the slave trade and that it brought enlightened ideas against slavery to Africa. This misconception was used to justify the expansion of colonial rule in the 19th century. But the history of Sierra Leone shows that, in order to enforce their abolition decrees, the British had to rely on African states and political entities that had already opposed the slave trade.