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National to International Effort


First Anti-Slavery Treaties - The Asiento - Payments to Portugal and Spain - Castlereagh and Wellington - The Berlin Conference - The Brussels Conference - The Versailles Conference - The League of Nations - Britain and Piracy - Adoption of British Proposals - International Responsibility - The International Machine - Public Opinion.
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There recent decision of the League of Nations to adopt the British proposals for committing the task of the Abolition of Slavery and the Emancipation of the Slaves to an International Expert Commission under the Council of the League of Nations was a signal triumph for the British Foreign Office. For nearly three hundred years successive British Governments have devoted an appreciable portion of their time and energy to the conclusion of treaties intended to suppress slavery in one or other of its many forms.

One hundred and fifty years before the British Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, the British Foreign Office was beginning the work of international abolition. From 1662 onward, treaties were being signed with this end in view. The first of these treaties was of restricted compass and designed only to protect British subjects: That if any ship of Algier, Tunis, or Sally, or any other, do bring any ships, men, or goods, belonging to any of the subjects of His Majesty the King of Great Britain, &c., into Tripoli, or any of the ports thereto belonging, the Governors there shall not permit them to be sold within the said territories; and for the time to come, that no subjects of His said Majesty be bought or sold, or made slave of, in Tripoli or its territories.

Five years later a further treaty was made which provided asylum for escaping Christian slaves and absolved their protectors from any claim for compensation. The infamous Asiento agreement in the reign of Queen Anne was a retrograde step, but before the eighteenth century was over Wilberforce, Wesley, Clarkson and Sharp were stirring the national conscience, and throughout the nineteenth century the growth of public opinion against slavery in Great Britain generated intense activity on the part of the British Foreign Office. During the hundred years following the British decision to abolish the slave trade, successive British Governments concluded nearly 600 treaties and international instruments designed either to check or abolish the slave trade. (Eighty of these treaties were between Great Britain and Portugal.)

The crusading zeal of Great Britain succeeded by these treaties in making the slave trade internationally illegal over a large area of the world - on paper at least. But it is a surprising fact that during the period following the Napoleonic Wars no single statesman on the international stage appears to have grasped the fundamental fact that slave-trading, though illegal, could not be suppressed unless and until slave-owning was also abolished.

For the Abolition of Slavery in French possessions in 1848 a good deal of credit must be given to the pressure which successive British Governments, urged on by the Anti-Slavery movement in this country, brought to bear upon French Governments, and more particularly to the valuable influence of the French Anti-Slavery Society upon Continental public opinion.

It is interesting to note that in 1841 Chili, and in 1848 Brazil, decreed slave-trading to be piracy. Though the execution of the decrees was lamentably defective, the attempt made by those Governments was at least better than the obstructive attitude maintained by the Governments of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal to this day against labelling slave-trading as piracy. Our own country has pressed steadily from 1815 to the present day for an international declaration of slave-trading as piracy, together with mutual right of search in the case of suspected slave ships, and on both points we have met with much opposition. France conceded the mutual right of search in 1833, but her action was greatly weakened by the stipulations which accompanied it.

Great Britain had uphill work in her efforts to induce Spain and Portugal to suppress the Slave Trade. The attitude of these countries was described by the Anti-Slavery Society in 1837 as 'the insulting indifference which the Governments of Spain and Portugal have shown in regard to the performance of their engagements.'

Portugal accepted from the British Government a gift of 300,000, and the cancellation of a loan of 600,000, and undertook in return to adopt certain measures towards the abolition of the Slave Trade. In return for the 1817 Treaty the British Treasury paid the Spanish Government 400,000 as compensation for the capture of certain slave ships. The payment of these large sums to Spain and Portugal is the more striking when it is remembered that at this period British coffers had seldom been more empty. But, to quote the Anti-Slavery Society once more, both these countries, 'having taken our money, turned a deaf ear to every remonstrance we have made.'

