We as Americans are very proud of our history. We admire our forefathers who took a stand for liberty to found this great nation, but it would be unwise, as her former colonists, for Americans to overlook the British contribution to human freedom following the events of 1776. Doing so will allow us to understand more fully the role of religion and freedom in our own society.
The beginning of the 19th century was a tumultuous time for those who love liberty. Embroiled in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1793-1815, Great Britain fought and bested every sea power in Europe. With her naval supremacy assured by the victory at Trafalgar in 1805, Britain undertook a new moral enterprise in 1807—the end of the slave trade in the Atlantic.
While Great Britain was the only country with a navy capable of pursuing this endeavor, an underlying question remains unanswered. Why would the British attempt this? Britain was the foremost slave trading power in the two decades preceding the Slave Trade Act of 1807, and her government made tremendous profits by transporting human cargo to the New World. Furthermore, the embattled crown committed 13 percent of her navy to a newly formed, “West Africa Squadron” in order to suppress the illicit industry. The squadron would operate until the 1860s and more than 25 percent of its sailors would die, mostly from malaria and yellow fever. Despite these figures, the Royal Navy freed 150,000 Africans from bondage, captured 1,600 slave ships, and burned slave trading depots from the Cape of Good Hope to Morocco, which effectively ended the trans-Atlantic slave trade by 1866.
Many historians look at the end of the slave trade as a form of geopolitical strife, but it seems clear that Britain struggled valiantly for little gain. The cost of maintaining the squadron in waters far from home was immense, and the termination of the trade hurt many merchants as well as the economies of towns such as Liverpool and Bristol.
Militarily, the British government could barely afford to send the squadron in 1807. The Royal Navy was simultaneously blockading all of Napoleon’s possessions in Europe. Plus, the king would call on its Navy to fight the Americans again in 1812, while British merchants consistently required escorts to defend their convoys from enemy warships and privateers. Diplomatically, Britain risked upsetting her fragile alliances with countries like Portugal and Spain (after 1808), who depended on slave labor in their own colonies.
So, what then was their motive if not economic, martial, or diplomatic? The real cause came from a commitment to freedom found in religious faith. In looking at the major characters in the movement to end the slave trade, it becomes very clear that religion played a primary role. Christianity posits that slavery is wrong. It is incongruous with Judeo-Christian principles to own someone made in the image of God, and British abolitionists recognized this.
The Acton Institute diligently portrayed the conduct of British abolitionists like William Wilberforce in its 2008 documentary, The Birth of Freedom, but there is another abolitionist worth mentioning with regard to the slave trade—John Newton. John Newton is probably best known for penning the words to the hymn “Amazing Grace,” but he also captained a slave ship before accepting the tenets of Christianity.
Born in 1725, John Newton spent much of his early life at sea both in the Navy and as a slave trader. After suffering a stroke which confined him to land, he embraced religion and saw the true error of his ways. Newton applied to the Anglican seminary in 1757, and became a priest in 1764. Now totally reformed in his thoughts on slavery, Rev. Newton joined the campaign to end the institution in the British Empire. Working alongside William Wilberforce, Newton produced an anti-slavery tract entitled “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade” in 1787, and he spent the next twenty years preaching the evils of slavery from a religious prospective. He died six months after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807. From that point forward, trading in human flesh became illegal, and anyone caught engaging in this trade was subject to the gallows or broadsides from His Majesty’s cruisers.
While Americans find pride in their historic break with Britain, they would be wise to learn from Britons like Rev. John Newton and William Wilberforce. A stand for both religion and liberty against a government bent on trampling individual rights and human freedom is stand for all of humanity. The position taken by Newton and Wilberforce caused Parliament to engage in a policy that, while difficult and disadvantageous in the short run, granted freedom to millions around the world. Religious Americans concerned about freedom can, and should, do the same.