Posted: March 18th, 2023
Describe the NeirsÃ©e incident. What upset France? What upset Britain? What was unfair about the capture of the slaves?
Although Britain and France were formally attempting to dismantle the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the global economy had come to depend on it. The NeirsÃ©e incident of 1828 reveals the difficulties inherent in dismantling the slave trade due to the interconnectedness of the global economy. For several years prior to this incident, Britain had outlawed the trafficking of slaves, which is why the British Navy decided to intervene and capture the ship. Yet Britain did not have an international mandate to suddenly outlaw slave trafficking altogether. The human cargo on board the NeirsÃ©e was worth far too much to the businesspeople involved on both sides of the Atlantic, both in colonial territories and in Africa. In Inhuman Traffick, Blaufarb relies on primary sources from Britain and France to demonstrate what occurred before, during, and after the NeirsÃ©e incident. The British sources were far more reliable and easier to obtain, which is why the French side of the story is less well told than that of the British. Nevertheless, Blaufarb does obtain from France primary sources, mainly the books from the governor of Guadeloupe, the Baron des Routours. This source shows how the French were more ambivalent than the British regarding the perpetuation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The British primary sources Blaufarb uses to compose Inhuman Traffick include Admiral Flemingâ€™s copious writing, as well as that of Captain Owen and the logs of the British crewmen. Taken together, this set of documents shows what was so upsetting about the NeirsÃ©e incident from multiple perspectives.
The slaversâ€”both exporters and importersâ€”viewed their human cargo as their private property. Therefore, the French response to the British interception of the NeirsÃ©e was viewed not as a humanitarian intervention but as a hostile act. As the correspondences show, though, the perspectives of the colonial government officials in Guadeloupe were less sympathetic towards British abolitionism, let alone towards slaves and their human rights, than their French counterparts in the Old World. The NeirsÃ©e incident therefore demonstrates how difficult it was logistically to try and implement a universal policy of human rights at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and why the United States, Brazil, and other areas continued to participate in slaving. The primary source documents also show differential attitudes of other European powers, many of whom had some part to play in the trans-Atlantic slave trade but none with as great a financial stake as Great Britain. Ironically, it would be Britain that determined to end the slave trade once and for all, leading to the call by the Navy to overtake the NeirsÃ©e.
The incident itself was relatively straightforward: the British Navy spotted the ship and decided to intervene on behalf of the slaves, on the principle of emancipation. The Royal Navy’s West African Squadron comprised of both British and Kru sailors intended to take the NeirsÃ©e to Sierra Leone. The goal was to free the slaves in Sierra Leone. Limited primary source documents from Sierra Leone colonial offices exist to corroborate the material gathered on board from the British sailors. There are also few documents detailing the incident from the perspective of the slaves or the Kru. In spite of this, Blaufarb is able to piece together what happened, revealing the multiple perspectives and points of view.
Unfortunately, the slavers on board the NeirsÃ©e managed to seize back the ship from the British officers and then sailed it and its human cargoâ€”which now also included the crew of mutineersâ€”to Guadeloupe. Upon arrival in the French colony, the slaves on board the NeirsÃ©e were promptly auctioned off, with the crew and the British also captured â€“leading to an international incident that could just as easily have resulted in an all-out war between Britain and France. The primary sources show that the French officials in Guadeloupe were furious with what happened given that their post depended on maintaining the status quo on the islands and keeping the plantation economy alive via a continued stream of slave labor. At the same time, the colonies were so far removed from European mentalities and politics, evidenced by the correspondences sent from Europe and within Europe. Europe had by this time been considering the ethics of the slave trade and were trying to implement policies and procedures that would end it. The NeirsÃ©e incident initiated a new round of discussions about how to collaborate on effective termination of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Thus, what upset Britain was that the slave trade had been continuing in spite of tacit efforts to end it. What upset France was that Britain was interfering and telling others what to do. The only thing â€œunfairâ€ about the capture of the slaves by the British was that they were theoretically impeding global commerce; from the British perspective, commerce in human beings is not legitimate to begin with and their interference was justified morally and even legally.
Rafe Blaufarb and Liz Clarke, Inhuman Traffick: The International Struggle against the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Graphic History. Oxford University Press, 2014.
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