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Part 7: The Age of Empire, continued

England's Role in the Slave Trade
Only two years after Columbus discovered the New World, he brought back more than 500 Caribbean's to Spain to be sold as slaves. In 1501, African slaves were first introduced into Hispaniola by Spanish settlers; the natives had already been severely decimated, resulting in a labor shortage in the plantations. In 1511, African slaves were taken to Cuba. The nasty business had begun in earnest.

By 1518 huge numbers of African slaves were arriving at Santo Domingo to harvest sugar cane. The 1545 discovery of the Potosi silver mines as well as epidemics of typhus and smallpox hastened the decline of the natives, used as slave labor and increased the importation of African slaves to replace them. In 1560, Portugal also imported slaves into Brazil to replace native labor in the sugar plantations.

English participation in the lucrative slave trade seems to have begun when John Hawkins hijacked a Portuguese ship carrying Africans to Brazil in 1562. Hawkins traded the slaves at Hispaniola for ginger, pearls and sugar, making a huge profit which could not be ignored by his countrymen. One year later, Hawking sold a cargo of Black slaves in Hispaniola and the floodgates were opened. Though Queen Elizabeth spoke out against the dark business, she later took shares in Hawkins'' ventures, even lending him one of her ships in the enterprise that pitted her adventurous navigators against those of Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands (It was Hawkins who introduced tobacco into England in 1565).

In 1570 large scale exports of slaves to the Americas began. Ironically it was maize, introduced into Africa from Brazil that ensured a steady food crop that fueled the population growth to furnish a steady supply of slaves. In Europe a growing appetite for sugar as a sweetener for the newly introduced beverage, tea (begun to be drunk in earnest in England in the mid-1600's), and as a preservative for fruit, meant a great increase in sugar plantations in the Caribbean and thus the need for more slaves. The Virginia colony received its first Black slaves in 1619. From this time on they began to play a role in the North American economy. In 1627 English settlers colonized Barbados and soon began to transform into the largest sugar grower in the islands.

In 1672, English privateers in the slave trade gave way to the Royal company, formed expressly to take slaves from Africa to the Americas. In the North American Colonies, especially after "King Philip's War" of 1676, the fast-swindling supply of native slaves was augmented by Africans who were bought and sold at enormous profits. In 1698, Parliament opened the slave trade to British merchants who began the triangular trade, taking rum from New England to Africa, and from there, slaves to the Caribbean, from there West Indian sugar and molasses was shipped to New England to produce more rum. By 1709, Britain was taking as many as 20,000 Black slaves a year to the Caribbean. However, the most active period in its participation in the trade began when the South Sea Company received a grant to import 4,500 slaves a year into Spain's New World colonies for the next thirty years.

As the industrial and agricultural revolutions in England began to show enormous profits for many individuals, more and more investment took place in the slave trade. A new triangular trade began, mainly centered in Liverpool, in which cotton was sent to West Africa, where it was sold for slave. The slaves were then taken to the American South, where they were sold for raw cotton which was taken back to Liverpool to be processed in the mills of Lancashire. The business of cotton helped create hundreds of banks in England, including the giants Barclays and Lloyds, and, after 1773, a booming stock exchange appeared. British slavers began taking Xhosa (Bantu) slaves to Virginia plantations in 1719. By the 1750's, a whole new leisured class had been created in England from profits gained mainly from island cotton, sugar and tobacco grown with slave labor. At this time, English Quakers did not follow the practices of their Friends in the American Colonies who excluded slave traders from their Society.

Perhaps the beginnings of public protest against the slave trade in England began in 1763 when the badly beaten slave that Granville Sharp nursed back to health was kidnapped and sold (three years later, none other than George Washington exchanged an unruly slave for rum). A turning point in British toleration of slavery occurred in 1772 when James Somerset escaped from his master. Britain's Lord Chief Justice William Murray ruled that "as soon as any slave sets foot in England he becomes free."

The first motion to outlaw slavery in Britain and her colonies was heard in the Commons in 1776; it failed, perhaps due to pre-occupation of the House with the American War of Independence. English Quakers were also very active in their denunciation of the trade. A speech in the Commons by William Wilberforce in 1789 strongly condemned the practice of shipping Africans to the West Indies, but insurrections in some of the islands prevented a motion from being passed in 1781 that forbade the practice.

British cotton manufactures were also profiting greatly from slave labor in the American South that gained enormous benefits from the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1792. Though the US and Britain had agreed to cooperate in suppressing the slave trade in the Treaty of Ghent (that ended the War of 1812), the new, speedy Baltimore clipper ships continued to deliver cargoes of slaves.

In 1823, all the elements of the anti-slavery movement in England coalesced when William Wilbeforce and Thomas Buxton formed an antislavery society in London. Prominent Welsh reformer and factory owner Robert Owen also publicly advocated the abolition of slavery. In 1830, British authorities in the Bahamas declared that slaves from the wrecked schooner Comet were free, despite American protests.

Sharp's rebellion in Jamaica took place in 1831, but a drop in sugar prices had made slavery unprofitable on the island and news of the savage reprisals shocked British consciences. Parliament finally ordered the abolition of slavery in the British colonies to take effect by August 1, 1834 (three days after the death of Wilberforce). England and its empire was at last free from its terrible curse, During the same year, the Factory Act forbade the employment of children under 9 and proscribed the number of hours children were to work in the textile mills.

Political Reform
Between the death of George III in 1820 and the accession of Victoria to the throne in 1837, England was ruled first by the Prince Regent, during the dotage George of then under his own rule as George IV ending in 1830 and by his Uncle, William IV from 1830 to 1837. There is not much to say about George IV except that he suffered from a disastrous marriage and that he exercised a fine artistic taste. During his reign, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace were renovated and extended and under the architect John Nash, St. James' Park and Regent's Park laid out, and the extravagant Royal Pavilion built at Brighton. When the Catholic Emancipation Bill became law, George threatened to abdicate, only reluctantly agreeing to prevent civil war in Ireland. George had no male children; his daughter had died in 1817, and his second brother was childless. The throne thus went to his third brother, who became William IV who ruled from 1830-1837.

Progress in the Arts
The first half of the 18th century had given us the "Augustans," following the ideals of classical Rome. Alexander Pope led the school that included Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and James Boswell; and the "common sense" philosophy of Dr. Samuel Johnson. England produced the painters Gainsborough and Reynolds and crrated a climate for musicians such as Handel to receive Royal patronage.

The transition was most apparent in the writings of philosopher David Hume "Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," 1748; the historian Edward Gibbon "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," 1776; and politician Edmund Burke "Reflections on the Revolution in Francem" 1791. The new class of poets included William Cowper and Robert Burns. English poets and painters, in their revolt against "common sense," began to follow the brilliant explorations of poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827).

The brilliant landscape artist John Constable died the same year that Victoria became queen. J.M.W. Turner was still alive. As members of the so-called Romantic Movement, they had been part of an astonishing artistic revolution that accompanied the topsy-turvy develpments in politics and the gradual displacement of the aristocracy by the middle class trading interests in the seat of power. Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Byron all followed in rapid succession bringing a new depth to English literature, changing it from one concerned primarily with "reason" to one that we now call "romantic." Instinct and emotion took the place of the old rationalism. The idealization of the "noble savage," could only have come about however, when England's explorers and missionaries journeyed to new, and hitherto unknown lands.

Resource Information

Part 7: The Age of Empire, continued


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