Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

Slavery over time and the abuse of human rights

by Dr Alan Rice

'Until we as a society fully reckon with the history of slavery in all its dimensions ... and overcome our historical denial of the central shaping role that slavery has played in the creation of ... (our) social, political, cultural and economic institutions, we cannot truly begin to confront the so-called race problem.' Henry Louis Gates Jr

Slavery throughout history

In thinking about where and when slavery and slave trading occurred we often think too narrowly. Slavery (and trading in enslaved people) was present in many ancient civilisations such as those of the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. Later, the trading of slaves across the Sahara region meant an estimated 9.4 million Africans were enslaved and forced across the Sahara desert to various North African destinations between the seventh and the nineteenth centuries.

Chattel slavery

In thinking about these other forms of slavery we should be aware that slavery as practised by Europeans against enslaved Africans was a unique horror and crime against humanity. It involved treating enslaved Africans as objects, utterly dehumanising them. This form of slavery is called chattel slavery (a chattel is a possession like a piece of furniture).

Those who defended transatlantic slavery often talked (and still do) of slavery having been practised in Africa for centuries before the transatlantic slave trade. However, others argue that this older form of slavery was in fact much less severe. Captives from wars, or criminals were put to work within poor and restricted living conditions, yet could also become part of the social fabric of the community and even rise to high positions. This would then be quite different to the mass degradation and death involved in the chattel kind of slavery.

Profit after abolition

The transatlantic slave trade itself continued for another 60 years after the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. It was in fact at its most profitable in these years: over 3 million enslaved Africans were shipped and many voyages made over 100% profit during this time. The demand for African labour in the sugar plantations of Brazil was inexhaustible. In 1810 Rio de Janeiro imported its highest number of enslaved Africans ever, over 18,000 in 42 ships.

After the abolition of the trade, British trade still supported its own slave plantations in the Caribbean and ironically a developing palm oil plantation system on the west coast of Africa which used enslaved labour. The men doing this trade were Liverpool slaving merchants. They made profits as spectacular as the profits they had made in the transatlantic slave trade.

Compensation and indenture

When Britain finally began to abolish slavery in a number of its colonies in 1833, compensation was paid not to the enslaved Africans but to the plantation owners. These owners received £20m (around £2bn in today’s currency) from the British government. They brought in new indentured workers from the Indian subcontinent to provide the additional labour needed on the plantations. Often the conditions of these indentured workers were little better than the conditions suffered by the enslaved Africans they replaced.

Modern day slavery

Furthermore, slavery has continued into the twentieth and twenty first century. The 1930s and 1940s saw the slave labour regimes of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. More recent times have seen the textile sweat shops of Asia, the cocoa plantations of Africa and the brothels of Europe. The organisation, Anti-Slavery International estimates that 12 million people lived in conditions that resemble slavery in 2008.

Scale and inhumanity of the slave trade

That said, the unique horror of transatlantic slavery should not be underestimated. 12 million Africans were transported forcibly across the Atlantic in horrific conditions that meant over a million of them died. And those were only a portion of the victims. There were also uncounted millions who died on their forced journey to the coast or in the holding pens or fort dungeons in which they were imprisoned whilst awaiting shipment. Some historians estimate that up to another third of those making that forced journey to the coast died even before the survivors of the journey were forced onto slaving ships.

Professor Ian Baucom has talked of how enslaved Africans were treated horrendously at all points of their life as a slave. They were not human beings, but 'interest-bearing money' for those who shipped them, then used them as labour. The Liverpool slave-ship captain James Irving spoke of his 'black cattle' disturbing his peace as he wrote to his wife back home from Africa in 1789. Narratives by writers such as Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince, Robert Wedderburn and Olaudah Equiano provide evidence of the disgusting acts of violence happening on plantations throughout the Americas.

Racist attitudes

Such violence and the racist attitudes (the sense that these Africans were not human beings but some lower form of animal) it exhibited were very common among those Europeans engaged in slaving. Indeed some commentators say that the rise of racism in Britain from the seventeenth century all the way up to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century was caused by Britain’s large scale involvement in slavery and a slave-based economy.

Racist thinking became very common. Racial attitudes were key to the atrocities by the Belgians in the Congo, the British development of concentration camps in the Boer War and the German genocide of the Herero people in south west Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. These events and attitudes all fed into the racist thinking of Nazi Germany. Many have talked about slavery as an African Holocaust. It undoubtedly contributed to the development of the Holocaust in Germany.


Throughout the history of slavery, there have been voices opposed to slavery. These people campaigned for the human rights of the enslaved. The first Anglo-American abolitionists were Quakers but by 1787 when the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (SEAST) was formed, the movement was wider with self-proclaimed Sons of Africa such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cougoano playing major roles in the movement.

Campaigns to undermine the plantation economies were started by figures such as Thomas Clarkson. They used boycotts, where people avoided buying slave-grown products.

'In smaller towns there were from ten to fifty by estimation, and in the larger from two to five hundred, who made this sacrifice to virtue. These were of all ranks and parties. Rich and poor, churchmen and dissenters, had adopted the measure ... and even children, who were incapable of understanding the history of the suffering of the Africans, excluded, with the most virtuous resolution, the sweets, to which they had been accustomed, from their lips.' Thomas Clarkson on tour of the North in 1781

People also signed petitions, letters of protest and presented them to politicians.These campaigns were particularly effective in the north west of England. Campaigns against human rights abuses in slavery have continued until today. They are led by the modern day equivalent of SEAST: Anti-Slavery International. Current campaign tactics include the development of a strong ‘fair trade’ movement which had its origins in the boycott campaigns of the abolitionist movement.