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Abolition of the Slave Trade


Revolutionary France abolished the slave trade and slavery in 1794, after being prodded by the slave revolution in St Domingue. However, Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated both in 1802. Not until 1831 was the French slave trade outlawed definitively. Great Britain abolished her international slave trade on March 21, 1807.

During the first half of the 19th century, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and Cuba all passed abolition laws. Yet, these laws were often ignored and an illegal slave trade continued. At least another 7,000 ships brought 1.5 million Africans across the Atlantic, mostly to Brazil and Cuba. Close to 2,000 slave ships were intercepted (80 percent by the British Navy) and 190,000 Africans -- called re-captives or "Liberated Africans" -- were relocated in Sierra Leone, the Bahamas, Trinidad, and Brazil, while others were secretly sold to Cuban plantations.

The United States Constitution of 1783 stated that the international slave trade could not be banned before 1808. On March 3, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed an act "to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States." This act took effect on January 1, 1808. However, the slave trade continued illicitly in the US while planters in the Deep South, eager to get manpower for their developing cotton plantations, clamored for its official re-establishment. In late spring of 1860, the last slave ship, the Clotilda, left Whydah, Benin, with 110 young people from Benin and Nigeria on board. She landed in Mobile, Alabama, on July 8 of that year.

Despite the abject conditions in which they reached the New World and the dreadful enslavement imposed upon them, Africans and their descendants showed remarkable courage, resilience, dynamism, and resourcefulness. This new people, born in pain, of various ethnicities and identities, created new cultures, new religions, new languages, and new artistic expressions that continue to enrich the world.