Abolition of Slavery in the Americas

Abolition of Slavery in the Americas
Abolition of Slavery in the Americas

The history of chattel slavery in the Americas, from its beginnings in 1492 until its final demise in Brazil in 1888, has spawned a vast literature. So, too, has the process by which the institution of chattel slavery was formally and legally abolished.

A highly contentious, nonlinear, and uneven process that unfolded in different ways and followed distinct time lines in various parts of the Americas, abolition must be distinguished from manumission, in which slave owners granted freedom to individual slaves, which is not examined here.

Especially since the 1960s, historians have examined many different aspects of abolition in the Americas, including the intellectual and moral impulses impelling it; the history of diverse social movements devoted to compelling colonial, state, and national governments to implement it; and the role of various individuals and groups—including merchants, planters, bureaucrats, and colonial, national, and imperial governments, and slaves themselves—in retarding or accelerating the process.

The first formal abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere came not from a national government but from state legislatures in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states of the not-yet-independent United States of America.

In 1777 the Vermont state assembly became the first governmental entity in the Americas to abolish slavery within its jurisdiction. In 1780 the Pennsylvania state assembly passed a law requiring all blacks henceforth born in the state to become free upon reaching age 28.

State laws mandating the end of chattel slavery, each stipulating different time lines and provisions, were passed in Massachusetts and New Hampshire (1783), Rhode Island and Connecticut (1784), New York (1799), and New Jersey (1804).

Significantly, actual abolition sometimes lagged for decades following passage of such laws—as in New Jersey, where legal slavery persisted until ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

Because slavery did not comprise an important component of any of these states’ economies, organized opposition to abolition was limited, and abolition itself carried few economic costs to slaveholders.

As individual states were passing laws for gradual emancipation, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in the Northwest Territories, setting the stage for the sectional conflict between North and South that ultimately led to the American Civil War.

Far more consequential for the eventual abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere was the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade passed by the British parliament in 1807, and put into effect in 1808, outlawing the transatlantic slave trade.

The law also authorized the British navy to suppress the slave trade among all slave traffickers, making Britain, in effect, the policeman of the high seas. The U.S. government passed less sweeping legislation in 1808 banning further import of slaves. Three years later, the British parliament made participation in the slave trade a felony.

Scholarly debates have swirled regarding the origins of and inspiration behind these laws. Some historians have emphasized the rise of a religion and Enlightenment inspired antislavery and humanitarian impulse among Quakers, evangelical Methodists, Unitarians, and others in providing the impetus behind the British abolition of the slave trade.

An expansive literature pays special attention to leading abolitionists like William Wilberforce and to the many antislavery societies, writers, and publications that blossomed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Other scholars have stressed the growing commitment to the ideology of free wage labor on the part of Britain’s leading capitalists.

This interpretive school has located Britain’s intensifying opposition to slavery within the broader context of a rapidly developing global capitalist economy and a powerful domestic labor movement that used the symbol of slavery to portray the workers’ plight and denounce capitalism.

Ironically, while the 1807 law made Britain the first nation to outlaw the transatlantic slave trade, from the mid-1600s leading British economic interests had also been one of the main motors behind, and beneficiaries of, the slave trade.

While the 1807 law presaged the eventual demise of African slavery in the Americas, it did not abolish slavery, or call for the abolition of slavery, or free a single slave. Nor did the law prohibit individual nations or colonies from slave trafficking within their borders.

In nations and colonies with large slave populations—including Brazil, the United States, and throughout the Caribbean Basin—chattel slavery could, in theory, continue indefinitely by “natural population increases” among slaves (population increases resulting from births over deaths and excluding external influxes).

The outlawing of the Atlantic trade prompted slaveholders across the Americas to implement policies intended to increase slave populations, such as forced impregnation and rape of slave women.

Local slave markets reflected these changes, as prices of female slaves of childbearing years rose substantially in many areas. The 1807 law provoked fierce resistance in British colonies such as Jamaica, Antigua, and Trinidad, whose colonial assemblies at first rejected, then grudgingly accepted, the imperial mandate.

Similar patterns unfolded elsewhere, as imperial laws intended to place limits on slavery and the slave trade met stiff resistance by slave owners in the colonies.

Overall, such laws originated in national governments’ responses to mounting domestic and international opposition to chattel slavery and the actions of slaves themselves and their many forms of resistance to the fact and terms of their enslavement. A survey of the British, French, and Spanish colonial empires highlights these broad patterns.

Great Britain

In Britain the 1807 and 1811 laws were followed by the amelioration laws of 1823, meant to improve the living conditions of slaves. Far more consequential was the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833, which went into effect on August 1, 1834.

The 1833 law abolished slavery throughout the empire, while stipulating a period of apprenticeship in which slaves over the age of six would continue working for four years for their former masters.

A major slave rebellion in Jamaica in December 1831 (the “Christmas revolt”) played a major role in prompting Parliament to pass the 1833 law—an illustration of the role played by slaves in advancing their own emancipation.

Christmas revolt in Jamaica
Christmas revolt in Jamaica

In 1838, over the vociferous objections of slaveholders, Parliament proclaimed complete emancipation. Upper and Lower Canada followed the same trajectory as British colonies elsewhere in the Americas, with final emancipation coming in 1838.

For the next 27 years Canada would serve as a refuge for escaped slaves from the United States, especially after the U.S. Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made no state in the Union immune from slave-catchers and bounty hunters.

In France, with the convening of the Estates General in 1789, the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks) called for the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves within the colonies.

The call was rejected after a powerful coalition of white colonists successfully prevented debate on the topic. With the eruption of the Haitian Revolution from 1791, the French assembly relinquished its jurisdiction over the question.

Three years later, in 1794, the Convention outlawed slavery throughout the empire and granted rights of citizenship to all adult males. In 1801, Haitian rebel leader Toussaint Louverture, whose forces had just gained control of all of Hispaniola, promulgated a constitution that prohibited slavery in perpetuity throughout the island.

