A legal episode in the history of the slave trade A legal episode in the history of the slave trade
Slavery and the slave trade are regularly addressed morally, sociologically and historically. I do not pretend to say that I’m going to offer a new angle, but I thought you might be interested in approaching the subject from a legal point of view. From an internationalist point of view, exactly.
Therefore, I have chosen to tell you about the arbitral award of 22 April 1822 issued by Tsar Alexander I in the slave case between the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
In 1812, the Anglo-American war broke out. It was also called the Second War of Independence and lasted until 1815. While the United Kingdom was at war with the French Empire, the United States took the opportunity to declare war as well in order to seize British territories in Canada.
During this war, the United Kingdom would manoeuvre to drive slaves off their plantations and kidnap others to board a ship bound for England.
The goal? Weaken the United States and cause considerable damage to its economy.
At the end of 1814, the two states signed a treaty (The Treaty of Ghent) to put an end to the war and settle its conditions. However, Article 1 of this treaty states that all possessions taken from either party must be returned.
A question of law?
I give it to you in a thousand:
are the slaves taken away affected by this provision?
Although it was not until 1833 that the United Kingdom abolished slavery, the slave trade was banned as early as 1807.
Remaining questions: are slaves property and how can be resolved a conflict between a State that practices slavery and human trafficking and a State that does not?
International tribunals did not exist at the time. So when we choose to settle a dispute peacefully, we do so through international arbitration. As its name suggests, it involves the use of one or more arbitrators (heads of state or lawyers) who will have the difficult task of deciding the dispute on the basis of law, in general, or on specific rules determined by the parties.
It is therefore the task of Tsar Alexander I who is responsible this particular case. I will not make you languish any longer, the Tsar has ruled in favor of the United States. He considered that the United Kingdom should compensate them for the slaves taken away. A sum was agreed, but only the owners resident in the U.S states named in the treaty were entitled to compensation.
To understand this decision, three things must be understood:
The first one? An individual or person is not a subject matter of international law. International law is the law of States and international organizations. The individual does not exist. He is the subject of his State and this element makes the case interesting for internationalists insofar as it is a matter of settling a dispute about people in a law… which does not recognize them.
Secondly, we are in the early stages of abolition and if many voices are raised against the cruelty of the practice and if the Maroons or runaway slaves mobilize their forces to deliver their brothers, we are still far from the general awareness that reducing people into slavery just because they are Black… well, it is morally wrong.
Thirdly, at the time, the enslaved was still a property a material good. It does not have legal personality, as evidenced by the Scott v. Sandford case, on which I strongly encourage you to document yourself.
As a result there was very little chance that a contrary decision would be taken. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting.