Britain’s Prime Minister considers abolishing the slave trade, 1783-1806

The following is an excerpt from the book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams, p145-148.

Saint Domingue [the French colony which would later become Haiti] was larger than any British colony, its soil was more fertile and less exhausted, hence its costs of [sugar] production were lower.

From the standpoint of the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, this was the decisive factor. The age of the British sugar islands was over. The West Indian system [of producing sugar in plantations on island colonies in the Caribbean, using slave labour] was unprofitable, and the slave trade on which it rested, “instead of being advantageous to Great Britain… is the most destructive that can well be imagined to her interests.”

Pitt’s plan was twofold: to recapture the European [sugar] market with the aid of sugar from India, and to secure an international abolition of the slave trade which would ruin Saint Domingue. If not international abolition, then British abolition. The French were so dependent on British slave traders that even a unilateral abolition by England would seriously dislocate the economy of the French colonies.

Pitt’s plan failed, for two reasons:

1. The importation of sugar from India, on the scale planned, was impossible owing to the high duties [import taxes] imposed on all sugar not the produce of the British West Indies.

2. The French, Dutch and Spaniards refused to abolish the slave trade.

It was not difficult to see the political motives behind Pitt’s cloak of humanitarianism. Gaston-Martin, the well-known French historian of the slave trade and the Caribbean colonies, accuses Pitt of aiming by propaganda to free the slaves, “in the name no doubt of humanity, but also to ruin French commerce”. As Ramsay had admitted: “We may confidently conclude that the African [slave] trade is more confined in its utility than is generally imagined and that of late years it has contributed more to the aggrandisement of our rivals than of our national wealth.”

When war broke out with France in 1793, expedition after expedition was sent unsuccessfully to capture the precious colony of Saint Domingue, first from the French, then [after the slaves of Saint Domingue carried out a successful rebellion and drove out the French] from the Negroes. Britain lost thousands of men and spent thousands of pounds in the attempt to capture Saint Domingue. She failed, but the world’s sugar bowl was destroyed in the process and French colonial superiority smashed forever.

Pitt could not have had Saint Domingue and abolition as well. Without its 40,000 slave imports a year, Saint Domingue might as well have been at the bottom of the sea. [The treatment of slaves in the Caribbean was so brutal that they usually only survived a few years, and unlike slaves in the American South they did not have children; therefore in order to keep the sugar plantations running it was necessary to continually import new slaves from West Africa.] The very acceptance of the island meant logically the end of Pitt’s interest in abolition. Naturally he did not say so. He had already committed himself too far in the eyes of the public. He continued to speak in favour of abolition, even while giving every practical encouragement to the slave trade. Thereafter Pitt’s support of parliamentary motions for the abolition of the slave trade became nothing short of perfunctory. Under Pitt’s administration the British slave trade alone more than doubled, and Britain conquered two more sugar colonies [worked by slaves], Trinidad and British Guiana.

– excerpted from the book ‘Slavery and Capitalism’ by Eric Williams, p145-148.