The following year, in 1802, Toussaint was captured and transported to France, and Napoleon I reinstituted slavery throughout the French colonies. After France’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, in 1817 the French constitutional monarchy passed a law abolishing the slave trade by 1826.

A few months after the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of the Second Republic, and under the leadership of prominent abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, on April 27, 1848, France abolished slavery throughout the empire.


In Spain the first effort to abolish slavery came soon after the overthrow of King Ferdinand VII and during the tumult of the Napoleonic occupation, when in 1811 the Cortes (parliament) abolished slavery throughout the empire.

The law was largely ignored. In 1820, following a major revolt against a restored constitutional monarchy, the Cortes abolished the slave trade while leaving slavery itself intact—though after the independence of Latin America in the early 1820s, Spain’s American empire had been reduced to one major colony: Cuba.

Abolitionist sentiment within Cuba mounted through the first half of the century, despite the colonial government’s success in crushing organized antislavery agitation. In 1865, in the wake of the U.S. Civil War, the Spanish Abolitionist Society was founded, its considerable influence rooted in mounting opposition to the constitutional monarchy.

In 1868 a liberal revolution triumphed in Spain, its leaders advancing as one of their principal aims the abolition of slavery in Cuba. In July 1870 the Cortes passed the Moret Law, which emancipated children born to slaves after 1868 and slaves age 60 and older.

Envisioned as a form of gradual abolition, the law’s provisions were undermined by both planters and slaves. Planters sought to delay the law’s implementation and subvert its provisions, while slaves pushed its boundaries in the effort to secure their freedom.

The Ten Years’ War on the eastern half of the island complicated the situation even further. Finally, on October 7, 1886, the Spanish government eliminated various legal categories of quasi slavery and abolished slavery throughout the island.

A brief summary of other European nations’ abolition laws once again highlights the partial and uneven nature of the process of emancipation. Sweden abolished the slave trade in 1813 and slavery in its colonies in 1843. In 1814 the Netherlands outlawed the slave trade and, nearly half a century later in 1863, abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies.

In 1819 Portugal outlawed the slave trade north of the equator and in 1858 abolished slavery in its colonies while providing for a 20-year period of apprenticeship similar to the British model. Denmark abolished slavery in its colonies in 1848, the same year as France.

Turning to the independent nation-states of the Americas, most of the newly independent nation-states of Latin America abolished slavery in the first three decades after independence.

In 1821 Gran Colombia (comprising most of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, and parts of Bolivia and Peru) became the first Latin American nation to adopt a law calling for gradual emancipation, though final abolition did not come for more than three decades (Ecuador in 1851, Colombia in 1852, Venezuela in 1854), final abolitions followed by prolonged periods of apprenticeship that closely resembled slavery.

Chile abolished slavery in 1823; Mexico in 1829; Uruguay in 1842; Argentina in 1843; and Peru in 1854. In 1850 Brazil outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, prompting a brisk internal trade in slaves that lasted until the final abolition of slavery in 1888.

United States

In the United States, in the aftermath of state laws abolishing or limiting slavery from the 1770s to the early 1800s, abolitionist and antislavery agitation mounted. The U.S. Constitution took an ambiguous stance toward slavery, neither prohibiting it nor precluding the possibility of its abolition and making unconstitutional any law passed before 1808 banning the importation of slaves.

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, controversies over the expansion of slavery into the territories sharpened the sectional conflict between North and South that dominated U.S. politics through much of the 19th century, culminating in the Civil War.

Such controversies brought the nation to the brink of civil war in 1820 (forestalled by the Missouri Compromise) and again in 1850 (forestalled by the Compromise of 1850). In the 1830s the rise to prominence of vocal abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips sharpened the sectional conflict even further.

In 1861, following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, southern slaveholding states formed the Confederate States of America and announced their secession from the Union, inaugurating the Civil War.

Less than two years later Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which, despite its title and symbolic significance, freed no slaves. The final abolition of slavery came in December 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.


Brazil, the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, offers an instructive contrast to the U.S. experience. Earlier generations of historians emphasized two key differences: Brazil did not have a comparable sectional conflict and Brazil abolished slavery without recourse to civil war.

More recent scholarship has blurred these distinctions, with greater attention to Brazil’s major regional differences and to the role played by the specter of violence and civil strife in accelerating the process of emancipation.

The British prohibition of the transatlantic slave trade from 1808 did not diminish the number of slaves imported into Brazil, as the government and slave traders ignored the law. An 1831 treaty between Brazil and Great Britain banning the importation of slaves also had little practical effect, as the Brazilian government did little to enforce its provisions.

Over the next 20 years, an estimated half a million slaves poured into the country. In 1850, in response to tremendous British pressure, Brazil passed a law putting teeth into the prohibition, after which the transatlantic slave trade diminished markedly. The 1850 law prompted two major shifts.

Planters began creating conditions under which natural population increases would permit perpetuation of slavery, including improved nutrition and living conditions, enhanced surveillance and control, and forced reproduction. Slave trafficking within the country also increased dramatically, with major flows from the Northeast to the booming coffee-based states of the South.

By the 1860s, however, the Atlantic world’s mounting moral opprobrium toward slavery, combined with the carnage of the U.S. Civil War, made clear to many Brazilians that abolition was inevitable and that a gradualist approach to the problem was preferable to civil war. What eventually emerged from these debates was the Rio Branco Law of September 28, 1871.

Dubbed the Law of Free Womb, the law called for all children born of slaves to be free, following a period of semibondage until they reached age 21. Many, however, including prominent abolitionists in the Chamber of Deputies such as Joaquim Nabuco, Jeronymo Sodré, and Rui Barbosa, saw the law as fatally flawed, permitting slavery’s survival well into the 20th century.

In the late 1870s abolitionist pressures intensified, as did urban violence, plantation uprisings, and civil strife. Slaves especially pushed the boundaries of the law, insisting on their own emancipation.

