Only edition of British abolitionist William George Alexander's sober yet vehement report of Portugal's perseveration in the illegal international trade in enslaved persons, written as a letter, in the first-person, addressed to the courts and to the citizens of Portugal. The transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans was abolished in Britain in 1807, and between 1834 and 1838 the institution of enslavement was phased out throughout the Empire. Some 800,000 thousand people were liberated in August of 1838. But enslavement as a business and an institution of course persisted throughout the world, with Portugal, a close ally of Britain, as the principal offender, even though the trade had been formally made illegal in 1836 by Portuguese prime minister Bernardo de Sá Nogueira de Figueiredo. The law was universally ignored. Alexander, a London Quaker and retailer with a private fortune and political connections, was an essential figure in the world abolition movement. Frederick Douglass, writing in 1855, said, "George William Alexander, another Friend, [...] has spent more than an American fortune in promoting the anti-slavery cause in different sections of the world […]." In 1839, Alexander helped found the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, and the following year organized and sponsored the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Even though there were a great number of powerful individuals connected to the world abolitionist movement, the resistant nations could draw upon even greater political and economic wherewithal. In April of 1842, Alexander visited Spain and Portugal, and in May of that year, published the present letter—in Lisbon, incredibly, where the trade in people enslaved in Mozambique, Angola, and smaller colonies had continued with the tacit imprimatur of a government beholden to the powerfully connected traders. Alexander's letter, of 5 May 1842, is perhaps one of the most powerful anti-enslavement manifestos. It begins by asserting that Portugal is the only so-called "civilized" nation that has so far failed to prohibit the commerce in African people for the purpose of enslavement. Alexander accuses Portugal of carrying out its mission with relish and greed, and in the face of international watchdogs (meaning Britain, whose navy was reluctant—or unable—to interdict Portugal-flagged ships carrying enslaved people). Alexander's letter, though steeply impassioned, is also filled with simple, unassailable statistics on the trade. The numbers are staggering. (And here we quote Dasa Pahor, scholar-bookseller in Munich, who has read the pamphlet with extreme comprehension):
Alexander cites figures given by John Scoble (1799-1877, a British-Canadian abolitionist) that state that in 1837-9 inclusive, 244 ships carrying 108,934 slaves arrived in Rio de Janeiro, with most having originated in Portuguese Africa. He goes on to note that the British consuls in Bahia, Pará and Maranhão reported that from January to June 1840 inclusive, a total of 27 slave ships arrived in these ports, while another report says that since Portugal’s abolition of the slave trade, 83 ships arrived in Rio de Janeiro and Pernambuco from Angola and Mozambique. Sir Thomas Buxton (1786 - 1845, an MP, brewer and abolitionist) estimated that 100,000 slaves enter Brazil every year from Portuguese Africa. Yet, the true extent of the Portuguese slave trade with Brazil was actually much larger than any recorded data might suggest, as it is though that the illegal market accounted for over 50% of the traffic. Alexander continued, opining that “The coasts of Africa are devastated by the mer- chants of slavery, particularly the part that belongs to Portugal” (p. 7). Turning to Cuba, it is cited that between 1822 and 1839 a total of 738 slave ships arrived in Havana from Portuguese African ports, with the frequency of the trade on the rise, with 382 of these arriving between 1833 and 1839. Furthermore, official statistics state that between 1830 to 1839, 120,438 slaves arrived in Cuba, likewise mostly from Portuguese Africa. In 1837 to 1839 inclusive, a total of 201 slave ships arrived in Havana, with 108 originating from Portuguese African ports, while from January to October 1840 inclusive of the 49 slave ships that arrived in Havana, 32 vessels carried the Portuguese flag. Yet, as with Brazil, the numbers of slaves entering Cuba were impossible to fully quantify, as slavers arrived at many small ports unrecorded in official statistics, not to mention the under-the-radar trade. Alexander remarks that from 1834 to 1838, the British Royal Navy’s anti-slavery patrols, based out of Sierra Leone, captured 151 ships, liberating 34,884 slaves bound for the Americas, with most originating in Portuguese