It happened today - March 25, 2016

On March 25, 1807, King George III gave royal assent to the Slave Trade Act which abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire. It could be portrayed as half a loaf, or a quarter. But at least it was bread.

You could call it half a loaf because it only abolished the slave trade, not slavery, within the empire. Many supporters thought it would stifle slavery itself without further action, but this hope was frustrated and slavery itself had to be abolished separately in 1833. And you could call it half a loaf because slavery would never have had to be abolished if it hadn’t existed in the Empire, which it did.

Even worse, it had been revived there, as in other European empires, in the course of the 15th century, after essentially dying out there by the early Middle Ages, and in the new and pernicious form of racial slavery unknown in the ancient world. In England itself slavery was utterly vanished as a practice and an institution, to the point that in 1772 the Court of King’s Bench, the top criminal court, ruled in Somerset v Stewart that a slave purchased in Boston and brought to England was necessarily free. And yet somehow the English brought it into existence in their colonies and practised it as though nothing were abnormal about doing so even in a nation devoted to liberty in fact as well as rhetorically.

Now to the bread. It took the English far longer than it should have; slavery is an abomination that should have been abolished the day after it reappeared. But they did abolish it, in commerce and then entirely, before the Americans and long before most people. The Royal Navy, in fact, then set about stamping it out on the oceans regardless of the laws of those whose human cargoes they seized and freed. And by their example, backed where needed by their cannons, they induced many others to end it.

The Americans, in turn, did so, fighting an incredibly bloody and destructive civil war essentially over the liberty of the most despised section of their population. Of course in the South they poured out blood and treasure for the opposite cause, which haunted the region for a century afterward. But in the end the commitment to liberty in America proved indivisible.

Elsewhere, in the West at any rate, slavery was eventually eradicated and then, slowly and painfully, bigotry was tackled in law and in society. And before you judge your own civilization too harshly, it is important to reflect that the situation is far worse elsewhere. In some parts of the world slavery is still practiced on a selective basis; in many others all citizens are essentially the property of the state, which disposes of them as it will without regard for their wishes.

So yes, slavery is a great evil. Its persistence through history and its resurgence in the Renaissance are an indictment of humanity. But they are not an indictment of liberalism, capitalism, Christianity or the West, which did more, sooner, to confront and eradicate this blight than virtually anyone else.

Incidentally the slave in Somerset had escaped, was recaptured, and was being held on a ship for transport to and resale in Jamaica when his English godparents from his baptism in England applied for a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted and led to James Somerset’s freedom. It was a long overdue vindication of liberty under law. But it was a vindication of it nonetheless.