The BBC's British History website contains a large section dedicated to the movement for the abolition of slavery. It details the efforts of British political figures and political protestors, all of whom are highlighted as champions of the movement that succeeded in enacting a ban on the slave trade in 1807. However, despite the praise that the abolitionist movement receives, the cessation of the Atlantic slave trade did nothing to restrict the flow of goods that were produced by slave labour, and thus nothing to restrict the practice of slavery itself.
Moral arguments calling for an end to the slave trade gained momentum in Europe during the end of the 18th century, spearheaded by evangelical groups. Churches and politicians united in promoting universal freedom and equality. The humanitarian argument against slavery was championed in Britain by politicians such as William Wilberforce, who led a massive public campaign between 1787 and 1788. However, despite the moral nature of the argument presented, it is no coincidence that support for abolition grew during a time when the slave trade was no longer an appealing market for Western entrepreneurs, who could make greater returns in the manufacturing industries of Britain. Resistance to slavery, mutinies on sailing ships and slave revolts such as that which drove the French out of Haiti in 1790 were threatening the profit margins of slave traders and owners, and frightening off European investors. Meanwhile, economic perspectives on Africa were changing, with the continent being increasingly seen as a source of raw materials, and a market for manufactured goods, rather than as a labour pool to be taken elsewhere.
African commodities, such as kola nuts, palm oil, gold, cotton, sugar cane and tobacco were proving more profitable exports than slave labour. Such commodities, exported into Europe, rather than to the American and Caribbean colonies as slaves had been, promoted industrialisation, and the manufactured products that resulted were returned to the African continent. Expanding agricultural commerce required fertilising more land, which required a subsequent amount of labour. Thus slavery did not cease with the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Instead the market for slave labour moved from the Americas to West Africa. In the Congo Angola area, the loss of large numbers of young men as a result of the Atlantic slave trade had a huge demographic impact. The resulting shortage in labour, combined with an increased market for goods from the area, made slave labour extremely profitable in the period following the abolition of the Atlantic trade.
The increasing demand for African commodities did not improve quality of life in West Africa. Instead the amplified local demand for labour strengthened hierarchical power structures and led to a reinforcement of slavery, and an increasingly brutal treatment of the enslaved.
The Kingdom of Asante had not relied hugely on the export of slaves prior to the abolition of the slave trade. The expansion of its kola nut exports brought a great deal more economic benefit for the region. As a result of this the state expanded its control over the region, especially over wealthy merchants, and ruthlessly eliminated any political opposition which posed a threat to their rule. Thus Asante during the mid-nineteenth century was not only a more brutal state but also a richer one, which had fortified its control over its subjects. The abolition of the Atlantic slave trade did little to improve people's lives here.
Up to around 1870, West African producers in enjoyed comparatively favourable terms of trade and a good degree of economic power. However, a fall in prices in the 1870s and 1880s soured relations between African and European traders. In face of the reduced profitability of the trade in commodities, Europeans attempted to cut their costs by bypassing African middlemen on the coast. This process of economic infiltration of the African interior preceded the political and military incursions of the Scramble for Africa of the late 19th century.
In strictly economic terms, the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade produced few repercussions. African slave labour continued to produce raw materials to drive Western industrial development and its consumer market. The only difference is that the sites of plantation and mineral extraction moved from the Americas to Africa. Many Europeans had to accept the uncomfortable truth that slave numbers were increasing but, rather than analysing this in an economic context, Europeans ascribed the increased use of slaves to the savage and uncivilised nature of African societies. Meanwhile, European exports to Africa, such as guns, alcohol and cloth, did very little to generate growth in local economies. The real benefits of "legitimate" commerce were experienced not in Africa but thousands of miles away in the industrialising cities of Europe.
The nineteenth century saw Africa become even more powerless despite humanitarian claims that “legitimate” commerce would instigate economic growth for previously slave trading regions. The autonomy of African markets was disrupted by the interference of European trade merchants, which would ultimately lead to the occupation of this region. At the same time, the local slave trade, which was driven by European market for African goods, provided a moral justification for that occupation. Long before the direct occupation of Africa by Western powers, the groundwork for colonisation was laid by an economic exploitation that continued unabated by the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.
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