When David Livingstone landed in the Cape Colony in 1841, he did so in the midst of British anti-slavery euphoria. Britain had abolished slavery throughout the empire only eight years earlier, and as his ship sailed down Africa's coast, he saw the patrols—a sixth of the great British navy—scouting the Atlantic in search of slave smugglers.

Those smugglers who made it through, mainly bound for Cuba, Brazil, and the southern U. S., still carried 60,000 slaves annually, but the number was down by over half from a few years earlier. Although by 1842 almost all major seafaring nations had officially outlawed the trade, in practice they turned a blind eye to its continuation. Slavery was simply too profitable to abandon altogether. A slave bought for $10 in Africa could sell for as much as $600 in Cuba.

By the early 1850s, Britain had nearly obliterated all slave trading from the Portuguese territories Angola and Mozambique, which were among the most notorious. When the American Civil War ended, and the U. S. zealously joined Britain in fighting the trade, the end of African slavery around the world seemed to be in sight.

Loopholes and Catch-22

Livingstone, on the other hand, knew military action alone could not sufficiently stanch the slave trade. While studying in London in 1840, Livingstone had listened to Thomas Fowell Buxton support "legitimate commerce" in western Africa as the only means to end slavery. Finance was the best weapon in the crusade. Until Livingstone, however, Buxton's ideas were merely academic. No "legitimate" traders could possibly penetrate the interior of the continent.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, French plantation owners on Indian Ocean islands started buying slaves from Mozambique, and the dying trade ...

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