British success built on 'misery and suffocation' of slave boats

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Indy Politics

Some 562 men, women and children made up the human cargo of the slave ship Feroz. Crammed beneath grate-covered hatchways between the decks, left to stew amid the stench of faeces and rotting bodies, each bore the mark of their owner, branded on their skin with a red-hot iron.

After boarding the ship bound for Brazil, Reverend Robert Walsh wrote: "The space was so low that they sat between each other's legs and [were] stowed so close there was no possibility of their lying down or changing their position by night or day. The [children] seemed indifferent as to life or death, and when they were carried on deck, many of them could not stand.

"It was not surprising that they should have endured much sickness and loss of life in their short passage. They had been out but seventeen days, and they had thrown overboard no less than fifty-five, who had died of dysentery and other complaints. Many of the survivors were seen lying about the decks in the last stage of emaciation and in a state of filth and misery not to be looked at."

In 1829, Reverend Walsh patrolled the seas off the coast of Africa on behalf of the British government, enforcing the law prohibiting the slave trade passed two decades earlier in 1807. He confiscated slave ships and sent their prisoners back to Africa.

Yet before abolition in 1807, the "misery and suffocation" endured on board those ships was widely ignored by Britain.

Trading in African slaves allowed Britain to become a world economic power and financing the Industrial Revolution.

Some 28 million Africans were transported and sold into slavery between 1450 and the early 19th century.

British slave vessels alone sailing between 1698 and 1807 carried more than three million slaves, according to estimates by historian David Richardson. Liverpool was the principle slaving port and half of all vessels would dock in the north west of England. London, Bristol and Glasgow shared the remaining spoils.

Ships laden with metal goods, textiles, guns and alcohol would set sail from one of the British ports for the West African coast. The goods would be traded for a cargo of people picked up from slave forts from Senegal to Nigeria, and transported across the Atlantic to the Caribbean or North America. Of the 50,000 slaves transported each year, up to 20 per cent would die from starvation, suicide and disease during the "middle passage". Reverend Walsh wrote: "Many destroyed one another in the hopes of procuring room to breathe; men strangled those next them, and women drove nails into each other's brains. Many unfortunate creatures took the first opportunity of leaping overboard and getting rid, in this way, of an intolerable life."

Olaudah Equiano, a slave captured from Iboland in Nigeria by the British and carried to Barbados in the 1770s, wrote that the "loathsomeness of the stench" and "brutal cruelty" of the white people on his passage to Barbados led him to "wish for the last friend, death." Accounts of slavery by Equiano, Ignatius Sancho and Ottabah Cugoan were persuasive in swaying public opinion. William Wilberforce, MP for Hull, founded the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787

In 1807, after 20 years of lobbying, the slave trade in the British colonies was abolished. The US followed in 1808. And in 1833, the year of Wilberforce's death, the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed.