This year and the next mark an important historical anniversary: Two centuries ago, both the United States and Great Britain abolished the African slave trade.
By the time they did, the trade had carried 9 million Africans to New World plantations, where they would live under the lash and produce the largest planned accumulation of wealth the world had yet seen. Abolition followed a long and determined campaign waged by antislavery activists on both sides of the Atlantic.
But who really brought the slave trade to an end?
In popular history, the people who abolished the slave trade are seen virtually as saints. They were somber, often dressed in black; they were devout, earnest, and good; they were the very embodiment of Christian virtue. In New England, many were descended from Puritans and reflected their austere and humorless ways. In England they were epitomized by the aristocratic evangelical William Wilberforce, the voice of abolition in Parliament. The recent movie Amazing Grace portrays him as a selfless, somewhat sickly angel who loved animals, servants, Africans and God. Piety has long been seen as the hallmark of abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic.
If that were the full story, though, it would be exploded by this document. While working in the special collections library of Bristol University in England on a book on 18th-century slave ships, I found an almost completely unknown broadside entitled “The Petition of the Sharks of Africa.” It looked like any other printed petition, elegant in its composition, suitable for presentation, addressed “To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain, in Parliament assembled.”
It was, however, a vivid and harsh piece of satire. In fact it claimed to have been written by the “Sharks of Africa,” who declared themselves to be a numerous and flourishing group thanks to the many slave ships that visited the coast of West Africa. From these vessels, they explained, they got “large quantities of their most favourite food – human flesh.”
When the dead were thrown overboard, the sharks devoured the corpses. Sometimes they got live flesh, when African rebels who preferred death to slavery jumped overboard. When slave ships were “dashed on the rocks and shoals” of the region, throwing “hundreds of human beings, both black and white” into the water, it was a feast.
The sharks were writing to the British Parliament kindly asking them not to end the slave trade. Taking a sensible conservative view, the sharks denounced the abolitionists’ “wild ravings of fanaticism,” confident that their benevolent lordships would not let His Majesty’s loyal shark subjects starve. The petitioners were sure that they could count on “the wisdom and fellow-feeling” of the House of Lords. Sharks should stick together, after all.
Nothing I had read had prepared me for such a document. Here, unexpectedly, was a dark and daring kind of humor I had never known to exist among abolitionists.
Further research revealed that it had been republished widely, in Edinburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and Salem. I concluded that “The Petition of the Sharks of Africa” had been written by a Scot named James Tytler, who was a physician, poet, composer, an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Britain’s first hot-air balloonist. For his radicalism, he was eventually arrested and charged with sedition, only to flee into exile in 1793, first to Ireland, then to Salem. His contribution has never figured in the histories of abolition – partly, I am convinced, because it does not fit the enduring image of abolitionists.
The document joins a long string of new findings that have changed our understanding of who the abolitionists were. Working-class men and women protested the trade through boycotts; sailors smuggled pamphlets and told their horror stories to activists ashore. The front line of the war against human bondage was occupied by the enslaved themselves, whose resistance sent shock waves around the world, terrifying many and inspiring some. Their names may be lost to the history books, but they anchored a complex and diverse social movement.
Why do we need to know this today? First, it is important to understand that the abolition of the slave trade, and of slavery itself, was not a gift from on high. William Wilberforce did not abolish the slave trade, as Amazing Grace might make it seem, just as a lone Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves. It will no longer do to pretend that a “great man” did things that are more accurately described as a result of a complex historical situation and a many-sided resistance.
Second, it is important to people demanding justice and reparations today – whoever and wherever they may be – to know that their forebears played an important role in bringing the slave trade and indeed the entire institution of slavery to an end. We owe the abolition of the nefarious trade not just to aristocrats and Puritans, but to enslaved rebels, to factory workers and sailors, and to at least one irreverent Scottish daredevil.