Africa. Yet, despite these interdictions, over 300,000 Africans were killed, or their lives ruined, by slavery each year. Alexander decries the “wild beasts in both the old and new world, who trade in their fellows” and declares that “The slave trade puts an end to all commerce, produces an unlimited lack of security, ignites a perpetual war, destroys all legitimate trade, sciences, social progress, and above all Christianity in a part of the world with over 100 million people” (p. 16). Internationally, it is recorded that the United States of America had 2.5 million slaves, Brazil, 2 million; the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico, 700,000; the French West Indies, 250,000; and the Dutch, Danish and Swedish West Indian islands com- bined had 100,000 slaves. Furthermore, there were many more slaves elsewhere in South America. The “unnatural and cruel character” of slavery was responsible for there being an excess of deaths to births in Brazil of 5%; while in Cuba it was not less than 10%. Alexander believed that slavery imparts a “despotic power” in its masters, and that is presents a “criminal system”. In response, he felt that in Portugal “It is necessary to adopt the most decisive measures”, to be administered “exclusively people of incor- ruptible probity and unshakable firmness” to enforce the country’s 1836 laws against the slave trade. As such, the “severest punishment” should be meted out to slaver traders, who Alexander calls “delinquents”, and that the focus should initially be on government officials who turn a blind eye to, or assist the slave trade, as well as navy captains that allow the traffic. He reasons that if some of the major perpetrators could be brought to justice, then “it will have a healthy influence on the least officers” (p. 20). In the place of the slave trade, Portugal should “establish other legal products with Africa” to “promote and honour the nation”, as opposed to appealing to its “evil side.” Alexander goes even further to assert that slavery should be abolished period in Portuguese Africa, as it is the “only way for the civilized world” to benefit the “African natives, who for so long have been so shamefully abused.” To show, by comparison, how uncivilized is Portugal’s current behaviour, he notes that even some Muslim states in Africa, such as that run by the Bey of Tunis, have already liberated their slaves (p. 23). However, the author holds out hope, as “Many people of distinction in Portugal” know the “cruel nature of the slave trade” and that they will “stimulate” the government “by opposing the individuals who are interested in the continuation of these abuses.” Significantly, Alexander writes “I think that the Portuguese have not so far been well acquainted by the character of slavery, as they are only informed by those interested in its continuation” (p. 25). He goes on to say that “I am very happy to know that there are people, both private and in public office, who openly, honourably, and without any fear, will want to take part in the abolition of traffic that is dishonourable to the character of any nation.” Alexander notes that the United States, Britain, France and the Netherlands already had their own powerful abolitionist societies, but that Portugal still lacked one. He recommends that the prominent Portuguese figures who oppose slavery unite to form an abolitionist lobby such that their country can regain its Christian honour by playing a major role in ensuring that slavery “would cease to desolate the earth.”
Alexander's letter, a powerful nexus of emotion and cold, hard fact, did have an effect on the Portuguese goverment and its citizenry, and served as the flashpoint for a slow but sustained effort at the de jure and de facto abolition of the Portuguese trade in enslaved people, and the institution it had engendered. There is some mystery attached to why this pamphlet was never translated, and why so few have survived. (Ours is one of three known exemplars, the others at Biblioteca da Assembleia da Republica in Lisbon and the Senate House Library in London.) Was there an effort to censure it or destroy copies? Evidence suggests it was published at Alexander's expense, printed in large numbers, and perhaps even distributed free of charge in Lisbon. A good copy of a critical survival of global anti-enslavement literature, worth renewed consideration both as a historical witness, and as a bibliographical object.
16mo, 127 x 93 x 1 mm. [A]16, (conjugate [A]1-16 blank], 27 pp. Contemporary printed wraps, worn, minor tears with slight loss, a bit dog-eared. Interior: Leaves toned, light staining.
Contemporary custodial signature of A. G. dos Santos Garza to recto of front free end Garza's library was sold in Lisbon in 1912.
Status: On Hold