Finally, on May 13, 1888, the Brazilian parliament passed a law consisting of the following two provisions: “Article 1. From the date of this law slavery is declared abolished in Brazil. Article 2. All contrary provisions are revoked.” After 396 years, legal slavery in the Americas had ended.

The process by which chattel slavery was abolished in the Americas followed a number of distinct trajectories, as various groups of actors in conflict and alliance propelled and forestalled the outcomes.

Nowhere was abolition inevitable; everywhere its achievement resulted from the determined actions of many different individuals and groups. In all cases, the actions of slaves were integral to the process, a fact to which a large and growing body of scholarship amply attests.

Acadian Deportation

Acadian Deportation
Acadian Deportation

In 1755, during the early days of the Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War between France and Britain, thousands of French farming families living in Nova Scotia were forcibly deported by British troops. The dislocation of the Acadians, as these French colonists were called, became almost a mythical example of the injustice and brutality of 18th-century warfare.

Although several thousand Acadians would eventually return to their homeland, thousands more, often separated from their families, ended up as far away as the West Indies and Louisiana, where the refugees became known as Cajuns.

Although the French were first to exploit the fur, fishing, and farming potential of the New World, France had trouble persuading its citizens to live in the wilderness at the mouth of Canada’s St. Lawrence River.

Meanwhile, British colonies, especially those of New England, soon overtook French colonial holdings in both population and hunger for land and wealth. Along what became the Canadian border, French and British colonists frequently trespassed on each other’s claims, regularly enlisting the help of friendly Native tribes.

In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht ending the War of the Spanish Succession redrew the political map of Europe and dealt to Britain control of Hudson Bay and Newfoundland. In addition, fertile lands occupied by the Acadians for several generations were no longer New France but now became British territory.

At first, British authorities assured the Acadians that their farms would be safe and their beliefs respected. But Britain also demanded that its new colonists swear loyalty oaths and give up any notion of fighting for France in future conflicts.

Most Acadians declined to take the oath, considering themselves French neutrals. As tensions in Europe between Britain and France escalated and played out in their respective colonies, neutrality—hard to achieve under the best of circumstances—became untenable for both sides.

By the spring of 1755 the British believed that 300 Acadians had taken up arms in support of France. In July Acadian leaders were summoned to Halifax and ordered to take loyalty oaths immediately. A month later the British rounded up their recalcitrant French subjects and put them on ships for deportation.

Historians disagree on the magnitude and brutality of this mass deportation. The number of Acadians affected has been estimated between 6,000 and 18,000 people. Many families were separated and many had trouble finding a place to relocate.

Some believe family separations and dislocations were unintentional results of mistakes and confusion; others have likened British actions to modern-day ethnic cleansing.

In 1847 American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made the Acadian expulsion the subject of one of his extremely popular epics. Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie told of young French-Canadian lovers torn apart by war and politics.

A sensational success, the poem kept alive remembrance of British misdeeds, both among French Canadians, now subjects of British Canada, and the Cajuns of Louisiana who traced their heritage back to Acadia.

John Adams and Family

John Adams
John Adams

Descendants of Puritans who settled near Boston in 1638, members of the Adams family distinguished themselves over two centuries as political leaders and thinkers. Second cousins Samuel Adams and John Adams played crucial roles in the founding of the United States. John’s wife, Abigail Smith Adams, was an early advocate for women’s expanded public roles.

Their son, John Quincy, was the first president’s son also elected president and dedicated his later years to ending slavery. Into the early 20th century, the Adamses excelled in diplomacy and history.

Harvard-educated brewer and Boston tax collector, Samuel Adams was a leading Son of Liberty who fought new taxes and restrictions imposed by Britain on its American colonies after the Seven Years’/French and Indian War ended in 1763. He organized the 1773 Boston Tea Party in which tea worth £100,000 was dumped into the harbor to protest British policies.

His younger cousin, John, a Harvard-educated lawyer, successfully defended British soldiers who killed five Americans in a 1770 encounter dubbed the Boston Massacre by people like Samuel, who deemed it a “bloody butchery.” Wary of mob enthusiasms, but convinced of the rightness of American liberty, John Adams soon surpassed his cousin’s importance in the looming American Revolution.

Both were delegates to the First Continental Congress; John drafted plans for a new national government and soon was helping Thomas Jefferson revise and refine his draft of the Declaration of Independence.

After Continental victory at Saratoga in 1777, John endured long intervals of painful separation from his family as he pursued financial and military support for the new nation in European capitals, working uneasily with senior diplomat Benjamin Franklin and helping negotiate the treaty ending the Revolution. In 1784 Abigail joined her husband in Europe; his diplomatic service culminated with his appointment as first American ambassador to Britain.

Mrs. Abigail Smith Adams
Mrs. Abigail Smith Adams

In 1789 Adams was selected as George Washington’s vice president. As such, he had little to do, sidelined in part by the dramatic political and personal clashes of Washington cabinet secretaries Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Adams won the presidency by just three votes over Jefferson in 1796; his tenure in office would prove mostly disastrous. A combination of personality traits and crises would erode Adams’s reputation, ending his administration after a single term. Partisanship unleashed by earlier battles over the Constitution brought forth viciously competitive political parties.

Soon Adams, a Federalist, would find himself at odds with his own vice president, Jefferson, once a dear friend, but now a rival. The two men had already split over the French Revolution, whose growing violence was to Adams a horrifying breakdown of order and a direct threat to American independence.

Although Adams avoided a costly war with France, his popularity plummeted amid partisan rancor. In 1798, a Federalist-dominated Congress passed and Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Targeting Republican publishers and other political critics, these acts clearly violated the First Amendment. Charles Francis Adams would later call these acts the fatal error that doomed his grandfather’s Federalist Party.

Adams and Jefferson resumed their correspondence, but these old friends and enemies would truly reunite only in death. Both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration to which both contributed mightily.

