Britain’s slaves in Latin America

Chris Evans explores the bitter battle between British entrepreneurs and abolitionists over the use of African slaves in Cuban and Brazilian mines – long after the Abolition Act of 1833

A c1870 engraving of diamond miners in Brazil in c1800. Despite abolitionists' best efforts, British companies used slaves in their South American mines until the 1880s. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Late in 1838 a party of English tourists visited the copper mines at El Cobre in Cuba, which had recently been refurbished with British capital. With their super-rich ore, the mines were, as the English manager of the Cobre Company boasted, “a phenomenon in the mineral kingdom”. There was a blemish, however, to this mighty undertaking. The “labourers employed were nearly 900 in number; but to our great regret we found that more than half of them were slaves”.

The “great regret” arose because the tourists were dedicated abolitionists and their visit came at a moment when British anti-slavery was, in all other respects, triumphant. Just a couple of months earlier, on 1 August 1838, the final emancipation of slaves in Britain’s sugar islands had taken place.

Yet many activists were aware that the end of slavery in Britain’s Caribbean empire did not imply slavery’s closure elsewhere. Slavery was expanding in Brazil and Cuba, not to mention the cotton south of the United States, hence the formation of a new campaigning organisation, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) in 1839. Even so, the revelation that there were Britons presiding over a Cuban enterprise worked by unfree labour was a shaming reminder of abolitionism’s limitations.

El Cobre was not unique. British capitalists invested heavily in Latin America in the 1820s and 1830s, especially in mining. The London money markets provided the funds, teams of Cornish miners provided the technical expertise, and locals performed most of the labour. In several locations, however, the labourers were not exactly local. In Brazil, where British companies mined gold, the auxiliary workforce was composed of freshly imported African slaves, just as in Cuba.

International mining companies asked awkward questions of anti-slavery campaigners. They were Britishregistered, British-funded and Britishmanaged, but they operated overseas. To what extent, then, were the companies subject to British law when they became active in countries where slavery was smiled upon? It was a legal conundrum to which the BFASS turned its attention. The difficulty was more than legal, however; it was ideological. Abolitionists had successfully labelled the planters of the West Indies as archaic – out of step with the liberal constitutionalism of Britain and with mainstream economics, which identified the use of free labour as a hallmark of modernity.

The mining companies could not be marginalised in the same way. They were indisputably modern. Everything about them – the City address, the well-connected board of directors, the cutting-edge technology – said so. The ownership of slaves by mining companies in Brazil and Cuba seemed less an index of backwardness – the charge that abolitionists had laid against the sugar planters – than a token of their dauntless globalism.

Nevertheless, once the BFASS had been alerted to the existence of the 2,000 or so British-owned slave miners in Brazil and the 700 at El Cobre, something had to be done. Could the mining companies be prosecuted? The lawyers thought not: there were laws against trafficking slaves but not against holding slaves in places where British jurisdiction did not run. New legal powers would be needed. This was the origin of the petition presented to parliament by Lord Brougham, one of the grand old men of abolitionism, in September 1841.

The petition reviewed the ways in which some Britons remained wedded to slavery, with special censure heaped on the “mining companies in this country, with large capitals at their disposal, who carry on their operations in the empire of Brazil, or in the Spanish island of Cuba”. New legislation, Brougham insisted, was needed to cover the acquisition of slaves in foreign territories, not just the transport of captives on the high seas. Henceforth British subjects should be required to abjure slavery wherever it was found and whatever local circumstances prevailed.

Guilty knowledge

Framing a bill that could adequately do this was no easy business, however. The offenders in this instance were joint-stock companies, not individuals. How was it possible to “distinguish between [shareholders] who had a guilty knowledge of the course they had taken, and those who had innocently become possessed… of shares in the mines”?

Distinguishing the righteous from the guilty was not the only difficulty. The mining companies were ready to resist Brougham’s ‘Suppression of Slavery’ proposals with every means at their disposal; as well they might, for Brougham’s bill would have confiscated their slaves without the compensation awarded to British sugar planters.

The Brazilian and the Cuban companies put forward a simple case. They had obeyed the law as it stood. What was now being suggested was that their lawful acquisition of slaves should be retrospectively criminalised through an unprecedented extension of the territorial reach of British courts. The mining companies did not want for friends in parliament and the BFASS could only watch with dismay as the bill was watered down. The original draft had required the companies to emancipate their slaves. That provision was lost; they were merely to be prevented from acquiring more. Indeed, the companies were given explicit guarantees that their existing slaves would remain theirs.

This was a shattering defeat as far as the BFASS was concerned. Instead of eliminating every vestige of British slave ownership, as the abolitionists had intended, parliament was actually endorsing slave ownership in particular circumstances. On that basis, the BFASS formally disowned the measure and when it passed into law in 1843 it did so as a friendless legislative orphan.

The 1843 Act – Brougham’s Act as it was christened – was soon forgotten because it did nothing to impede slave-based mining in Cuba and Brazil. The purchasing of fresh slaves was prohibited but there was nothing to stop British companies hiring slaves from local owners; they did so without qualm. The St John d’el Rey Mining Company, the most successful of the British companies in Brazil, did so systematically. In 1841, on the eve of Brougham’s Act, the company made use of only 64 hired-in slaves; five years after the Act it employed 731.

Although Brougham’s Act sank into oblivion it tried to confront questions that beset us today. What control, if any, can the state exert over transnational corporations? What realistic prospect is there for ethical investment? Are there pariah crimes whose foulness overrides questions of national sovereignty?

The purchasing of fresh slaves was banned but there was nothing to stop British companies hiring slaves from local owners

As it happens, the principle at the heart of Brougham’s Act – an insistence that British legal standards could stride across jurisdictional frontiers – has recently been revived to tackle a phenomenon that provokes as much repugnance today as the abuse of slaves did 180 years ago: sex tourism. The 2008 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act criminalised sexual offences carried out overseas by treating them as if they had been committed within the confines of the United Kingdom. Offenders cannot plead their victims were above a locally recognised age of consent; British standards apply.

In its own day, however, Brougham’s Act remained a dead letter. Slave mining at El Cobre continued into the 1860s and ended only when the mines became uncompetitive. In Brazil the end came still later.

The St John Company did not emancipate the last company-owned slaves – slaves who had been children in the 1840s – until 1882, and it continued to use hired slaves until Brazil’s emancipation decree of 1888 finally brought slavery to a close in the western hemisphere.

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Chris Evans teaches history at the University of Glamorgan. His most recent book, Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery 1660–1850 (2010), discusses the use of slave labour in the copper mines of El Cobre.