Leslie Bethell has written a valuable account of Britain’s struggle to eliminate the slave trade to Brazil during the first half of the nineteenth century. Using Foreign Office records as his major source, he has attempted to answer three basic questions: why was the Brazilian slave trade declared illegal; why was it not actually suppressed for twenty years after it became illegal; and how was it at last abolished? In answering these questions, the author provides abundant evidence that Brazilians (as well as the Portuguese before and after Brazilian independence) were greatly at odds with the British on the question of slavery. Britain, with motives which the author does not particularly seek to reveal, was dedicated to suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, while Brazil was strongly but unofficially committed to its continuation as the one conceiveable means of satisfying its labor needs. Under these circumstances, the agreements reached between the disputants over a span of more than forty years were the result of British threats, of demonstrations of British power, and of dogged diplomatic bargaining involving major economic and strategic concessions.
As the author shows, Britain took advantage of the political and economic dependence of the Portuguese government after 1807 to impose unwanted restrictions upon the slave trade and to establish complex legal procedures for controlling contraband traffic. With the advent of Brazilian independence, British diplomatic effort was focused upon the new government in Rio until in 1826 the Emperor’s reluctant diplomats at last agreed to total abolition of the trade after a respite of only three years in exchange for British protection and diplomatic recognition. Legally banned as a result of foreign coercion, the traffic survived, as Brazilians bitterly complained of British interference in their internal affairs and British diplomats tried to impose new treaties upon both Portugal and Brazil to facilitate the seizure and condemnation of ships involved in illegal traffic. Generally unsuccessful in these efforts, the British government at last resorted to unilateral measures in 1839 and 1845 in the form of the Palmerston and Aberdeen Bills, intended to provide some legal justification for British action against slave ships sailing under the Portuguese and Brazilian flags.
In culminating chapters the author shows that the major British naval action of 1850 on the coast of Brazil, in violation of Brazilian sovereignty, was a desperate but well-conceived attempt to satisfy an impatient British public by bringing a rapid end to the old and difficult problem of the slave trade. In this most interesting part of his book he describes the British incursions into Brazilian territorial waters and fortified harbors and demonstrates how this use of force and a threat of its repetition early in 1851 finally persuaded the Brazilian government to legislate and implement the strong measures needed to end the traffic. Though the author gives surprisingly little attention to the moral implications inherent in the slavery question, he is often critical of the high-handed methods which British officials employed in their relentless pursuit of national goals.
Concerning the motives and actions of Brazilians, however, he is not always so frank. Though he furnishes proof that the British naval operation of 1850 was the decisive factor in the suppression of the slave trade (indeed, this is one of his major conclusions), with surprising inconsistency he also grants some polite credence to the traditional Brazilian account of the abolition of the slave trade, which seeks to minimize the importance of the British contribution and even alleges that British interference was an embarrassing obstacle to effective Brazilian action. This unnecessary concession to Brazilian historical tradition only slightly weakens this otherwise impressive survey of British-Portuguese-Brazilian diplomatic conflicts and transactions extending over more than half a century and encompassing much more than the single question of the slave trade. It is a work which should be of great interest to historians of all three of the principal countries concerned.