Lord Palmerston made characteristically vigorous protests. He declared that our ally had conformed to 'not one single restriction' imposed by her treaties, that she was still kidnapping and shipping negroes, and that she had no longer (Brazil being now an independent State) the excuse of any national or colonial interest. In his vivid language: 'The ships of Portugal now prowl about the ocean, pandering to the crimes of other nations, and when her own ships are not sufficiently numerous for the purpose, her flag is lent as a shield to protect the misdeeds of foreign pirates.' As this exceedingly outspoken remonstrance had no effect, Lord Palmerston took the internationally amazing but effective step of carrying through Parliament a Bill providing for the seizure by British ships of Portuguese vessels and other vessels not 'justly entitled to claim the protection of any State' if found equipped for the Slave Trade.

Lord Palmerston would have fluttered the dovecotes of Geneva to-day! But there are times when the Abolitionists of the present day would give a good deal to have amongst them the spirit of 'Pam,' in action as direct as in language outspoken.

The first stage in collective international effort was the Conference at Vienna in 1814, from which, as Professor Coupland has pointed out, William Wilber-force hoped to obtain a 'Charter of Abolition ' signed by all the European States.

The principal opponent of international action throughout history has been Portugal, whose opposition was as unbending in the years 1926 to 1931 at Geneva as it had been in 1815 at Vienna.

Lord Castlereagh had on his side at Vienna the vague but genuine idealism of the Czar Alexander, and he had also, thanks to Wellington's earlier efforts in Paris, the support of Talleyrand, but it is to be feared that most of the Powers regarded Abolition of Slavery as a strange British obsession, rather than a subject about which practical statesmen could be expected to concern themselves seriously. Castlereagh, however, though formerly an opponent of Abolition, fought tenaciously and well, and although the Spanish Government joined the Portuguese in their obstruction he was able to secure the signatures of the Eight Powers to an international instrument which provided for the universal abolition of the Slave Trade as quickly and effectually as possible. Even if to some foreign Governments this instrument represented little more than a pious wish, it was a step forward.

The ostensible ground of Portuguese objection to the reciprocal right of search of vessels has always been that it would be such an infringement of sovereign rights that incidents causing unpleasant friction between friendly Powers would be of frequent occurrence. Caustic critics sometimes suggest that the 'incidents' would indeed be 'unpleasant' to certain Portuguese subjects! Thus, when the Verona Conference met in 1823 the Duke of Wellington was again unsuccessful, for although France and Russia were ready for definite action, the opposition was too strong for the Iron Duke.

Slave-owning America would not hear of the right of search, and slave ships found shelter under the Stars and Stripes until the year 1862, and then at last began that British-American co-operation from which has accrued such substantial results. The Anglo-American Treaty conceded a mutual, if limited, right of search to British and American vessels, and the creation of Mixed Courts on both the African and American Coasts.

In 1841 an Anti-Slave-Trade Treaty was concluded between Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia. (France signed the Treaty, but in the following year she refused to ratify it, objecting to the provision for the right of search.) Article I engaged the high contracting parties 'to prohibit all trade in slaves under their respective flags; or by means of capital belonging to their respective subjects, and to declare such traffic piracy.' Unfortunately the treaty provided that the mutual right of search should not be exercised within the Mediterranean Sea. There were diplomatic reasons for excluding the Mediterranean, but it was well known that these waters were regularly used for the transit of domestic slaves and negroes on their way to the slave markets of Turkey.

So far as words were concerned, nothing could have been more satisfactory than the promises made by the Ottoman Porte to Lord Strafford de Redcliffe in 1857, promises which proved to be nothing more than 'words, idle words.' Beaconsfield and Salisbury refused to bring the question of slavery in Turkey before the Berlin Congress of 1878, and bolstered up ' the sick man of Europe ' without taking the opportunity to urge him, in return for the support of the Powers, to suppress slavery. It is true that an unsatisfactory convention for putting down slave-trading was concluded between Great Britain and Turkey in 1880, but the leaders of the Anti-Slavery movement were bitterly disappointed that the opportunity offered at Berlin was not taken.

The Conference at Berlin in 1885 was the next important stage in collective international action and secured seventeen signatures, but it was limited in its geographical operation to the conventional area of the Congo. This included the basin of the Congo and denned areas watered by the Loge, Zambesi, Ogowe, the Nile and the Niger, and Lake Tanganyika. Freedom of trade, protection of native rights and interests, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the encouragement of missionary enterprise all became an international concern.

