The abolition of slavery

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

Howard Temperley looks at the unlikely abolition of slavery and shares some little-known facts:

What is surprising is the discovery that a mere 500,000 slaves, 5–6 per cent of the total, went to North America — a figure roughly comparable to the number of West Indians migrating to the United Kingdom over the past fifty years. This contrasts with the 3.5 million who went to Brazil. The difference is largely attributable to the exceptional physical demands of sugar. In Brazil, as in other sugar-producing regions, life expectancy and fertility rates were so low that the only way of maintaining a stable workforce was by shipping in more slaves. When Britain withdrew from the slave trade in 1807, the effect on its colonies’ economy and population was catastrophic. In contrast, the withdrawal of the US from the slave trade, in 1808, had no discernible effect on its slave population, which, being principally employed in tobacco and cotton cultivation, had achieved a rate of natural increase not unlike that of the white population.

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