Hugh Thomas's magnificent new study of the slave trade lets the facts speak for themselves, says ANDREW LAMBERT
The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440 1870, by Hugh Thomas, Picador £25
IN AUGUST 1444, A CARGO OF African slaves was landed near Lagos in Portugal. It attracted a crowd of curious observers, among them Prince Henry the Navigator and one of his courtiers, the chronicler Zurara. As the slaves wept and groaned Zurara asked himself: "What heart could be so hard as not to be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company?" Fathers were then parted from sons, husbands from wives and brothers from brothers. Prince Henry, who, as Hugh Thomas says, "combined the cold heart of a nobleman with the economic imagination of an entrepreneur", showed little emotion as he received his "royal fifth" of the slaves and "gave thanks that he was saving so many souls for God".
The convenient belief that obtaining slaves from Africa was a rescue mission became commonplace; for centuries to come, the profit motive, shielded by sanctimony, proved more powerful than compassion. But Thomas warns us against the dangers of anachronism: "The Renaissance in Europe had no humanitarian pretensions," he says. The institution of slavery may have temporarily weakened towards the end of the medieval period, but not from altruistic zeal. The revered Aristotle had seemed to condone slavery, and early Christian teachings were ambivalent on the subject. Modern assumptions about liberty and equality cannot be backdated. Thomas denies the need "to speak of outrage on every page": he allows the revolting facts to speak for themselves. By 1448 the Portuguese had carried off about 1,000 slaves; in 1461 building of a castle and trading post in the bay of Arguin was completed; and similar establishments subsequently peppered the West African coast. The savagery of the traders set a pattern for the future as did the compliance of local rulers, who were happy to arrange inland raids. Indeed the greed of European royal families was to be matched by that of the kings of Ashanti, Congo and Dahomey.
In a series of bulls between 1442 and 1456 successive popes underwrote the Portuguese activities in Africa as the need to act forcefully against Islam became a pressing priority. More significantly, in view of Christopher Columbus's discoveries, Pope Alexander VI delineated Spanish and Portuguese zones of influence in 1493; the ensuing Treaty of Tordesillas dictated the geography of the slave traffic to the Americas.
The statistics which Thomas estimates for the trade in its entirety are astounding a total of 13 million slaves leaving African ports; 6 million and two minion taken, respectively, to sugar and coffee plantations; four million delivered to Brazil and and two and a half million to the Spanish Empire including Cuba; 12,000 voyages by British carriers (2,600,000 slaves) and 4,200 by French (1,250,000). As far as history is concerned, the slave was "a silent participant", but the figures are eloquent.
The intention of Spain and Portugal to retain the Atlantic as "a private lake" was thwarted by the growing naval power of France and England. Expeditions by John Hawkins were approved by Queen Elizabeth I, although she expressed "the pious hope that the slaves would not be carried off without their free consent". In the 17th century the Dutch established important trading posts in North America and were ambitious and aggressive participants in the slave trade. As the level of sugar production in the Caribbean colonies rose, demand for slaves became insatiable, especially since climatic conditions were thought to be unfavourable to non-black workers.
Thomas provides graphic descriptions of the Atlantic crossing. While Africa was still in sight, slaves were usually held in chains, in pairs, to prevent trouble. Overcrowding was the norm: a famous diagram of the Liverpool slave ship Brookes indicates that "the British in the 1780s and French in the 1820s would hold their captives in a space five feet three inches high by four feet four inches wide". Hygiene and medicine were almost non-existent; food was often in short supply; and water, even if in adequate quantities, was frequently foul. It is little wonder that illness was rife and that death rates of between ten and twenty per cent were not uncommon.
In 1639 Pope Urban VIII issued an absolute condemnation of slavery, but his words were interpreted with particular reference to Brazilian Indians rather than Africans. Continuing emphasis on Indian slavery can be discerned a century later in the denunciation by Pope Benedict XIV.
All the leading writers of the Enlightenment including Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot and Rousseau, railed against the trade: the problem was, in Thomas's opinion, that "they assumed that all they had to do was to launch ideas into the cafés and governments would follow their advice".
By the 1760s, however, Quakers like Anthony Benezet of Philadelphia were inspiring many beyond their own movement to oppose the slave trade. In 1772 the Anglican philanthropist Granville Sharp secured an important victory in the case of the recaptured slave James Somerset: the English Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ordered Somerset's release on the grounds that slavery was odious and insupportable.
Public opinion was further affected by the scandalous 1783 case of the slaveship Zong from Liverpool: water becom
ing short, 133 slaves, most of them sick, had been thrown overboard to win compensation from insurers. It was in the light of such revelations that, in 1787, the illustrious Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in London.
Thomas Clarkson dominated the Committee, and it is Clarkson whom the author salutes as "the heart and soul of the campaign for abolition" and who has perhaps the best claim to be the book's hero. He exemplified patience and persistence; and he gained crucial support from William Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce. By 1787 the young Wilberforce was already a leading figure in evangelical circles, but only in this year does his hatred of the slave trade appear to have been ignited during consultations with Pitt. Popular history awarded Wilberforce, not Clarkson, the laurels.
Britain subsequently made some kind of atonement for past wrongs by abolishing its slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself within the British Empire in 1834, thereby setting an example for other nations to follow. However, Arab slave trading was still pervasive in East Africa in the late 19th century, while our own century has produced many vile types of slavery under euphemistic names.
Thomas's magnificent study of this enormous and complex sub ject will come to be seen as a classic. The range of his erudition, his feel for detail, his sense of irony and his avoidance of mawkishness or morbidity deserve high praise. As a former residen t of the Bahamas, I would like to have read more of the fascinating history of those islands, but maybe the author's eyes vvere too firmly fixed on his beloved Cuba.