The Brussels Act of 1890, like the Berlin Act, incorporated measures designed to protect the aboriginal populations of Africa, and it was the misfortune and not the fault of the signatories that one of the results of the two Conferences was the creation of the Congo Free State. The States attending the Conference numbered seventeen, and included not only the plenipotentiaries of the United States of America but also those of Turkey, Zanzibar and Persia. The Brussels Act provided for cruiser control of certain waters and the opening up of main roads to permit of the rapid movement of flying columns. Missionaries were to be protected and private organisations invited to cooperate in the repression of the Slave Trade. The arms traffic was prohibited, but whilst this made some difficulties for the Arab slave raiders, it led to the disarmament of the Congo natives, which in turn, alas, facilitated their enslavement. The Act also provided for the detention of suspected vessels and the conditions under which ships' officers could be brought to trial. It was under this Act that for the first time international offices for the collection of information were created. These were established at Zanzibar and Brussels.

The Brussels Conference was largely due to the persevering efforts of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, and partly the result of a motion proposed in the House of Commons in March, 1889, by Mr. Sydney Buxton, M.P. (now Earl Buxton) and seconded by Sir John Kennaway. The speakers hoped for the following results from the Conference: that the status of slavery should be no longer recognised by international law; that slave-trading should be declared equivalent to piracy; that all nations should allow the mutual right of search of suspected ships; and that the import of arms into Central Africa should be restricted. The proposal for mutual right of search provoked the usual violent opposition from France.

The year 1919 witnessed the opening of a new chapter, one destined to lead to a far-reaching movement. In this year the Powers than assembled for the Versailles Conference were led to consider the whole question of native races, and the British Government invited Sir Thomas Fowell Victor Buxton and the author to go to Paris - just a hundred years after the first Thomas Powell Buxton went to Westminster as the Member of Parliament for Weymouth!

But 'Sir Victor' - as he was affectionately known - like his great-grandfather, passed away prematurely, being only fifty-four years of age. A motor accident which at first involved only temporary incapacity proved rapidly fatal, and his place in Paris was taken by Lord Henry Cavendish Bentinck.

The Convention of St. Germain was framed for signature by the Governments of the U.S.A., British Empire, Belgium, France, Italy, Japan and Portugal. It is interesting to note that the British Dominions and India signed it as separate States. The object of the Convention was that of revising the Berlin and Brussels Acts - the revision in fact opened the way to a wider field of service for native races. The obligations of the Berlin Act to bring about the 'suppression of slavery and especially the slave trade' became in the Convention of St. Germain 'the complete suppression of slavery in all its forms and of the slave trade by land and sea.'

The Convention, having extended its ethical objective far beyond the bounds of all previous treaties, proceeded to invite all State Members of the League of Nations to adhere to each beneficent obligation, and finally the Convention was linked with the League Covenant. Three years later began what may be best described as the Parliamentary work at Geneva. Foremost in this new endeavour were Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, Lord Cecil and Dr. Nansen. Lord Lugard and Dr. Gohr of Belgium commenced what proved to be many years' work on League Commissions. Upon the late Mr. Harold Grimshaw devolved the heavy task, nobly discharged, of preparing the 'documentation' on behalf of the Secretariat of the League of Nations and the International Labour Offices.

It was in 1922 that Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, then the representative of the Government of New Zealand, raised the whole question of slavery in the Assembly of the League of Nations. It was not an easy task, for he met with a good deal of opposition, but with the assistance of the members of the British Empire " Delegation, and of Dr. Nansen, he carried the proposal that the League should commence the work of the suppression of slavery in all its forms. In due course the League Council appointed a temporary Slavery Commission, and instructed it to gather together for the information of the League all available material upon slavery questions. This Commission, of which Dr. Gohr was Chairman and Lord Lugard the British representative, issued its Report in 1925, and in the Assembly of the League that year the British Government presented for consideration the draft of a new Convention. This Convention had been prepared by the British Foreign Office in conjunction with other departments, and the Delegation under the leadership of Sir Austen Chamberlain formally presented it for acceptance by State Members of the League. The Convention ultimately adopted and still further enlarged the circumference of the work. It first recited the objects of the Convention of St. Germain and the General Act of Berlin and the General Act of Brussels, namely, ' the securing of the complete suppression of slavery in all its forms and of the slave trade by land and sea'; the Convention also undertook the prevention of forced labour from developing into conditions analogous to slavery.

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