Slavery's link to the war on terror

A mighty empire launches an unprecedented military campaign. It will patrol the globe to end a heinous and uncivilised form of behaviour. Financing this pre-emptive project demands great sacrifices. Old allies refuse to participate. The empire's lonely unilateral exercise drags on for decades, costing thousands of lives. Observers from Cuba to Moscow assume that this folly will bring down the empire.

Many will say that this is the story of the Bush administration's war on terror. In fact, however, it describes Britain's 1807-1867 effort to suppress the Atlantic slave trade. It took 60 bitter years but in the end Britain did succeed in its moral campaign. By the second half of the century there was an international legal consensus banning the trade. How Britain managed this unlikely feat is worth reviewing, especially now, when there are so many questions about the direction of the US post-Iraq.

At the start of the 19th century, ending the slave trade seemed impossible. Slavery was one of the sides of the golden triangle of trade that sustained the empire. As authors Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape note in their illuminating analysis on "Costly International Moral Action", British ships carried half the slaves transported across the Atlantic between 1791 and 1805; by 1805, Crown colonies whose economies were based on slavery produced half the world's sugar*. Many saw slavery as an ugly but unavoidable part of economic growth.

Yet abolitionist sentiment in Britain surged. Religious dissenters, especially Quakers, insisted that it was the Crown's duty to bring "terror to evildoers". "Never, never will we desist" was the rallying cry of William Wilberforce, the abolitionist. Britain persevered, enforcing its new regime by chasing down traders in seas from the Caribbean to west Africa.

This brutal work was the opposite of realpolitik and it caused enormous damage. Britain's share of the world sugar market plummeted to 15 per cent by 1850. For the half-century, overall costs of the anti-slave trade campaign and of the economic losses that attended it averaged about 2 per cent of national income a year. Then there was the sheer dirtiness of the vessel-by-vessel conflict: think of the violence experienced by Horatio Hornblower, the hero of the maritime adventure novels. Confronting the enemy meant facing not uniformed columns but shady mercenaries capable of unpredictable thuggery and throat-slitting: not so different from aspects of today's fight against terrorism. Some 5,000 British seamen and officials lost their lives, a share commensurate with a US loss of 55,000 soldiers today.

Britain expected the slave trade would abate; for many decades, it did not. Britain expected other nations to join it; instead they revolted. There were war scares with the US and Spain and a war with Brazil. Then, as now, France played the spoiler. Finally, there were the protesters at home. How would the English take it, one gentleman asked the House of Commons, if "British vessels, engaged in smuggling, had been chased, burnt, sunk, or run ashore by American or Russian ships of war?"

Nonetheless, the long campaign was successful and had important results beyond the cause of abolition. One was to impress on the world the methods through which Britain created its new civilised norm: not via treaty-writing but by unilateral action and building on the tradition of customary law. Indeed, as Messrs Kaufmann and Pape note, the unilateral nature of the exercise inspired Britain to spend more and fight harder. "We must show the world" was the motto. This differs from a multilateral dynamic, where countries become stingier, asking: "Are we paying more than our share?"

This brings to mind the current squabble over funding Iraq's rehabilitation and the more general question of whether the current war on terror, the Afghanistan intervention and the Iraq war represent similar moral projects. In the UK, Tony Blair seems to see the connection to the old tradition. "Costly moral action" perfectly describes his decision to stand by President George W. Bush.

As for the US, many of its current foreign policy projects resemble the old empire's campaign in one way or another. A microcosm can be found in the proliferation security initiative, a US-led project to police the high seas for freighters hiding not slaves but Scud missiles. Its champion is one of the great Hornblowers of our day: John Bolton, undersecretary of state. But Britain and nine other nations are now also working on it.

Mr Bush seems to be a moralistic campaigner; his term "axis of evil" shocked in part because it closely echoed the hell-or-heaven clarity of the old Protestants. As Mr Pape pointed out over the phone to me last week, domestic politics, now as then, played a role: "There is a closer parallel between the abolitionist Dissenters' movement and the moral and religious support of various groups in the US for the war in Iraq than many people think."

At times, however, in both Afghanistan and Iraq this administration retreats to the the role of realpolitiker. What the slave trade lesson suggests is that such ambivalence may be fatal, at least for the war on terror. To succeed, a moral campaign must be recognised as such - with all the sacrifice that entails.

* Explaining Costly International Moral Action: Britain's Sixty Year Campaign Against the Atlantic Slave Trade; International Organization, 1999

© Copyright 2003 Financial Times

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