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Victorian Struggles


Labour in South Africa - Land Struggles - Foreign Slave Trade - Spanish Trade - World Slavery Conference - French Slavery - French Emancipators - Brazilian Slavery - Turkish Slavery - General Gordon and the Soudan - Slavery in Morocco - Situation in Indian States - Zanzibar Slavery.
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When Queen Victoria came to the throne, the attitude of the English people towards slavery had undergone a deep and lasting change, thanks to Wilberforce, Buxton and their helpers. Since their day few Englishmen have ever attempted to defend slavery.

The Victorian age was one of steady pressure by the Anti-Slavery forces, but not one during which public opinion in this country was again stirred as profoundly and widely as by the great step taken in 1833. Never again would slavery be tolerated for long in British possessions, provided that it was recognised as slavery.

But although the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines Protection Society (the colleagues and descendants of the great Emancipators) were quick to recognise slavery in its new disguises, it was more difficult for the general public to be stirred by a series of skirmishes than by one great engagement.

In the British Empire the period covers great progress in spite of grave abuses such as Kanaka Labour and Indian Coolie Labour, 'regrettable incidents' like the Borneo massacre, occasional massacres of the aborigines in Australia and Indians in North America, atrocious incidents of commercial exploitation, and the still more serious and increasing aggressions of commercial imperialism in South Africa, where the land hunger of the English and Dutch settlers led to almost complete disregard of the rights of the unfortunate natives over their own soil. These abuses and aggressions have left behind them grave evils, and they must always weigh heavily upon our national conscience. But they do not lessen the inestimable moral and practical value of the example given to the world by the Emancipation Act of 1833.

So deep was the impression made by that event that for a short time public opinion in this country seems to have been under the illusion that the fight was won for good and all, and that the Emancipators could now sing their Nunc Dimittis. The Anti-Slavery Society was even dissolved after the Emancipation Act became law. (W. L. Mathieson, British Slave Emancipation.) But it was very soon realised that as Sir Robert Peel put it in 1840, our people had done 'no more than rescue their own character from the degradation in which the slave trade (and slavery) had involved them.' The British Anti-Slavery Society was reconstituted in 1839 as 'The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society,' and worked in close touch with the Aborigines Protection Society, founded by Buxton hi 1837 'to assist in protecting the defenceless and promoting the advancement of uncivilised tribes,' until the two were united in 1909. Their work was so closely allied for many years that it will generally be convenient to describe them as one throughout this chapter. The tasks before the Anti-Slavery Society were to abolish the very considerable remnants of slavery in the British Empire, to continue the uphill task of abolishing foreign slave-trading and slave-owning, and to aid the American Abolitionists in their mighty endeavour. Next, and this part of the work is still in its early stages, to abolish slavery in those countries of Asia and Africa in which it then nourished and still persists.

Both Societies were keenly alive to the emergence of new forms of disguised slavery (the many forms of Contract Labour, Indentured Labour, debt bondage, etc.) which appeared in one country after another as slavery ceased to be either reputable or legal. The never-ending attempts to reintroduce slavery by calling it a new name reminds one of nothing so much as of the struggle of Hercules with the monster which took on a new shape each time that he believed himself to have dealt it the final blow. Slaves became 'Apprentices,' 'Contract Labourers,' 'Emancipados,' 'Emigres Libres,' 'Servicaes.' Negro slavery being discountenanced, Indian Indentured labourers, South Sea Islanders and Chinese Coolies were obtained in their place.

The work of the Aborigines Protection Society, founded by Buxton, with unfailing instinct for the needs of the future, has continued to grow in importance to the present day.

If that part of its work which, during the first half of Queen Victoria's reign, dealt with the protection of the Red Indians and Australian aborigines is less prominent to-day, it is largely because these ill-used races have, alas, so decreased in numbers as no longer to excite fear in the white populations. But it is also because, thanks to the advocacy and example of those who went before us, our standards of humanity are now so much higher that the grosser outrages of the past could hardly take place to-day.

