It was a
It was a momentous night. The British Prime Minister William Wyndham Grenville rose from the red benches in the House of Lords to move a second reading of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. “What right do we derive from any human institution, or any divine ordinance,” he asked, “to tear the natives of Africa, to deprive them by force of the means of laboring for their own advantage, and to compel them to labor for our profit?”¹ The legislation was passed. Watching from the chamber’s public gallery, a young Spaniard, Agustín de Argüelles, felt that he had witnessed an event of monumental significance. Little did he know that three years later he would attempt to put an end to the “infamous traffic” across the dominions of the Spanish crown.
Argüelles had arrived in London in 1806 and was working for the Spanish government as a secret agent. He would become one of the most important statesmen of his generation and a central figure in Spanish politics for more than forty years. The abolition of the slave trade and slavery would be a recurrent concern during his life, and in many ways his inconsistent convictions and thoughts, his changing attitudes and political action, mirror the complex ways in which Spaniards from both sides of the Atlantic thought about the slave trade and slavery.
1802 - 1814
Early Spanish Anti–Slave Trade Discourses, 1802–1814
“Trading in the blood of our brothers is horrendous, atrocious and inhumane and the National Congress must not hesitate for a single moment between its high principles and the interest of certain individuals.”
— Agustín de Argüelles, 1810
Agustín de Argüelles and British politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce never met in person. Most likely, Wilberforce did not encounter his name until 1811, when Argüelles, member of parliament for the northern region of Asturias, become a central figure in Spanish politics. But Argüelles knew well who Wilberforce was. Wilberforce’s fight represented, in Argüelles’s mind, the very best of the British political system, capable of conducting a radical transformation from the benches of a freely elected parliament, respecting the tradition while embodying the passion of a true Jacobin. Argüelles admired Wilberforce, and if he had the chance, he wanted to become him.
1814 - 1823
Defining a New Discourse on the Slave Trade
Absolutist Nuances, Toreno’s Commitment, and Varela’s Utopia
“The longer that the People have lost their liberty, the stronger becomes in them their anxiety to recover it.”
— Council of the Indies, 1816
The Spanish king Fernando VII was no abolitionist. Contrary to what he occasionally expressed, his political actions demonstrated a general disregard for the lives of those enslaved and transported across the ocean to labor for others for free in his dominions. However, the Spanish state was heterogeneous and exposed to the new ideas circulating in the Atlantic World. Abolitionism was so persuasive as to pervade the court of the absolutist king, with important consequences for the political counsel he was given at certain junctures.
1823 - 1835
Abolitionism, Exile, and the “Necessary Evil” Argument, 1823–1835
“It is well known, that every river on the coast of Africa, where slaves are to be obtained, still swarms with slave-ships, bearing openly the flag of Spain.”
— Lord Palmerston, 1831
In April 1823, some 95,000 French soldiers invaded Spain in response to the call for help made by Fernando VII to the so-called Holy Alliance of the Austrian and Russian Empires and the kingdoms of France and Prussia. The host commanded by Louis Antoine of France, Duke of Angoulême, wrested control of the country without significant opposition. The Liberal government sought refuge in Cadiz, but on August 31 the French army conquered the city. Fernando was restored as absolute monarch, the Liberal constitution of 1812 annulled, along with all ancillary civil liberties. Thousands of Spaniards sought political asylum abroad, in many instances resuming work for their previous causes—or new ones— from their new havens.
1833 - 1845
Political Exclusion, Racism, and Abolitionism in the 1840s
“In vain are my efforts to arouse any repugnance in myself at the thought that a man of color might sit at my side on these benches.”
— Domingo María Vila, 1837
By 1833 Spain was a very different country from the one that had resisted the Napoleonic invasion. The independence of most of the American territories, the civil war, the repression and the long exiles of some of its key Liberal political figures had created a much darker political climate, in which many pledged to preserve what was left of a shrinking empire at any cost— even if for some, like Agustín de Argüelles, this meant arguing against what they had passionately fought for twenty-five years before. The new regime restricted the liberties and rights of colonial subjects, excluded their representatives from the parliament, and ignored those “philanthropic theories” that had inspired the debates of Cadiz. All in the name of the preservation of what was left: Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
1845 - 1868
The End of the Slave Trade in the Spanish Empire
“Horrible slavery! (. . .) Who in righteous anger does not burn? / Who, heartbroken, does not groan / and to God and the world cry for their help?”
— Concepción Arenal, 1866
The end of the slave trade had been regarded for decades as inevitable. The political efforts of slave owners, abolitionists, and authorities had concentrated on the question of just how long the trade could persist, rather than contestation of whether it could be tolerated indefinitely. In the two decades leading up to the 1860s, the forces opposed to abolitionism had profited from a general atrophy in this debate, and as such the Spanish slave trade of the late 1850s was as profitable and dynamic as ever before. There was little hope in the abolitionist camp of seeing a sudden end to the “odious commerce.”
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