Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

Story of the Slave-Trade

"When a deed is done for freedom,

through the broad earth's aching breast

Runs a thrill of joy prophetic,

trembling on from east to west,

And the slave, where'er he cowers,

feels the soul within him climb

To the awful verge of manhood,

as the energy sublime

Of a century bursts full-blossomed

on the thorny stem of time."


W HEN the English took over the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch, there were a larger number of negro slaves there, than white men.

Let us take up the story of the slave-trade, and see how Great Britain took the lead in stopping this deplorable labour market, which she had been among the first to start.

From the earliest times, there had been slaves. Abraham had his slaves, the Greeks had slaves, and the Romans had slaves. They were prisoners of war, kept as bondsmen by their conquerors, and thus deprived of freedom. Thus, when the Romans conquered Britain, we get the well-known story of the little British slaves, in the market-place at Rome.

One day the Bishop of Rome noted the fair faces, white bodies, and golden hair of the small boys who stood bound in the slave market, waiting to be sold.

"From what country do these come?" he asked the slave-dealers.

"They are English—Angles," they told him.

"Not Angles, but Angels," commented the bishop, "with faces so angel-like."

"What is the name of their king?" he asked.

"Ælla," was the answer.

"Alleluia shall be sung in Ælla's land," he cried.

As Christianity spread, the condition of the slaves grew better, and gradually this sort of slavery vanished.

But in the fifteenth century, slavery again grew and flourished.

When the Portuguese, under Prince Henry the Navigator, were exploring the coast of West Africa, they one day brought back some black men, to show their royal master. The first idea in those days was to make these black men Christian, and to use them in the royal household. They were very useful, and more and more ships went off to the west coast, to bring back to Spain and Portugal these negroes. When Columbus discovered the West Indies, these black men were shipped over from Africa in quantities, to take the place of the native Indians in the sugar plantations. Presently the supply of negroes from the coast was exhausted, and men had to go inland and hunt them down to the coast. The first Englishman to engage in this cruel traffic was Captain John Hawkins, of Elizabethan fame. In the year 1562, he sailed to Sierra Leone, where he captured 300 negroes, which he sold for high prices to the Spaniards in the West Indies.

These were days of adventure and daring, in which human suffering played a large, silent part. Hawkins thought nothing of setting fire to native villages in Africa, and capturing the negroes as they attempted to escape. They were then chained together, as though they had been cattle, and driven to the coast to wait for ships bound for America. In the small sailing ships of the day, they were crammed below close to one another, as herrings in a barrel. In this state, they had to toss on the high seas for weeks together. Hundreds of them died from cold, exposure, want of proper food, and disease, before ever they reached the new homes of their bondage. They were gratefully bought by the colonists in America, for labourers were scarce, and there was much to be done in the new country.

Dutch and French joined in the trade. Each nation had its own slave centre in West Africa, and each shipped negro slaves to its own colony, on the distant shores of the Atlantic Ocean. As the demand increased, so the supply increased, till the slave-trade became the very life of the new colonies, the "strength and sinews" of the Western world.

Soon more than half the trade was in British hands. From Liverpool and Bristol, nearly 200 ships sailed in the course of one year, to pick up slaves in Africa to sell in America.

It was not till the eighteenth century, that the nature of the slave-trade came to be understood, when stories of cruelty and misery endured by the slaves, reached Europe, and all that was best in England rose up against it. Men began to inquire more into the condition of the slave. They learnt that he was treated as an animal, rather than a human being.

"A slave"—ran the slave-dealer's contract—"a slave is in the power of the master to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry, his labour. He can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything, but what must belong to his master."

This was slavery indeed. Further, his children might be torn from him and sold to other masters, and he reaped no reward from the long and weary days of work often forced from him by means of a whip. Of course there were exceptions. There were slaves devoted to their masters, slaves who would die for them. But, as a rule, they were just so many cattle, and treated as such.

The same year that America made her great Declaration of Independence, England declared that the "slave-trade was contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men," and it was decided, that as soon as a slave set his foot on the soil of the British Islands, he was a free man. But it was more than thirty years, before British merchants could be brought to agree to give up this large source of profit. It was not till the year 1807, that the trade was finally forbidden. Meanwhile Denmark had already abolished the slave-trade in her colonies. Gradually the other nations of Europe followed the lead. And so the slave-trade became illegal under the flags of the Western nations. The greatest slave-dealing nation—even freedom-loving England—had lifted up her voice against oppression and cruelty, had carried her point against tremendous opposition.

"O thou great Wrong, that through the slow-paced years

Didst hold thy millions fettered, and didst wield

The scourge that drove the labourer to the field

And turned a stony gaze on human tears,

Thy cruel reign is o'er."

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The First Australian Colony  |  Next: The Defense of Saragoza
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.