How to Defeat the Evil of Slavery

Thomas Fowell Buxton, Der afrikanische Sklavenhandel und seine Abhülfe. (The African Slave Trade and its Remedy) Translated from English by Gustav Julius. With a preface bearing the title “The Niger expedition and its purpose” by Carl Ritter. Leipzig 1841.

Printed by the Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus publishing house.

The time was ripe. The rich brewer Thomas Fowell Buxton was applauded by the English high society when he argued at dinners and tea parties that no sentient being could tolerate the evil of slavery any longer. It’s true that a British judge had ruled that the concept of a human being possessing another one was incompatible with British law as early as 1772, and the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had made the slave trade illegal throughout the entire British Empire. However, slavery still existed. And Buxton fought against it. As a member of parliament, and with wide support from the English citizens, he managed to push through a law that finally banned slavery in British colonies, too.

However, this didn’t put an end to slavery in all countries, nor did it stop the international slave trade. After all, both phenomena were respected business concepts. And neither slave keepers, nor slavers and least of all African slave suppliers were willing to give up a profitable business just because British morals had changed. After all, the Britons didn’t treat their own factory workers much better than slaves.

The United Kingdom obviously saw things differently. Slavery on plantations was the evil that had to be eliminated. Unfortunately, they couldn’t tell their European neighbours or the newly independent United States of America what to do. Therefore, Buxton argued, one had to get to the root of the evil and cut off the supply from Africa. To back up this approach with arguments, Buxton wrote a book in 1839, which was received with great enthusiasm: The African Slave Trade and its Remedy. The book we want to show you is the German translation of the English bestseller. It bears the title “Der afrikanische Sklavenhandel und seine Abhülfe”.

Thomas Fowell Buxton (in the red frame) is sitting on a podium during the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention. Contemporary painting by Benjamin Robert Haydon.

The Superior British Way of Life

Thomas Fowell Buxton, the author, was a starry-eyed idealist. Convinced of the Christian ideal of brotherly love, he fought against many things that seem barbaric to us today, too. He was a social reformer who raised money for London’s weavers who had been driven into misery by the industrialisation. He demanded prison conditions be improved, argued against the death penalty, animal cruelty, Indian widow burning and lotteries.

What we are mainly interested in, in the context of his book, are his ideas of eliminating slavery. He outlined them in his work “The African Slave Trade and its Remedy”. The baseline was that he urged the British government to use its influence to “persuade” African rulers to sign treaties that would prevent them from continuing to sell unwanted children of their own people and prisoners of war as slaves. Instead, they should conclude treaties with England, whose economy was expanding, to trade in other raw materials and agricultural products. To achieve this, the Christian mission had to introduce Western ideals to the “savage peoples”.

The Niger Expedition

On 1 June 1840, the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa was convened by Buxton, who was the president of this organisation. Buxton enjoyed great support. Prince Albert himself, the husband of Queen Victoria, was honorary chairman. Sir Robert Peel, one of Britain’s leading politicians, gave an enthusiastic speech and almost 4,000 attendees listened attentively.

They were all delighted about Buxton’s idea to abolish slavery by fostering (hopefully profitable) trade relations with Africa and promoting the Christianisation of the African peoples. The government was bewildered but, due to public pressure, felt compelled to financially support the Society’s diplomatic and missionary expedition.

With high hopes and two Ghanaian princes that had been raised in England, the Society travelled to Africa and then upstream the Niger River. Liberal newspapers all over Europe covered the British venture. It was hotly debated but in line with the trend. European liberals celebrated Buxton for his promising idea. At the time, it was fashionable to combine business and Christian brotherly love.

A German Publishing House Saw Its Chance

In Germany, too, high society talked about this expedition, and the German Brockhaus Verlag saw a profitable deal coming up. 31-year-old Gustav Julius was given the task of translating “The African Slave Trade and its Remedy” into German as quickly as possible. Julius was a promising journalist who was to become an enthusiastic supporter of the German revolutions of 1848-1849. How important his contemporaries considered him to be is illustrated by the fact that Karl Marx and Ferdinand von Freiligrath, among others, were present at his funeral.

An introduction about the expedition to the Niger, which was highly topical at the time, was written by Carl Ritter. He was a very well-known and popular professor, who held a chair for geography at the University of Berlin. Ritter was not only considered an expert on Africa, but was himself a convinced opponent of slavery and of the slave trade.

Missionary piggy bank, around 1910: when money is thrown in the box, the black boy wearing a christening robe starts to nod his head. Photo: Ji-Elle, CC BY-SA 4.0.

High Hopes and Reality

The high hopes of the English bringers of civilization were crushed by the local conditions. Within weeks, a third of the 150 European expedition members died, almost all of them suffered from fever, and, thus, the leader had no choice but to abandon the expedition as soon as 1842.

And yet, Buxton’s ideas inspired others: Like many young clergymen of his generation, the Scotsman David Livingston travelled to Africa in order to bring Christianity to the black people. And in his novel “The Bleak House”, Charles Darwin used the character of Mrs Jellyby to hold up a mirror to all those who focused their compassion in a great gesture on “little niggers” in Africa to hide their lack of Christian brotherly love for those around them in a very effective way. And in Germany, too, not much time has passed since people collected donations for the Christian mission in collecting boxed called “nodding niggers”.

Today we are somewhat shocked about the naivety with which a white man believed he could bring salvation to Africa through business and Christian ideals. But did we really make that much progress if we still believe that our vision of a free market system and democracy are right for every society?


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

We bought this book at Antiquariat Hohmann.

You can read the English original “The African Slave Trade and its Remedy” on Google.

The German translation “Der afrikanische Sklavenhandel und seine Abhülfe” is also available on Google.

Unfortunately, racism does not only exist in history books, it is still present in our society, in many different forms. On its website, the University of York provides you with articles, videos and podcasts to educate yourself on the subject of (anti) racism.

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