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Extract from an Admiralty document of 1850 on ways to stop the slave trade
(Catalogue ref: ADM 7/606)
  • This document is a small extract from a questionnaire sent out to a wide range of Royal Navy commanders in 1850. The questionnaire contained 8 questions but also asked for any other recommendations from the commanders that were not covered by the questions. The answers to the questionnaire filled over 10 densely written pages, showing that the commanders took the questionnaire very seriously.
  • The Admiralty was the government department in charge of the Royal Navy. Cruising basically meant patrolling to catch slavers. Barracoons were African nations who raided and sold other Africans into slavery. Distributing bounty meant the way that any goods captured on slave ships was shared out between the freed slaves and the crew of the ship that rescued them. Coaling and victualling meant supplying ships with food and fuel.
  • The British probably benefited more from the slave trade than any other country. In the 1700s they transported millions of Africans from their homes to plantations in the West Indies and the southern states of North America.
  • By the early 1800s pressure was mounting against the trade. In 1807 the slave trade was abolished in the British empire. In 1833 slavery itself became illegal in the empire. Several factors led to this, and historians disagree about which of these factors was the most important:
    • Campaigners in Britain (British and African) publicised the horrors of the trade.
    • Economic conditions changed in the early 1800s, which made slavery less profitable for Britain.
    • There were several major slave rebellions in the 1820s. This led to a fear among slave owners that there would be a massive slave rebellion in the West Indies.
  • Once the British did abolish slavery, they invested a huge amount of effort into destroying the slave trade altogether. There was a lot of illegal slaving within the empire and large scale slaving outside the empire as well. The main markets for slaves were South America, North Africa and Arabia. The British signed treaties with all the major European powers to get them to agree to stamp out the slave trade.
  • Not surprisingly, there have been very different views about the British anti-slavery campaign. There is no doubt that the British campaign against slavery did much good and saved many Africans from a terrible fate. Admirers of the British empire see this campaign as one of its greatest achievements. On the other hand, critics of the British suggest that they only attacked slavery once it was no longer profitable for them. They also wanted to stop slavery in other areas because doing so would help British trade.
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