Artifacts Collection Highlights: Treaty Between Great Britain and the Republic of Texas for the Suppression of the African Slave Trade

By Rebecca Romanchuk, Archivist

Front cover of the Treaty between Great Britain and the Republic of Texas for the Suppression of the African Slave Trade, November 16, 1840. ATF0419, Artifacts collection. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

A few of the items in the Texas State Archives’ Artifacts collection are both artifact and document—a combination of physical object, often with aesthetic or artistic value, and informational record—that sheds light on a facet of our historical past. Among these are treaties between the Republic of Texas and other sovereign nations, created between 1839 and 1844 as formal and official documents of international diplomacy. These treaties are also described in our holdings as Texas Department of State treaties between the Republic of Texas and other nations.

The treaty pictured above, with its bright red velvet cover and decorative cord, is one of three treaties by which Great Britain recognized the Republic of Texas as an independent nation and was signed in November 1840. This particular treaty established an agreement between the two nations to suppress the African slave trade by declaring such trade as piracy. British or Texian merchant vessels discovered by either nations’ war ships to be carrying Africans for the purposes of enslavement were to be subject to capture and adjudication of their masters, crew, and accomplices. African men, women, and children found on board who were destined for slavery were to be immediately given their freedom and delivered to the nearest Texian or British territory. “Texian” was the adjective used during the Republic era where we would instead use “Texan” today.

First page of the Treaty between Great Britain and the Republic of Texas for the Suppression of the African Slave Trade, November 16, 1840. ATF0419, Artifacts collection. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

The treaty was signed in London, England, on November 16, 1840, by Lord Palmerston as Great Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and by James Hamilton, financial agent for the Republic of Texas. Hamilton had taken over the task of negotiation from James Pinckney Henderson, Texas minister to England at that time and the future first governor of the state of Texas.

Hamilton’s efforts resulted in three signed treaties between the nations, including this one to suppress the African slave trade, one of several such treaties Great Britain negotiated with other nations during this time. Great Britain had abolished slavery within its empire in 1807 and was working toward universal emancipation. The treaty was not approved by the Congress of the Republic of Texas until January 1842 due to politically motivated delay in sending the document to Texas. It became effective on June 28, 1842.

Though slavery existed and was lawful in Texas while it was a republic, and later as a state after annexation, prohibition of the African slave trade was part of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, as it had also been prohibited by the United States Constitution since 1808. Even so, a small percentage of slaves in the republic arrived there due to illegal African trade.

Permanent residence of free blacks in the republic required the approval of Congress in each case. Before the Texas Revolution, the Mexican government had given free blacks full citizenship rights, but afterward, the Constitution of the Republic of Texas took away citizenship from those with one-eighth African blood and restricted their property rights. The “freedom” granted to those Africans who were found on vessels smuggling them into Texas was by no means full freedom as the white population enjoyed.

“All persons, Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians excepted, who were residing in Texas on the day of the declaration of Independence shall be considered citizens of the republic and entitled to all the privileges of such.” Detail from INV 6512, General Provisions, Section 10, Texas Constitution of 1836, Texas (Republic) Department of State records. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Click here for an image of the entire page from Section 10.

The treaty was nullified by the subsequent annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845. A similar treaty between Great Britain and the United States was finally concluded in 1862, though negotiations had gone on between the two countries since 1814 (with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent) and had primarily been hindered by disagreement over conditions for search and visitation of vessels. Slavery in Texas officially ended after June 19, 1865, when federal forces occupied Galveston two months after the end of the American Civil War and emancipation was announced by the Union commander of the Department of Texas, General Gordon Granger. Still, the devastating effects of slavery persisted and continue to echo in our society’s struggles to ensure social justice and the protection of civil rights for African Americans.

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