The main aspects of the work of the reformers - the education and political emancipation of the formerly subject races, the supreme necessity of giving them their fair share of their own land, the many burning questions connected with labour and taxation - all these continue to concern us as closely as they concerned our Victorian predecessors. Buxton and those who succeeded him in the work of the two Societies understood almost all the problems that confront us to-day. The records of the two Societies show that they apprehended as clearly as we do the great complex of South African problems; the white man's fear of being swamped by the native races, the greed which caused the whites to grasp more and more of the land and its inevitable conflict with the passionate attachment of the natives to their own land. The land problem is as acute as ever. On the other hand, there is probably less physical cruelty inflicted by white men upon native races to-day, and in that direction our task should be easier than that of our forerunners.

Queen Victoria's reign was an age of colonial expansion during which all the great Powers staked their conflicting claims for larger and larger shares of African soil. They acquired territory in various ways, sometimes through the aggressions of the great commercial companies, such as the British South Africa Company, sometimes by treaty extension of their spheres of influence. The Congo Free State was such a unique instance of commercial exploitation that it deserves a separate chapter.

Foreign countries continued to carry on the Slave Trade despite treaty engagements and pledges. Many protests were addressed by the Anti-Slavery Society in this country to crowned heads and governments. Deputations visited the capitals of Europe and enthusiasts from this country did their best to found anti-slavery societies in other countries. A few noble spirits responded: Senor Vizcarrondo, the founder of the Spanish Anti-Slavery Society, who suffered imprisonment for his opinions; Senor Nabuco, a tower of strength in Brazil for many years; Dr. Schwein-furth of Germany; and a few distinguished Frenchmen who included M. de Tocqueville, M. Schoelcher, and most ardent and famous of all, Cardinal Lavigerie, Archbishop of Algiers.

American Emancipation is the outstanding event of this period, and Abraham Lincoln towers above every other figure, but it is impossible in the space of this small volume to depict the great struggle for American Emancipation, which would require a volume to itself, or even to name its many heroes.

The foreign Slave Trade, and in particular that carried on by Spain, Portugal, Brazil and France, called first for the efforts of the Anti-Slavery leaders.

In 1836 the British Commissioners in Sierra Leone reported that: 'There is nothing in the experience of the past year to show that the Slave Trade of Portugal or Spain has in any degree diminished.'

Although Talleyrand had announced to Lord Castle-reagh on July 30, 1815, 'that on the part of France the traffic in slaves should cease, from the present time, everywhere and for ever,' the trade was still carried on, and to an enormous extent, by French subjects under the protection of the French flag.

Very large numbers of African slaves were imported into Brazil - 114,288 into five ports alone - in the year and a half ending June 30, 1830. The horrors and mortality attendant on the Slave Trade remained unabated. A few cases will suffice.

In February, 1835, a 20O-ton Spanish brig, the Formidable, left Africa for Brazil with 712 slaves on board: 304 died on the voyage. On another Spanish bark, the Minerva, bound from Calabar to Sierra Leone, 200 died out of 725; and on another Spanish J schooner, the Sutti, 106 died out of 325. The slaves I were so tightly packed that according to an eye-witness in Sierra Leone: 'Once so fixed, relief by motion or change of posture is unattainable. The body frequently stiffens into a permanent curve, and in the streets of Freetown, I have seen liberated slaves in every conceivable state of distortion.... Many can: never resume the upright posture.'

When Sir Robert Peel addressed the African Civilisation Society at Exeter Hall (in the presence of the Prince Consort) on June 1, 1840, he said: 'I want to impress upon your minds that in granting the twenty millions [paid in compensation to the West Indian planters] the people of England did no more than to rescue their own character from the degradation in which the Slave Trade had involved them... the Trade is yet in all its sinful vigour.' He went on to describe 'the recent wreck of two slavers off Maza-langie Harbour. The crew and 200 slaves were saved. It was reported that those vessels had 900 slaves on board; but during a hurricane the hatches were battened down, and, on opening them, 300 slaves were found to have died of suffocation. Again the hurricane came on, the hatches were again battened down and 300 more were suffocated from the same cause; and 100 died upon the passage. What was the course pursued by the crews under such awful circumstances? They returned to Mazalangie for the purpose of getting a fresh supply of unhappy slaves.'

Such were the horrors of the Slave Trade thirty-three years after British Abolition. The enormous extent to which slave-owning existed is shown by the fact that under Christian Governments alone the slave population in 1841 is estimated to have numbered 6,397,300. If the slaves in the not professedly Christian countries in which slavery survives to-day had been added the numbers would probably have been doubled. (It is estimated that there are to-day between 5,000,000 and 6,000,000 enslaved persons in the world. Abolitionists can be encouraged by feeling that 100 years of effort has at least reduced the evil to half its proportions.)