By the time his father died, John Quincy Adams, his parents’ eldest son, was in the second year of his own presidency. It was a tormented four years after years of public distinction.

Trained in diplomacy at his father’s side as a teenager in Europe, John Quincy returned to attend Harvard and take up law, although attracted by literature and teaching. In 1803 John Quincy went to the U.S. Senate as a Federalist but often supported President Jefferson, losing his seat as a result.

As James Madison’s ambassador to Russia and lead negotiator of the War of 1812’s Peace of Ghent, John Quincy found his own political fame. He authored the Monroe Doctrine while serving James Monroe as secretary of state.

Becoming president seemed the obvious next step. But U.S. politics were changing as voting rights expanded. Being notable—a man of wealth or distinguished family—no longer assured electoral success.

In 1824’s five-way race, John Quincy became president only after a “corrupt bargain” steered votes from war hero Andrew Jackson to the former president’s son. John Quincy’s single term was almost devoid of accomplishment and dogged by family difficulties.

His postpresidential career would be as difficult but more fulfilling. In 1830 the former president was elected to the House of Representatives, a freshman member at age 64, serving his Plymouth, Massachusetts, district until suffering a stroke on the House floor in 1848.

For nine years, he fought a gag rule that prevented slavery opponents from conveying their views to Congress. In 1841 his nine-hour speech to the Supreme Court won freedom for 33 Africans who had commandeered the Spanish slave ship Amistad.

The Adamses were hard on their sons. Just as John Quincy was John’s only son of three to make his father proud, Charles Francis Adams was the only one of three of John Quincy’s sons to gain distinction. Charles Francis became his family’s financier and historian, publishing important family writings, including Abigail’s letters.

Entering Massachusetts politics in 1840 he was the new Free-Soil Party’s vice presidential choice in 1848 as the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War roiled sectional politics. Soon he joined the emerging

Republican Party. Appointed minister to Britain by Abraham Lincoln, Charles Francis was instrumental in keeping Britain from backing the Confederacy during the Civil War.

It was left to a fourth generation, especially brothers Henry and Brooks, to try to understand America through the lens of the Adams’ legacy. Henry, Harvard lecturer and historian, was early drawn to medievalism.

In The Education of Henry Adams, his third-person autobiography, he tried to make sense of how medieval Europe could have given birth to early 20th-century America. Brooks, a more “erratic genius,” predicted inevitable decay as capitalist civilizations faltered and more energetic nations emerged. Some believe he was describing his own family.

The family Adams did not disappear with Brooks’s death. But with the transfer of the old family homestead in Braintree/Quincy, Massachusetts, to the National Park Service in 1946, the Adamses became the “property” of the nation so many of them had served.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, often referred to as the founder of pan-Islam, was born in Iran. He attended madrasas (religious schools) in Iran and as a young man traveled to India, where he observed firsthand discrimination against Muslims by the ruling British government. After making the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, al-Afghani moved on to Karbala and Najaf, the main centers of Shi’i pilgrimage in Iraq.

During the 1860s al-Afghani lived in Afghanistan before moving to Istanbul, where the ruling Sunni Muslim Ottoman elite did not accord him the respect and honor he felt he deserved. In 1871 al-Afghani moved to Egypt, where he lectured on the need for unity and reform in Muslim society.

His popular lectures attracted a following among young Egyptians, and he became the mentor to a future generation of Muslim reformers that included Muhammad Abduh and others.

Al-Afghani’s popularity, calls for political reform, and opposition to British influences in Egypt attracted the attention of the ruling authorities, and the khedive (viceroy) expelled him from Egypt.

He then returned to India, where he resumed teaching and writing on what he referred to as the Virtuous City—a society based on Islamic tenets and governed by honest, devout Muslim rulers. Al-Afghani argued that only a unified Muslim world could confront the Western imperial powers, particularly the British, on an equal basis.

He traveled to London and Paris, where he debated the role of science in Islam with Ernest Renan, the noted French philosopher. He spent two years in Russia before returning to Iran, where he vigorously opposed Nasir al-Din Shah (the Qajar ruler).

In Iran as in Egypt, al-Afghani also spoke out against British influence, calling for a constitutional, parliamentary government. Al-Afghani’s opposition to the monarchy forced him to leave Iran for Turkey, where he continued to write and lecture about the need for basic constitutional reforms throughout the Muslim world. Al-Afghani carried on this work until his death in 1897.

First and Second Afghan Wars

First Afghan Wars
First Afghan Wars

The two Afghan wars were caused by the growing rivalry for control of Central Asia between the Russian Empire and the British Empire. Because Afghanistan was the largest organized state in the Central Asian region, it became the main focus for both countries in what the British poet Rudyard Kipling would call the “Great Game.” The Great Game actually began during the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1810, while the British duke of Wellington was fighting the French in Spain, Captain Charles Christie and Lieutenant Henry Pottinger of the 5th Bombay Native Infantry Regiment left the village of Nushki in Baluchistan for their role in the game.

On April 18 Christie reached Herat, while Pottinger pursued his own mission in Persia. Finally, on June 30, 1810, the two agents were reunited in Isfahan, Persia, with both missions accomplished.

Over the next 25 years other British agents would follow Christie and Pottinger on great treks into Central Asia. Afghanistan was seen as the vital buffer state against the advance of the Russians and, while the British did not always desire to add Afghanistan to their empire, they always hoped that the ruler of the Afghans, the amir, would lend his support to them instead of the Russians.

The British concerns were realized in December 1837 when a Cossack leader arrived carrying a letter from Czar Nicholas I of the Romanov dynasty for the Afghan amir, Dost Mohammed. At the same time, Kabul was visited by a British officer named Alexander Burnes, who had served with the Bombay army.

By this time, Persia was allied to Russia. George Eden, Lord Auckland, and his chief secretary, Henry Macnaghten, suspected that Dost Mohammed had sided with the Russians. Having ascended the throne in June of 1837, Queen Victoria was now presented with the first serious crisis of her reign.

