Global Abolition and Emancipation Movements

The three centuries following the European settlement of the Americas were marked by a dramatic and devastating expansion of legal forms of slavery and human trafficking. European colonizing powers, particularly the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, exploited slave labor in farflung corners of the globe, in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Slave labor, and the continual influx of slaves to European colonies, provided the impetus behind the growth of plantation economies. The global increase of slavery occurred at the same time that the institution all but disappeared in Europe, as jurists ceased to sanction slavery within their jurisdictions, both for native-born residents and foreign-born slaves who reached their range of legal authority. For Europeans living in the age of overseas expansion, slavery had become a critical, though distasteful, imperial institution necessary to secure economic growth, domestic prosperity, and international competitiveness.

But this notion of slavery as a necessary evil would change in the late eighteenth century. Starting in the 1780s, organized abolitionist campaigns cropped up on both sides of the Atlantic, spearheaded by reformers who sought to criminalize the transatlantic slave trade in Africans and end the practice of human bondage. British and French Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and Baron de Montesquieu argued that slavery was the antithesis to natural law and less productive than free labor. The primary goal for antislavery advocates was to effect the legal abolition of slavery and slave trading, and, following a number of setbacks, in this they were largely successful. In little over a century, from the 1780s to the 1880s, antislavery activists led by the British gradually put a stop to the transatlantic slave trade and dismantled slave systems throughout the New World.

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