The first general treaty for the suppression of the African slave trade was negotiated at the Brussels Conference of 1889-1890. By this time the Atlantic slave trade had ended, but slave raiding and trading were widespread in Africa and slaves were still exported to the Muslim world or sent to European colonies disguised as contract labor. After the British outlawed their own slave trade, they had built up a network of separate treaties with the colonial and maritime powers, and with Asian and African rulers and peoples, granting rights to search and laying down rules for the arrest and trial of slavers. Although often mutual in theory, only the British exercised these rights continuously, and rival powers suspected that the British were trying to hinder their commerce and colonial development.
By the 1880s, with the "Scramble" for Africa in full swing, these treaties were out of date, and there was no treaty with France. The colonial advance, spearheaded by missionaries, traders, prospectors, and adventurers, provoked resistance. British settlers on the shores of Lake Malawi, French missionaries around Lake Tanganyika, and the posts of King Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Independent State in the far interior were threatened by Swahili/Arab traders and their African allies, who were importing quantities of arms and ravaging large areas in which slaving and raiding were endemic. To impose their rule, the imperial powers needed to disarm them.
The antislavery movement was now used to rally hitherto lukewarm domestic support for colonial ventures. The British public had been galvanized by David Livingstone’s earlier appeals to end the trade, and, in 1888, Cardinal Lavigerie, the French founder of the missionary order of the Society of Our Lady of Africa, or White Fathers, toured European capitals calling for volunteers to fight the slavers. The British, anxious to retain leadership of the antislavery movement, and fearful of the havoc that might be created by the cardinal’s "crusaders," asked King Leopold to call a conference of the European colonial powers to negotiate a new treaty against the export of slaves. The idea was popular in Britain, and an invitation from Brussels was less likely to arouse suspicion than one from London. The British initially merely wanted to prevent rival powers, particularly the French, from attracting trade to their colonies by allowing slavers to sail under their flags. Similarly powers could attract trade in the interior to the detriment of more scrupulous neighbors, by countenancing the slave traffic and the lucrative arms trade that supported it. King Leopold determined to extend the proposed treaty to further the interests of his nascent state. To achieve these aims, all the African colonial powers (Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, the Congo, Italy, and Spain) together with the other signatories of the Berlin Act (Holland, Belgium, Russia, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, and the United States) had to be invited. The Ottoman Empire, which had territories in Africa and Asia and imported slaves, was included to avoid appearing to launch a Christian "crusade." Zanzibar was asked in order to please its sultan, and Persia was added as it was a Muslim power believed to be cooperating against the slave trade.
The treaty that was hammered out, the General Act for the Repression of the African Slave Trade of 1890, known as the Brussels Act, declared that the colonial powers could best attack the slave trade by establishing their administrations, developing communications, protecting missionaries and trading companies, and initiating Africans into agricultural labor and the "industrial arts." Having thus established the exploitation of Africa as an antislavery measure, the signatories undertook to prevent wars, end slave trading and raiding, stop the castration of males, and repatriate or resettle freed and fugitive slaves. They agreed to restrict the arms traffic between 20° north latitude and 22° south latitude. The Ottoman Empire, Zanzibar, and Persia undertook the outlawing of the import and export of slaves, and the mutilation of males, as well as the freeing, repatriating, or caring for illegally imported slaves.
To maintain the right to search, the British agreed to restrict their existing rights to vessels of less than 500 tons and to search only in a designated "slave trade zone" that included part of the Indian Ocean, Madagascar, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. In this zone signatories were to exercise strict control over the granting of flags to native vessels and over the movements of passengers. To minimize disputes, rules were laid down for the search and arrest of suspects. The French refused to ratify the clauses on the right to search or verify the flag, but they introduced regulations that virtually implemented them.
A bureau was to be established in Zanzibar to disseminate information that might lead to the arrest of slavers, and one in Brussels was to collect information on the measures taken to carry out the treaty, and produce statistics on the slave, arms, and liquor traffics.
Two modifications were made in the Berlin Act. To please British temperance and missionary societies, and help the Royal Niger Company keep control of trade on the Niger, the liquor traffic, between 20° north latitude and 22° south latitude, was to be subject to duties where it already existed, and to be banned altogether in still "uncontaminated" areas. Similarly, to assist King Leopold against rival traders, a declaration was appended to the treaty allowing import duties to be imposed in the conventional basin of the Congo.
The Brussels Act came into force in 1892. In 1919 it was abrogated together with the Berlin Act, by the victorious allies Britain, France, Belgium (now ruling the Congo), Portugal, Italy, the United States, and Japan. Theoretically it remained in force for the other signatories, but in practice it ceased to exist. The two acts were replaced by three conventions signed at St. Germain-en-Laye in 1919, embodying some of the arms, spirits, and commercial clauses. The slave trade, considered moribund, figured into only one article. This bound signatories to preserve the well-being of native peoples and secure the complete suppression of the slave trade and—a new departure—of slavery in all its forms.
The Brussels Act was only one factor in reducing the slave traffic. It contained no mechanism for enforcement, and it did not cover the various devices, including forced and contract labor, by which the European powers exploited Africans. However, it was in the interests of the colonial rulers to suppress slave raiding, large-scale slave trading, and the export of slaves, and these ended as their administrations were established. Slavery itself, not covered by the act, was tolerated for many years, and petty slave dealing, together with a small export traffic, continued in some areas until the end of colonial rule.
The Brussels conference brought the evils of the slave trade forcefully to public attention, and the act, while serving the interests of the colonial powers, bound them to suppress it. Humanitarians regarded it as a triumph, an important step in the doctrine of trusteeship. The principles embodied in it were passed on to the League of Nations and ultimately to the United Nations.
See also: Anti-Slavery Movement; Slavery, Colonial Rule, and.
Documents relations a la repression de la traite des esclaves publijs en execution des articles et suivants de l’ acte generale de Bruxelles, 1893-1913. English translations are included.
Miers, S. Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade. London: