Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Imperial Agendas and Slave Trade Refugees


Laura-Rosanne Adderley
Sharla M. Fett


Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Laura Rosanne Adderley and Sharla M. Fett. Laura is Associate Professor of History, and also affiliated with Latin American studies and Africana studies, at Tulane University. Sharla is Professor of History at Occidental College in Los Angeles with research interests in slavery, abolition, health, and healing in the US South and Atlantic World. This is the second post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'Postcoloniality and Forced Migration' organised by Eva Magdalena Stambøl, Sharla M. Fett, Nina Sahraoui, Martin Lemberg-Pedersen and Lucy Mayblin.

This blogpost is based on our chapter for the book Postcoloniality and Forced Migration in which we use historical research in government documents, private correspondence and published materials from the mid-1800s to explore the colonial and racial imperatives which shaped British and U.S. attempts to end the Atlantic slave trade--one of the most prolonged examples of forced global migration in world history. The 19th-century governmental programs which sought to suppress previously permitted human trafficking from the African continent resonate in several ways with more recent attempts by various nation states to manage transnational population movements, often deploying political and economic values shaped heavily by prior colonial relationships.

In recent years the centuries of Black enslavement initiated by European colonialism in the Americas have received considerable attention in the news and other public discussion. These conversations have most often focused on the relationship between systems of racial slavery in the past and ongoing anti-Black racism in the present. Less often do we connect the specific history of colonialism and racial slavery to other modern policy discussions, such as those related to migration and border control.

One notable exception occurred during the summer of 2018 when the U.S. government faced widespread criticism for the separation of minor children from their adult family members, during months in which large numbers of families from Mexico and Central America attempted to cross the southwestern U.S. border as asylum-seekers, economic migrants, or refugees. When journalists and politicians proclaimed that this kind of treatment of children and families was inconsistent with the history and values of the United States, numerous scholars (for example Tera Hunter ) pointed out that Black enslaved families in the United States had regularly faced similar treatment—and even worse abuses during the 1800s.

We are right to be careful about comparing histories of African diaspora enslavement with studies of migrant lives in the present, given the exceptionally violent, coercive, and long-lasting nature of Atlantic slavery. But from the 1500s to the 1800s, European colonial powers and later independent governments in the Americas essentially did manage massive systems of forced migration, in which various states claimed the right to determine which people (Africans, Native Americans, Asians) could, or even should, be subject to forced transportation far away from their own home territories for the purpose of captive or coerced labor in North America, South America, Central America and the Caribbean.  

The slave deck of the bark "Wildfire," brought into Key West on April 30, 1860
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library (1860). The slave deck of the bark "Wildfire," brought into Key West on April 30, 1860.  Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-40c2-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Beginning in the 1790s, the same colonial and post-colonial governments claimed for themselves the right to determine how those systems of forced migration should change. While many people did support slave trade abolition for humanitarian reasons, the state actors involved in ending the Atlantic slave trade carried out that abolition with a continuous eye on their own economic, political, and social imperatives. Not only did these states want their economies to continue relatively unchanged even after the Atlantic slave trade ended, in policing the slave trade these newly anti-slave-trade governments also believed that they had the right to determine the future lives of the thousands of African men, women and children whom they “rescued” from now-illegal slave trading vessels. That British authorities regularly referred to these Africans as “re-captives” or even “captured Negroes” reveals a lot about some official attitudes toward this population. U.S. authorities similarly used the term “recaptured Africans.” 

The British did also describe these unique refugees as “liberated Africans” and authorities in Cuba and Brazil used the Spanish or Portuguese term “emancipados” or “emancipated people.” But whatever labels were applied, in almost all cases colonial and national governments aimed to set these Africans to work, often as indentured laborers, and to force them to adopt Western cultural, religious, and social values. Their ”rescue” from slave trafficking and lifetime slavery was not interpreted as offering these West and West-Central Africans broad freedom to determine their own futures. Quite the opposite: it was assumed that governments which had “rescued” them from slave ships had a logical authority to supervise, or indeed dictate, how they would live and work afterwards.

Slave trade suppression, an often celebrated “humanitarian” project of the 19th-century, thus provides an instructive perspective on the deep-rooted colonial imperatives that have regularly influenced public policies enacted by governments in the global North from the mid-1800s to the present. As much recent academic and popular writing has emphasized, European colonial projects led to the current global dominance of Western economic goals and cultural norms. (See for example, Kwasi Kwarteng’s War and Gold).  This article explores how those post-colonial goals and norms shaped policy-making during the later years of the Atlantic slave trade, both in the case of Great Britain, an enormous and growing imperial power, and in the case of the United States, a much newer but also increasingly powerful nation state, and one with strong ideas about its own potential for political and cultural leadership in the world. 

Our chapter looks at the unusual decision by both Great Britain and the United States, to use some African re-captives as soldiers or militia men, that is literally as military laborers in service of their respective states. In the British colonial Caribbean, thousands of re-captives were taken into the West India Regiments, units made up of all Black soldiers, originally created using mostly enslaved men at the end of the 1700s. The territory of Liberia in West Africa was founded by U.S. interests for free Black settlers in 1821, but under the leadership of a Black governor originally from the U.S. state of Virginia, declared itself an independent republic in 1847. Nevertheless, through the U.S. slave trade suppression campaign, between 1858 and 1861 almost 5000 re-captives were transported to Liberia, in part due to white political opposition to their settlement as free Blacks in the United States where chattel slavery remained legal. Several hundred of these re-captives were taken into militia units, and deployed for maintaining civil order, including their use in conflicts between settlers and indigenous groups in Liberia. 

In both cases those in authority expressed their belief in the potential ‘civilizing’ influence of military service on recently emancipated men taken from illegal Atlantic slave ships. In the aftermath of a violent mutiny led by re-captive soldiers in the British colony of Trinidad in 1837, the local governor doggedly argued for better management of African re-captives in the West India regiments, not for discontinuing their enlistment. Even the African-American leadership of Liberia accepted essentially colonial arguments about the desirability of ‘Westernization’ for all people of African descent, and the suitability of military service as one path toward that goal. 

These case studies of the military use of African re-captives—19th-century refugees from the Atlantic slave trade--present a powerful example of situations in which displaced groups can end up, as ‘special’ settlers ‘designated to serve the interests of the [purportedly humanitarian] state charged with managing their resettlement.’ The interests of a small number of globally-influential states—often former colonial powers--continue to disproportionately shape life outcomes for present-day migrant populations.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

L. Adderley and S. Fett. (2023) Imperial Agendas and Slave Trade Refugees. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/05/imperial-agendas-and-slave-trade-refugees. Accessed on: 21/04/2024

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