Ultimately, nothing would suit Auckland and Macnaghten other than a regime change in Kabul. In February 1839 the British Army of the Indus, under the command of Sir John Keane of the Bombay Army, began its march for Kabul. In the beginning, Auckland’s expectations that Dost Mohammed’s rule could not survive appeared to be justified.

In July 1839 the fortress of Ghazni fell before a furious British assault and Dost Mohammed’s forces melted away. Meanwhile, the Afghans faced a combined Sikh-British expedition coming up from Peshawar. In August 1839 Shah Shuja was crowned again the amir in Kabul, and Dost Mohammed sued for peace.

Macnaghten lacked the temperament to deal with the tribesmen and, in 1841, slashed the subsidies that had earned their loyalty to Shah Shuja. As young officers pursued inappropriate and culturally serious affronts to Afghan women, relations worsened further. The British commander, Major-General William Elphinstone, lacked both the ability and the courage to face the mounting crisis.

By the end of November all Macnaghten and Elphinstone could think of was retreat. On December 11 Macnaghten met with Dost Mohammed’s son Akbar Khan to make final a British withdrawal. At a second meeting on December 23, Macnaghten was taken by surprise and killed. Elphinstone continued planning for the retreat from Kabul, which began on January 6, 1842.

The British and Indian troops were harassed and sometimes attacked by the Afghans along every foot of their retreat. On January 13, the last European finally reached safety at the British post of Jalalabad. Shah Shuja himself had been assassinated.

In February 1842 Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough, replaced the unlucky Auckland as the area’s governor-general, and plans were made to avenge their fallen countrymen. A punitive force commanded by Major-General George Pollock of the Bengal army entered Afghanistan again. Despite fierce resistance from Akbar Khan’s forces, Pollock reentered Kabul in September 1842.

Having made their point, the British evacuated Kabul again in December 1842 and this time reached British territory safely. The British permitted Dost Mohammed to take back the throne, but the overall aim of the war had been achieved—Afghanistan remained in the British camp and the Russian plans were thwarted.

During the next 40 years the British and Russian Empires continued their seemingly inexorable advance toward one another through Central Asia. During the Sikh Wars, the British defeated the once independent realm of the Sikhs in the Punjab, firmly adding it to their growing Indian Empire.

Afghan Warior
Afghan Warior
Although British rule was shaken during the Indian Mutiny of 1857–58, the attention of the British was still focused on the ambitions of the Russians to the north and west. With the assumption of direct British rule in the aftermath of the mutiny, real decision-making shifted decisively from the British governors-general in India to London.

The Great Game was definitely on again, if it ever had stopped. In 1877 the Russians went to war with Turkey and although the Congress of Berlin in 1878 promised peace, the stage was set for another confrontation over Afghanistan.

Those who supported the aggressive Forward Policy against Russia, including Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the viceroy, demanded action be taken against Afghanistan. On November 3, 1878, British diplomat Neville Chamberlain appeared at the Khyber Pass to demand passage for his delegation to enter Kabul. Afghan border troops turned him back. On November 21 the British crossed the border into Afghanistan, 39 years after the first British invasion.

As before, the Afghans were in no position to withstand the determined advance. In Kabul, Sher Ali relinquished his throne to his son Yakub Khan. After a winter of guerrilla war, Yakub Khan realized that making peace with the British was the best policy.

In May 1879 Yakub Khan accepted a permanent British resident (who would actually serve as the real power in the country) in Kabul, Sir Louis Cavagnari. In July 1879 Cavagnari made his entrance into the Afghan capital.

In September mutinous Afghan troops killed Cavagnari. Although he had requested aid from Yakub Khan, the request was ignored, leaving the impression that the troops attacked the British with at least the unspoken agreement of the amir.

When news of the massacre reached India, Major General Frederick Roberts was given command of the Kabul Field Force in order to lead a quick British response to attempt to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan before the Russians might be tempted to take advantage of the British defeat.

Yakub Khan’s troops made a stand at the Shutargardan Pass, but a determined British push cleared them away. Yakub Khan, chagrined at Roberts’s determination, decided to make peace. However, the danger was far from past, and on October 5, 1879, Roberts was forced to fight another engagement with the Afghans.

The British now faced hostility from a different quarter. A Muslim holy man, Mushkh-i-Alam, preached a jihad, an Islamic holy war, against the British. This put the British force at Kandahar in peril. Once news reached them, Roberts began to gather a relief column to rescue them and his hard-pressed garrison at Kandahar.

Within two weeks Roberts set out with a force of 10,000 men. On August 31, 1880, after a march of 21 days, Roberts broke Ayub Khan’s siege of Kandahar. The next day Roberts decisively defeated him in open battle. With the relief of Kandahar the Second Afghan War came to a close.

Ayub Khan and Yakub Khan were both tainted by their treachery in British eyes, and Abdul Rahman, their cousin, became the amir in Kabul. Twice in 40 years the British had asserted their primacy in Kabul and won another round in the Great Game against the Russians.

Exploration of Africa

Exploration of Africa
Exploration of Africa

Systematic exploration of Africa by Europeans began with James Bruce, who was born at Kinnaird in Scotland in 1730. After a century of bloody internal war, Scottish energy turned to intellectual and scientific studies, including exploration.

Bruce arrived in Algiers in 1762 as the British consul, and in 1768 he was in Cairo, where he conceived the great dream of his life: to find the source of the Nile River. Unlike others, Bruce believed the source of the Nile was in Ethiopia.

Bruce had the misconception that the Blue Nile was the main point of origin of the great river, not the White, as later explorers would determine. Indeed, the White and Blue Niles are two distinct rivers, as explorers would later learn.

Bruce, with self-confidence and determination, was the prototype of the African explorer. In November 1770 he reached Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. After months of adventure and war, he returned to Cairo in January 1773 before going on to London and then to his native Scotland.

In 1790 he published the record of his journeys, Travels to Discover the Sources of the Nile. Four years later, Bruce, who had survived disasters and dangers, died at home from a fall on a flight of steps.

