How Britain accidentally conquered much of Africa in order to wipe out slavery

How Britain accidentally conquered much of Africa in order to wipe out slavery. By Aris Roussinos.

In the conquest of much of Africa, liberal humanitarianism and imperialism strode hand in hand into the forested interior: an accurate understanding of how this happened is more timely than ever.

In the first [phase], … British traders enmeshing themselves in the new, globalising capitalist economy discovered that rich profits could be made buying slaves from African coastal rulers and transporting them to the New World as forced agricultural labourers, paying for them with the products of the new factories. It would be more accurate, then, to characterise the Atlantic slave trade as a product of capitalism or even of globalisation than of either colonialism or imperialism, yet our newly-woke global corporations seem curiously loath to make this connection.

It was the second phase, the idealistic and humanitarian imperialism of the abolitionists, that set the stage over the course of the mid-19th century for the acquisitive, high imperialism of the Scramble for Africa. …

The British Foreign Office and Admiralty found themselves drawn into an ever-widening series of military interventions to eradicate slavery at its source, which would lead inexorably, though unintentionally, to direct colonial rule.

Firstly, the anti-slavery campaign of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron turned out to be almost wholly ineffective: the trade in enslaved Africans boomed over the course of its deployment as American and Spanish merchantmen, backed by their governments, refused the Royal Navy’s authority to board their slaving vessels.

Instead, the Royal Navy settled on a policy of eradicating the slave trade on the ground, sailing into coastal towns and villages to pressure their kings and chieftains to sign agreements banning the sale of slaves, and bombarding them and replacing their rulers when they did not. Bit by bit, driven by the unintentional logic of humanitarian intervention, Britain found itself the master of much of the West African coastline.

Similarly, in the forested interior, Sierra Leone’s “Afro-Victorian” middle-class descended from freed American slaves pushed the boundaries of their settlement into unexplored regions, dragging London’s writ behind them. …

Over the course of the 19th century, the modest humanitarian goals of the Sierra Leone colony for freed slaves had evolved into the conquest of much of Nigeria, from the naval bombardment of Lagos in 1851, followed by its annexation in 1861, to the conquest of the mighty slaving kingdom of Benin in 1891…, and then the defeat of the country’s Muslim, slave-trading north towards the end of the century. Driving these conquests was the desire not just to bring Christianity but also the creed of anti-slavery.


Many Africans were bewildered by the shift in British policy, and the destruction of their traditional ways of life. As late as 1897, the Nigerian historian Philip A. Igbafe observed, the deposed Oba or ruler of the Benin kingdom pleaded from his jail cell for permission “to catch some Urhobo slaves for sacrifice as the rains were falling too incessantly for the good of the people and their crops,” a request the new British rulers denied. In what is today Ghana, the Asante king or Asentehene asked of the British “‘But if they think it is bad now, why did they think it was good before?’” and continued the trade in humans that had for so many centuries underpinned the kingdom’s existence, little thinking that it would lead to its downfall.

Yet the unwillingness of African rulers to go along with the newfound abolitionist crusade of the British middle classes had set the stage for a reinterpretation of Britain’s mission from one of education and negotiation to one of military conquest and direct enforcement of liberal mores. As Huzzey notes, “blunt bigotry and frustration at African slave-dealing led the Spectator, in 1853, to moan that ‘British lives are lavished on the African coasts to negotiate and treat with the Black babies who can’t keep from selling each other and cheating us.’

The paper concluded that it was impossible to educate West Africans as ‘moral observers of the Anti-Slavery faith.’” Instead, the perceived intransigence of African rulers “moved Britain to kindle freedom with force”, setting the stage for the expansionist, racialised imperialism of the later 19thcentury.

From Ghana to Nigeria, … the logic of humanitarian intervention had led, step by unintended step, to the destruction and looting of native kingdoms and their replacement by direct British rule. …

It wasn’t for the money, quite the contrary:

The financial benefits accruing to Britain were, contrary to modern perceptions, negligible: throughout the early and mid-19th century, trade with the entire African continent made up less than 2.6% of Britain’s trade balance.

As even James Stephen, described by the historian Seymour Drescher as “the Colonial office’s most influential abolitionist undersecretary” warned, “[If] we could acquire the dominion of the whole of that continent, it would be but a worthless possession.”

As Huzzey notes, “Anti-slavery policies locked an unwilling state into obligations toward African colonies.” And then as now, it was the moral crusading of journalists that drove Britain into its next wave of imperial expansion.

Slaves everywhere! Onwards into the interior of Africa, and its east coast:

The British military conquest of West Africa had led to the extinction of the international trade in enslaved Africans — British governors, wary of enraging local populations, still turned a blind eye to the institution of domestic slavery — yet the pacification of the coast pushed the focus of the slave trade deeper into the interior. “Arab” slave traders from the Sultanate of Zanzibar — often in fact Islamised Swahili-speakers — penetrated deeper and deeper into the unexplored regions of Central Africa in pursuit of forced labour for the clove plantations of Zanzibar and the date groves of Basra and Arabia, focussing the attention of British liberal abolitionists on the continent’s east. Into this situation strode the crusading figure of David Livingstone, whose mission into the continent’s unexplored interior, and lurid and harrowing depictions of Arab slave raids, awoke a new wave of popular abolitionist fervour.

Just as the British government was losing its taste for humanitarian intervention in Africa, letters from the long-lost Livingstone republished by his “discoverer”, the Welsh journalist Henry Morton Stanley, demanded to a captivated audience that the successes of the West African campaigns be reproduced “on the opposite side of the continent”, so that “no reasonable expense, that preserves us from contamination, should be esteemed a sacrifice” in extirpating “the open sore in the world”.



Driven by popular pressure that something should be done, “the Liberal government under Gladstone — a longstanding skeptic of anti-slavery violence — reluctantly sanctioned a mission to Zanzibar” …

The modern fixation on Rhodes’s more nakedly imperialist power grabs conceals the awkward truth that from Livingstone to Baker, Gordon to Lugard, Britain’s exploration and conquest of Africa took place under the banner of humanitarian intervention against slavery.

Other European powers did the same, or pretended to:

By the time of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, called by Bismarck, and now seen as the beginning of the Scramble for Africa and the highpoint of European imperialism in the continent, the popular clamour by liberal and evangelical activists for anti-slavery conquests had established the principle that military intervention against African states and their replacement with European governance was not just legally permissible, but an overriding moral duty. …

When even as sinister an actor as King Leopold of Belgium framed his conquest of the Congo as a mission to extirpate slavery from the Dark Continent’s darkest reaches, he was lauded as a hero by the liberal press and abolitionist activists in Britain. As late as the early 20th century, British anti-slavery activists were applauding the Italian conquest of Libya and Ethiopia, both ostensibly carried out to rid the countries of the stain of slavery. …

Today’s activists are so unaware:

It is worth remembering then, when we are lectured via Instagram stories or the lobbying of activist groups about the evils of slavery, colonialism and imperialism for which we must all now make penance, that much of the interplay of these three quite separate historical processes was carried out at the moralising behest of their direct forebears.

Echoes of liberating the women of Afghanistan. Did the west do that for the money?

hat-tip Stephen Neil