Slavery has existed throughout human history. Strong and powerful people have always forced the less powerful to do hard, dangerous work without pay and with death as a consequence. Slavery is forced labour, and prisoners of war or convicted criminals have often been sentenced to forced labour. With the discovery of America and the colonization of the New World, slavery was systematized. Larger ships and firearms made it possible for the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers to subjugate Africans and Native Americans who did not have this technology. Somehow, because they could do it, they did do it; and because they did it, enslavement became more efficient and therefore more and more inhuman.
Once some people gained trading advantages from slavery, others followed suit. If the Spaniards could produce cheap cotton, tobacco and sugar using slaves, so of course could the Dutch, the French, the British and the Danes after the middle of the 1600s. The system of international competitiveness and pricing was created in this period and was given the name ‘mercantilism’.
Europeans and Americans of European descent justified slavery with theories of the inferiority of other races and kept these people in subjugation with rules and laws. This was how the basis of racism was laid. The first moral opposition to slavery was formulated as early as 1688 by the Quakers in North America. Slowly the idea grew, both in Europe and in America, that people ought to have basic rights. These thoughts led to revolutions in France and civil unrest in other European countries, and among Christian communities of all kinds. The rights of the enslaved thus became an issue of both human rights and international trade.
The Danes established their colonies from the mid-1600s. In Denmark it was the bourgeoisie and the nobility who organized the slave trade into an efficient system that operated from c. 1700. It was in the same strata of society that the issue of slavery was taken up some 100 years later. The powerful elite also understood that the idea of abolishing slavery would pave the way for a new social order appropriate for industrialism.
It would however take another 50 years before slavery was abolished in 1848.
The first step was taken in 1792 by the King’s economic adviser Count Ernst Heinrich Schimmelmann. He set up a commission with himself as chairman, together with his secretary, Ernst Philip Kirstein. The Commission was to clarify the possibility of stopping the slave trade, particularly in cases where Africans were kidnapped from the west coast of the African continent and sailed to the West Indies to be sold as slaves.
The commission described the conditions and suggested that King Christian VII should prohibit the trade gradually over a ten-year period, to cease completely in 1803. However, in this ten-year period the slave trade became even more systematic than before. There were around 30,000 enslaved Africans in the Danish colony in 1792; by 1815 there were around 35,000.
The article “Extracts from the Representation to the King regarding the Abolition of the Negro Trade” was published in 1792 in Knud Lyhne Rabæk’s and Christian Henriksen Pram’s periodical Ny Minerva. Kirstein and Pram were the first Danes to speak out against slavery as an institution, on the basis of the African slave trade. They were innovative for their time and today the texts bear witness to the view of humanity that had been created by the Europeans: that they were superior to other races. Since World War II the institution of International Human Rights has formally done away with this view of humanity, but it still plagues the world community.
Christian Henriksen Pram
Christian Henriksen Pram lived from 1756 until 1821, and was a Danish / Norwegian poet, civil servant, magazine editor and writer. His output was not large, but it ranged from poetry and plays to social and economic tracts. The article “Regarding the Negro Trade” was written at a time of change when the interests of profit and economic prosperity were battling with a dawning humanism and moral ideas of human rights.
Below are some extracts from Christian Henriksen Pram’s text “Regarding the Negro Trade” – placed in the context of the period. It is estimated that 2.7 million Africans had been abducted to the Americas by 1792 Pram writes about the high number:
“… Perhaps set rather too high, but even with a substantial deduction this is truly still a shocking number for those who have been imported and who are all undeniably among the unhappiest creatures of this Earth.”.
Pram was writing at a time when there was freedom of the press, but a ban on writing political tracts that could overturn the social order. He praises the forward-looking efforts towards the abolition of the slave trade – and he provides all the details that Kirstein could not publish. First he describes how peaceful Africa was before the encounter with the Europeans:
“These men are neither stupid nor evil; on the contrary they would be pious, gentle, frank and hospitable, had not their unfortunate connection with the Europeans weakened these qualities. Their nature is to love peace; their belligerence is only the fruit of the greed with which we, along with our other passions, have infected them. We profoundly reduce their circumstances and their measure of happiness by abducting them from their native regions, where the soil, well nigh of itself, yet by dint of moderate labour, produces an abundance of all the necessities they know, and by taking them to a much more thankless soil where they find the harshest toil and perpetual bondage. The Europeans, instead of the shameful trade in which they engage there, could turn the connection with the inhabitants of these lands into a true source of wealth, through humane trade and by establishing colonies and spreading European culture.”
Pram writes that European decadence is destroying African morals; that drink and firearms are depleting the African community, so that the lust for these goods induces the Africans to take their own neighbours as captives and sell them to the captains of slave ships waiting for cargo at the coast. And he describes how it depraves sailors to contribute to the immoral, disease-ridden slave transports, which in turn lead to higher mortality among the sailors themselves. In particular, he describes how terrible the conditions are on the slave ships, with a death rate of up to 50% among the captured Africans.
The idea of stopping the African slave trade was influenced by thinking in France, England and Germany, and Kirstein and Pram both rely on foreign accounts of the conditions by among other writers Sell, Clarkson and Frossard.
“Frossard cites an example of a Captain who was jailed for his cruelty to the Negroes in London by the Company in London now known as the Sierra Leone Company. He was among other things accused of the following: – A young Negro woman was abducted from her husband and relatives, with an infant at her breast, and offered by the slave traders to this Captain. He was interested in the mother but not the child; so since they would not separate them, he at last bought both; but unwilling to be burdened with the child he had no qualms about ridding himself of it, doing so without hesitation by dashing its brains against the deck and throwing it overboard before the mother’s eyes. The mother was very beautiful. One hour later she was therefore dragged down to this same Captain’s cabin and forced to endure the embraces of this monster.”
The examples continue page after page. He describes the arrival of the enslaved Africans in the colony, the auctions and their conditions in the colony:
“The work of the Negroes consists in digging, planting, weeding, and cutting sugar cane, bringing the cane to the mill where the juice must be pressed out and turned into raw sugar and rum. They are awakened to their toil before the sun rises by a crack of the gangmaster’s whip; they work until noon, get two hours’ rest; work until the evening again; and then, if treated with leniency, they rest until the next morning. If any man tires of work he is immediately cured of this illness with the whip. The dreadful hardships ensuing from poor food and beatings mean that the Negroes either die immediately or otherwise wholly forfeit their normally so healthy constitutions.”
Pram writes in detail about the laws and punishments that exist to keep the slaves in check. And he describes how morally degrading slavery is for the colony, for the individual and for Christian living. He also argues from the economic facts and reaches the same conclusion as the Commission and Kirstein – better living conditions would mean that the slave population could maintain itself – in the long term.
“Such then is the slave trade in its inmost nature for the wretched objects who are its victims, and for the equally hapless subjects who engage in it. If the trade were not to secure individual profit for its entrepreneurs, though … one may assume that no one … would be so foolish as to engage in it or defend it.”
“So many great economic and political advantages would ensue from the elimination of this abomination against all justice and religion; and however much it conflicts with wise economy … it is even more manifestly the opposite of all that true religion and the gentle commandments of humanity require.”
Eighteen years later, Christen Pram was given a retirement post on St. Thomas, whereupon he found that the situation of the enslaved Africans was in order. And thus old age and illness made him more conservative – and he died the year after his arrival in the West Indies.
The periodical Ny Minerva, June 1792. Found at Google Books Text commentary and excerpts by Ulla Lunn “Grundtvig og slavesagen” (Grundtvig and the case of the slaves), Knud Eyvin Bugge 2003.