An International Conference was obviously required to deal with what were mainly world problems, and accordingly, in June, 1840, the first Anti-Slavery World Convention assembled at the Freemasons' Tavern in London. The famous painter and more famous diarist, Haydon, has immortalised the scene in the picture which hangs to-day in the National Portrait Gallery. The spirits of Wilberforce, Sharp and the heroic Toussaint l'Ouverture are symbolically represented. The veteran pioneer, Thomas Clarkson, is shown, surrounded by all the leading Abolitionists of the day, with M.P.'s, Quakers and supporters from every part of the country. From France and the U.S.A. came distinguished delegations, the latter including the celebrated Lucretia Mott and other women delegates (The women delegates were exiled to the Gallery after the opening session, owing to the prevailing prejudice against the participation of their sex on public Committees with men. The three hours' debate which decided their exclusion seems to have been the only inharmonious note struck during the Conference.) from the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Societies. The American Quaker poet, Whittier, sent a stirring ode. The proceedings opened with prayer. Haydon, a man of the world, not easily moved by what he called 'benevolent meetings,' has thus described the moment when the whole assembly answered the prayer of the aged Clarkson with their twice-repeated 'Amen.'

That deep toned Amen [he writes] came on my mind like the knell of a departing curse. I looked about me on the simple and extraordinary people, ever ready with their purse and their person for the accomplishment of their great object; and if ever sound was as an echo to the sense, or if, ever deep and undaunted meaning was conveyed to the depths of the soul, the death warrant of slavery all over the world was boded by that Amen!

A second World Convention was held in London in 1843 and both were vigorously followed up by the Anti-Slavery Society. Addresses on Slavery and the Slave Trade were presented to the crowned heads and governments of a great part of the world. (These included Great Britain, the President of the U.S.A., Austria, Bavaria, Denmark, Greece, France, Holland, Portugal, Prussia! Russia, Spain, Saxony, Sardinia, Switzerland, the Argentine, Brazil, Mexico, the Ottoman Empire, the Canton of Zurich and the Free City of Frankfort.)

Deputations were sent to Spain and Portugal and an interview was obtained with the King of France. Joseph Sturge, who had played a most active part in organising the World Convention, visited the U.S.A. to promote co-operation between the British and American Anti-Slavery Societies and to remove the objections of the American ' Friends ' to taking part in Anti-Slavery propaganda. He had thoughts of visiting Brazil and Cuba, but his influence with the Quakers decided him to go to the U.S.A. instead. There is no doubt that his encouragement was of real value to the hardly pressed American Abolitionists, of whom William Lloyd Garrison, the poet Whittier and the great Unitarian Minister, William Ellery Channing, were at that time amongst the most notable.

The full story of the long-drawn struggle against foreign slave-trading and slave-owning would fill many volumes. It must be remembered that the Anti-Slavery leaders had no League of Nations to help them, and that the international treaties (described in a later chapter), though invaluable as a prelude to greater things, were to a large extent ineffectual owing to the lack of permanent international machinery for carrying them out. A cynic, indeed, would probably divide most of the countries concerned into two classes - not sheep and goats, but two kinds of goats - those which openly obstructed all reform and those which promised but did not perform. Over and over again, in one country or another, slave-trading and slave-owning were abolished but only on paper, and the long tale of evasions and delays would have exhausted the energy of the reformers and destroyed all their faith in human nature, had not deceptions and delays been balanced by victories of humanity and justice.

The limitations of space will only permit the barest outline of the progress and struggles of the Victorian era in foreign countries.

As pointed out in the previous chapter, France had declared slave-trading illegal in 1815. But owing to the persistent refusal of her Government to permit the right of search, the trade was continued on a large scale under the French flag. In 1888 the abuse of the French flag by Arab slave dhows was exposed by the French Anti-Slavery Society, and by Mr. Sydney Buxton in the House of Commons. It was proved that in Madagascar, Zanzibar, Pemba and the South Indian Ocean generally the surreptitious use of the French flag to cover the Slave Trade was very extensive. In 1893 the Annual Report of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society noted that 'owing to the refusal of the French Government to permit the right of search which had been agreed to by almost every other nation... cases were constantly coming under the notice of the Society of slave traffic carried on in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean under the French Flag.'

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