What we tend to overlook in these days, however, was how easily England got into the trade in the first place. Benthamite utilitarianism was/is a godless philosophy. It allowed calculation of principles and ethics on an abacus made up of human beings. “The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number” was a convenient, soulless doctrine where the good of one’s own always outweighed the good of “other” human beings. It remains so to this day.
It was relatively easy, then, for England to accept the development of a slave trade–the evils of which reverberate to this day. If utilitarianism provided the general moral justification, how did it all start? What need drove it? What led English ships to capture and enslave Africans and transport them elsewhere around the world into enforced labour? Even as we write these words, the incredible evil of such policies and practices strike us afresh. We repeat, whilst nothing could justify it, what perceived need drove it?
The essential region was the Caribbean, the source of Europe’s most profitable trading commodity, sugar. Heat and disease meant that cutting and processing sugar cane was lethal for Europeans. African slaves, who succumbed less quickly, were imported. Some 6 million people, plus the huge number who died in the process, were shipped from Africa in one of history’s worst crimes against humanity.
The British were by far the largest shippers, carrying over 3 million people between 1660 and 1807, when Parliament banned the trade; the French and the Portuguese in Brazil, were the biggest customers. African rulers were eager suppliers. The trade expanded, reaching an all-time peak in the 1780s, when British slavers were transporting about 120 Africans per day. [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p.339.]
It is accurate to assert that the English slave trade met its end (at least in this instance) through the Christian faith of Wilberforce and his colleagues who campaigned and fought against it for years. It was the great clash of the armies of utilitarianism, which appealed to the basest elements of fallen human nature, against Christians bearing the Cross of Christ. The struggle famously took place, not just on a national and international scale, but also in the hearts and consciences of individuals. John Newton, captain of a slaver eventually became converted to Christ. He dedicated his subsequent life to contributing his labours and efforts to the campaign to end the trade. He is justly famous to this day for the wonderful hymn, Amazing Grace.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.
Few today who sing these words from their heart realise they were written in the cauldron of spiritual conflict, as Newton struggled to believe that one such as he could ever be forgiven and cleansed of guilt before a holy God. The words represent Newton’s personal confession of faith. His testimony explains how the slave trade was broken in England–one would like to say–forever. Lamentably we read how slavery is making a comeback in the United Kingdom.