The next great explorer of Africa was another Scotsman, Mungo Park, born in Selkirkshire in 1771. In 1789 he went to Edinburgh to study to become a surgeon. Park’s extraordinary abilities caught the attention of Joseph Banks, perhaps the greatest botanist of his day.

After Park completed his studies, Banks helped him secure the position of surgeon on the British East India Company’s merchant ship Worcester. When he returned, he brought descriptions of eight new species of fish. Meanwhile, French and British colonial rivalry was beginning to engulf Africa.

Impressed by Park’s presentation of the new species, Banks recommended Park as a scientist for the Association for the Promotion and Discovery through the Interior of Africa—an expedition-sponsoring association.

He got the position, and the expedition set sail on May 22, 1795. The party located the Niger River on July 22, 1796, and Park’s record of the journey was published in 1799 as Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa.

In January 1805 Park set sail in the troopship HMS Crescent and landed at the port of Gorée on the Gambia two months later. Disregarding sickness and bandits, which took a steady toll of his party, Park reached the Niger on August 19. Park wrote his last letter to his wife, Allison, on November 20, 1805. It appears the Scotsman was killed in a skirmish with tribesmen at Bussa Falls in 1805 on the Niger.

The Napoleonic conquest of Egypt guaranteed continued British interest in Africa because it brought the continent into the heart of the conflict. One of Napoleon’s generals, Louis-Charles-Antoine Desaix, unwittingly became one of the first European explorers of the Nile as he pursued the defeated Mamluks into Upper Egypt. The British used the Napoleonic Wars to stake their claim on South Africa as well.

In 1806 at the southern extremity of the continent, the British seized the Dutch colony at what would become Cape Town, since the Netherlands were then allied with the French. The great anchorage of Table Bay made the site vital to communications with the crown jewel of the growing British Empire, India.

It became the southern British gateway to the interior of Africa, then undergoing the imperial conquests of the Zulu king Shaka Zulu. From Cape Town came the British penetration of the southern half of Africa that continued to the end of the 19th century.

Cape Town

In November 1810 the new British colony of Cape Town led to the first British journey into the unknown Bantu lands to the north. William Burchell was born in 1782, the son of a professional nurseryman. Like Joseph Banks and Mungo Park before him, an interest in botany led to his interest in exploration.

It took Burchell several months to gather together an expedition. His goal was the Kalahari Desert and Angola, which the Portuguese had first visited in the 15th century in their long trek down the west coast of Africa.

Discovering the desert, the terrible heat and lack of water finally forced Burchell to abandon his quest for Angola, and in August he turned back. It would take him and his party two and a half years to return to Cape Town, having traversed some of the most forbidding terrain in Africa.

In April 1815 he returned to Cape Town with an immense scientific treasure from his years of exploration. He returned to England, and from 1822 to 1824 Burchell devoted himself to writing his two-volume Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa.

Thus, by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, much of the coastal area of Africa had been explored, and intrepid adventurers had begun to enter the uncharted heart of the continent. For the rest of the century, the lure of the African interior would be irresistible.

While governments may have had their own agendas, for the great majority of explorers, they traveled neither for imperial glory or monetary gain, but for the sheer adventure of finding out what lay beyond the next river or mountain range.

Still, as in the era of Mungo Park, one of the greatest challenges to exploration was the ancient city of Timbuktu; this and the source of the Nile formed two of the Holy Grails for generations of explorers.

In May 1825 Alexander Gordon Laing landed in Tripoli, determined to find his way to Timbuktu. Finally, after a year of incredible hardship in the desert, on August 13, 1826, he arrived at Timbuktu.

Although the city disappointed him, Laing was impressed by the Mosque of Sankore, built by the great Muslim West African ruler Mansa Musa. Although Laing had achieved his goal, his exploration ended in tragedy.

On September 21, 1826, Laing was told he was not safe and left the city to walk into a trap set by Sheikh Ahmadu El Abeyd, who had promised him protection. On September 22 El Abeyd demanded Laing accept Islam, but the Scotsman refused. He was killed and his head cut off.


The chapter in the history of African exploration concerning Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke is the most tragic of all. In 1856 Richard Burton, perhaps the greatest British adventurer of his generation, was commissioned by the Royal Geographic Society to find the source of the Nile.

He decided to take with him a companion from an earlier expedition, John Hanning Speke. Burton was already an accomplished traveler, proficient in Arabic, and able to carry off pretending to be a Muslim.

On December 19, 1856, Burton and Speke arrived at Zanzibar from Bombay, where Burton held a commission in the army of the East India Company. Both men took ample time in Zanzibar preparing for their expedition.

They set off on their quest after years of travels and squabbles. Burton was convinced that Lake Tanganyika was the source of the White Nile, whereas Speke believed it was Lake Ukewere, which he renamed Lake Victoria.

The rivalry that began in their prior expedition came to a head, and when Burton stopped to rest in Aden, Speke went on to England, promising to wait for his return to reveal the results of their journeys. He broke that promise, and by the time Burton arrived in England on May 21, 1858, Speke had convinced the Royal Geographic Society that Lake Victoria was the source.

This accomplishment earned him another commission by the society, and he did not invite Burton to join him on his return to Africa to verify the claim. Instead, Speke chose an army companion, James Augustus Grant. They arrived in Zanzibar from England in August 1860. They retraced the route that Speke had taken with Burton.

After several months in Uganda, Speke and Grant continued their trip. Because Grant had a severely infected leg, Speke tended to forge ahead on his own. On July 21, 1862, Speke found himself on the Nile and on July 28 came to Rippon Falls, where the White Nile flows out of Lake Victoria.

It was during Speke’s second trip that he and Grant met two of the period’s most colorful explorers, Samuel Baker and his redoubtable wife, Florence. They met Speke at Gondokoro on the White Nile, whose source the Bakers were pursuing. A question remained about another lake, known as the Luta N’zige.

Speke believed that the White Nile flowed into it from Lake Victoria and then out of Luta N’zige. Speke suggested to Baker that he take up the investigation, and Baker was pleased to do so. On February 26, Speke and Grant resumed their journey down the Nile to Khartoum, and from there to Cairo and England.

Lake Albert

The Bakers continued with their exploration and on January 31, 1864, they struck out on the final march toward Luta N’zige. On March 15, 1864, they found the lake, which they renamed Lake Albert.

Samuel explored the surrounding area and saw that the Nile flowed through it. He and Florence returned to England in October, and Samuel was given a gold medal by the Royal Geographic Society. The following August he was knighted.

Meanwhile Speke returned to England without any convincing evidence that his theory was correct. The British Association for the Advancement of Science set up a meeting between Burton and Speke to make their cases.

At a preliminary meeting Burton triumphed over Speke. On September 15, one day before the final confrontation, Speke was shot dead while hunting. Many claimed he had shot himself by accident, but others felt he had taken his own life.

Throughout this entire period the name David Livingstone seemed to dominate. Livingstone was a Scotsman born on May 1, 1813. He first visited Africa as a missionary, having gained a degree in medicine at the age of 25 at the University of Glasgow.

Livingstone soon realized that the exploration of this virtually unknown continent was more to his heart than laboring at a missionary station and devoted himself to exploration, often with his wife.

On June 1, 1849, with two companions, Orwell and Murray, he traveled to find Lake Ngami, and on August 1 Livingstone and his party sailed down the entire lake. Then began Livingstone’s exploration of the Zambezi River.

A national hero back home, Livingstone recounted his travels in his best-selling Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. From 1858 to 1864 he was in Africa on a second expedition to explore eastern and central Africa. He returned to Africa in 1864 to look for the sources of the Nile.

Striking out from Mikindani on the east coast, the expedition was forced south, and some of his followers deserted him, concocting the story that he had been killed and making headline news. Livingstone, however, pressed on, reaching Lakes Mweru, Bangweulu, and Tanganyika. Moving on to the Congo River, he went farther than any European before him.

It was on this exploration that rumors reached England and North America that the great explorer was near death. In 1869 the New York Herald hired Henry Morton Stanley to find Dr. Livingstone.

On November 10, 1871, Stanley found Livingstone at his camp at Ujji on Lake Tanganyika. Upon Livingstone’s death in 1873, his body was returned to England for burial in Westminster Abbey. Stanley decided to pick up where Livingstone, Burton, and Speke had left off, and he set off on his own expedition.

The most important result of the journey was the realization that Speke’s theory had been right—Lake Victoria was the source for the White Nile. He followed the Congo River and caught the attention of King Leopold II of Belgium, who wished to develop the Congo River basin. In 1879 Stanley set off for Africa in the service of Leopold.

The exploration of Africa led to a rivalry among the countries that had sponsored the explorers. At the same time that Stanley had been exploring the Congo for Belgium, so had Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza for France.

To prevent an African rivalry from endangering the peace of Europe, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany chaired a Conference of Berlin from November 1884 to February 1885 to gain the Great Powers’ agreement to a peaceful partition of Africa.

The map of Africa was filling in as the end of the century approached. The areas not yet mapped quickened the heartbeats of explorers from all over the world. Kenya was the next area of interest. On January 2, 1887, the Hungarian explorer Count Teleki von Szek arrived in Zanzibar with Ludwig von Hohnel.

Their goal was to explore for their patron, Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary, another of the lakes that still tantalized African explorers, known in the local language as Basso Narok, or Black Water. Teleki was the first to climb Mount Kenya before discovering two more lakes, today known as Turkana and Stefanie.

On October 26, 1888, after close to two years, they returned to Mombasa and the voyage home. Sixteen years later, in 1914, World War I changed the map of Africa forever. Still, in honor of the explorer who had the purest heart, in spite of the era of decolonization after World War II and the years of unrest that followed, the statue of Dr. David Livingstone still stands overlooking Victoria Falls today.

Imperialism and the Partition of Africa

Imperialism and the Partition of Africa
Imperialism and the Partition of Africa

Imperialism, or the extension of one nation-state’s domination or control over territory outside its own boundaries, peaked in the 19th century as European powers extended their holdings around the world.

The huge African continent (three times the size of the continental United States) was particularly vulnerable to European conquest. The partition of Africa was a fast-moving event. In 1875 less than one-tenth of Africa was under European control; by 1895 only one-tenth was independent.

Between 1871 and 1900 Britain added 4.25 million square miles and 66 million people to its empire. British holdings were so far-flung that many boasted that the “sun never set on the British Empire.” During the same time frame, France added over 3.5 million square miles of territory and 26 million people to its empire.

Controlling the sparsely populated Sahara, the French did not rule over as many people as the British. By 1912 only Liberia and Ethiopia in Africa remained independent states, and Liberia was really a protectorate of U.S.-owned rubber companies, particularly the Firestone Company.

By the end of the 19th century, the map of Africa resembled a patchwork quilt of different colonial empires. France controlled much of North Africa, West Africa, and French Equatorial Africa (unified in 1910). The British held large sections of West Africa, the Nile Valley, and much of East and southern Africa.

The Spanish ruled small parts of Morocco and coastal areas along the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese held Angola and Mozambique, and Belgium ruled the vast territories of the Congo. The Italians had secured Libya and parts of Somalia in East Africa. Germany had taken South-West Africa (present-day Namibia), Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania), and Cameroon.

Britain had the largest empire and the French the second largest, followed by Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. Germany and Italy, among the last European nations to unify, came late to the scramble for Africa and had to content themselves with less desirable and lucrative territories.

There were many different motivations for 19thcentury imperialism. Economics was a major motivating factor. Western industrial powers wanted new markets for their manufactured goods as well as cheap labor; they also needed raw materials.

J. A. Hobson and Vladimir Lenin both attributed imperial expansion to new economic forces in industrial nations. Lenin went so far as to write that imperialism was an inevitable result of capitalism.

As the vast mineral resources of Africa were exploited by European imperial powers, many Africans became laborers in mines or workers on agricultural plantations owned by Europeans. The harsh treatment or punishment of workers in the rubber plantations of the Belgian Congo resulted in millions of deaths.

However, economics was not the only motivation for imperial takeovers. In some instances, for example the French takeover of landlocked Chad in northern Africa, imperial powers actually expended more to administer the territory than was gained from raw materials, labor, or markets.

Nationalism fueled imperialism as nations competed for bragging rights over having the largest empire. Nations also wanted control over strategic waterways such as the Suez Canal, ports, and naval bases. Christian missionaries traveled to Africa in hopes of gaining converts.

When they were opposed or even attacked by Africans who resented the cultural incursions and denial of traditional religions, Western missionaries often called on their governments to provide military and political protection.

Hence it was said that “the flag followed the Bible.” The finding of the Scottish missionary David Livingstone by Henry Stanley, an American of English birth, was widely popularized in the Western press. Livingstone was not actually lost, but had merely lost contact with the Western world.

Explorers, adventurers, and entrepreneurs such as Cecil Rhodes in Rhodesia and King Leopold II of Belgium, who owned all of the Congo as his personal estate, also supported imperial takeovers of territories.

Richard Burton, Samuel and Florence Baker, and John Speke all became famous for their exploration of the Nile Valley in attempts to find the source of that great river. Their books and public lectures about their exploits fueled Western imaginations and interest in Africa.

Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism was another important aspect of 19th-century imperialism. Most Westerners believed they lived in the best possible world and that they had a monopoly on technological advances.

In their imperial holdings, European powers often built ports, transportation, communication systems, and schools, as well as improving health care, thereby bringing the benefits of modern science to less developed areas.

Social Darwinists argued that Western civilization was the strongest and best and that it was the duty of the West to bring the benefits of its civilization to “lesser” peoples and cultures.

Western ethnocentrism contributed to the idea of the “white man’s burden,” a term popularized by the poet Rudyard Kipling. Racism also played a role in Western justifications for imperial conquests.

European nations devised a number of different approaches to avoid armed conflict with one another in the scramble for African territory. Sometimes nations declared a protectorate over a given African territory and exercised full political and military control over it. At other times they negotiated through diplomatic channels or held international conferences.

At the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, 14 nations decided on the borders of the Congo that was under Belgian rule, and Portugal got Angola. The term spheres of influence, whereby a nation declared a monopoly over a territory to deter rival imperial powers from taking it, was first used at the Berlin Conference.

However, disputes sometimes led European nations to the brink of war. Britain and France both had plans to build a north-south railway and east-west railway across Africa; although neither railway was ever completed, the two nations almost went to war during the Fashoda crisis over control of the Sudan, where the railways would have intersected.

Britain was also eager to control the headwaters of the Nile to protect its interests in Egypt, which was dependent on the Nile waters for its existence. Following diplomatic negotiations the dispute was resolved in favor of the British, and the Sudan became part of the British Empire.

War did break out between the British and Boers over control of South Africa in 1899. By 1902 the British had emerged victorious, and South Africa was added to their empire. In West Africa, European powers carved out long narrow states running north to south in order that each would have access to maritime trade routes and a port city.

Since most Europeans knew little or nothing about the local geography or demographics of the region, these new states often separated similar ethnic groups or put traditional enemies together under one administration. The difficulties posed by these differences continue to plague present-day West African nations such as Nigeria.

French and British Rule

The French and British adopted very different approaches to governance in their empires. The French believed in their “civilizing mission” and sought to assimilate the peoples of their empire by implanting French culture and language.

The British adopted a policy of “indirect rule.” They made no attempt to assimilate the peoples of their empire and educated only a small number of Africans to become civil servants. A relatively small number of British soldiers and bureaucrats ruled Ghana and Nigeria in West Africa.

In East Africa, the British brought in Indians to take jobs as government clerks and in commerce. Otherwise, the British tried to avoid interfering with local rulers or ways of life. Although the British and French policies were radically different, both were based on the belief in the superiority of Western civilization.

European colonists also settled in areas where the climate was favorable and the land was suitable for agriculture. Substantial numbers of French colons settled in the coastal areas of North Africa, especially in Algeria and Tunisia, while Italians settled in Tunisia and Libya.

British settlers moved into what they named Rhodesia and Kenya. In Kenya, British farmers and ranchers moved into the highlands, supplanting Kenyan farmers and taking much of the best land.

The Boers, Dutch farmers, fought the Zulus for control of rich agricultural land in South Africa. The Boers took part in a mass migration, or Great Trek, into the interior of South Africa from 1835–41 and established two independent republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

Dutch farmers clashed with the British for control of South Africa in the Boer War. In Mozambique and Angola, Portuguese settlers (prazeros) established large feudal estates (prazos). Throughout Africa, European colonists held privileged positions politically, culturally, and economically. They opposed extending rights to native African populations.

A few groups, such as the Igbos in Nigeria and the Baganda in Uganda, allied with the British and received favored positions in the colonial administrations. However, most Africans resisted European takeovers.

Muslim leaders, such as Abdul Kader in Algeria and the Mahdi in Sudan, mounted long and effective armed opposition to French and British domination. But both were ultimately defeated by superior Western military strength.

The Ashante in Ghana and the Hereros in South-West Africa fought against European domination but were crushed in bloody confrontations. The Zulus led by Shaka Zulu used guerrilla warfare tactics to halt the expansion of the Boers into their territories, but after initial defeats the Boers triumphed.

The Boers then used the hit-and-run tactics they had learned from the Zulus in their war against the British. The British defeated the Matabele and Mashona tribes in northern and southern Rhodesia. In the 20th century, a new generation of nationalist African leaders adopted a wide variety of political and economic means to oppose the occupation of their lands by European nations and settlers.