Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention Attempts to Curtail Slavery

The Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention called for the suppression of slavery and the slave trade but made no provisions for implementation of its fiat.

Summary of Event

The Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye was a link in the chain of the international diplomatic assault on slavery. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 began the international reprobation of the slave trade. Viscount Robert Castlereagh of Great Britain had eloquently pleaded for the end of that age-old abomination. His efforts, however, resulted only in denouncement of the slave trade “as inconsistent with the principles of humanity and universal morality.” The Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 also failed to suppress the slave trade. Likewise, the Congress of Verona in 1822 did nothing about the slave trade, despite Britain’s plea. Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention[Saint Germain en Laye Convention]
Slavery;Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention[Saint Germain en Laye Convention]
[kw]Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention Attempts to Curtail Slavery (Sept. 10, 1919)[Saint Germain en Laye Convention Attempts to Curtail Slavery (Sept. 10, 1919)]
[kw]Convention Attempts to Curtail Slavery, Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Sept. 10, 1919)
[kw]Slavery, Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention Attempts to Curtail (Sept. 10, 1919)
Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention[Saint Germain en Laye Convention]
Slavery;Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention[Saint Germain en Laye Convention]
[g]France;Sept. 10, 1919: Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention Attempts to Curtail Slavery[04820]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 10, 1919: Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention Attempts to Curtail Slavery[04820]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 10, 1919: Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention Attempts to Curtail Slavery[04820]
[c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 10, 1919: Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention Attempts to Curtail Slavery[04820]
Balfour, Arthur
Clemenceau, Georges
Polk, Frank Lyon
Hymans, Paul
Milner, Alfred
Tittoni, Tommaso
Costa, Afonso Augusto da
Chinda Sutemi
Cambon, Jules
Marconi, Guglielmo

In 1884, the Berlin Conference Berlin Conference (1884-1885) convened. Fourteen countries had representation: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Norway, and the United States. In the Berlin Act of 1885, Berlin Act (1885) passed under British leadership, the participating nations condemned the internal and the maritime slave trade. They also pledged to care for the moral and material improvement of “native tribes” and to help in suppressing slavery itself in the Congo basin. The United States did not ratify the Berlin Act. Moreover, most unfortunately, the Berlin Conference recognized the International Association of the Congo as a sovereign state. That state, popularly known as the Congo Free State, was the creature of King Leopold II of Belgium. He and his minions became known for the atrocities, including forced labor, that occurred there.

The European countries’ imperialistic rivalry and opportunism in the partitioning of Africa led to the holding of the Brussels Conference Brussels Conference (1889-1890) in the winter of 1889-1890. Seventeen countries were represented: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, the Congo, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Norway, the United States, and Zanzibar. They proceeded to devise a detailed international code against the slave trade, which had reemerged precisely when the European Age of Exploration had begun in the fifteenth century after a long period of decline throughout Western Europe during the Middle Ages.

The Brussels Conference addressed the tremendous problems of the external and internal slave trade in Africa. Concerning the former, the conference’s general act prescribed reciprocal rights of search and capture of vessels under five hundred tons within the “Maritime Zone.” That area comprised the coasts of the Indian Ocean from Baluchistan to Quilimane (at eighteen degrees south latitude), including the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and Madagascar. The general act also placed strict regulations on the use of the flag of a signatory power and the carrying of African passengers in native vessels.

The Brussels Conference made detailed provisions to suppress the internal slave trade in Africa. These included the establishment of “strongly occupied stations” as refuges for the native population. Also approved was the use of cruisers, fortified posts, and expeditions to destroy the slave trade. Because the signatories considered the traffic in arms and liquor as adjuncts to the slave trade, they inserted in the conference’s general act restrictions on the zones in which modern arms and distilled liquors could be sold.

All of the seventeen countries represented at the Brussels Conference signed its general act. From late 1890 through 1896, three more countries became signatories: Ethiopia, Liberia, and the Orange Free State. By 1900, the work of the Brussels Conference had considerably eliminated large-scale slave raiding in areas under European control. Nevertheless, the slave trade continued into the twentieth century.

Slaves continued to be exported to the Middle East. The import and export of slaves and slave raiding in Ethiopia lasted for many years. European contract labor traffic in Africa, a matter ignored by the Brussels Conference, continued to cover slaving operations. Furthermore, the illicit traffic in arms, which often intertwined with the slave trade, survived the strictures of the Brussels general act. Although less important as an international issue, the liquor trade also persisted as a problem in European colonies in Africa.

World War I definitely influenced the troika of slavery, the arms traffic, and the liquor trade. The Allies’ victory meant the end of Germany’s colonies. Victorious Belgium, Great Britain, and France considered the acts of the Berlin and Brussels conferences to be outmoded. They viewed those acts as giving their World War I enemies (Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Turkey) and the neutrals in that conflagration (Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Persia, Spain, and Sweden) a right of intervention in their colonial dealings. Belgium, Great Britain, and France believed that the commercial clauses of the Berlin and Brussels conferences constituted infringement on their sovereign powers by limiting their right to control their own tariffs. Moreover, Belgium, Great Britain, and France claimed that the Brussels general act had solved neither the arms nor the liquor traffic. Furthermore, those three powers judged the slave trade to be so insignificant that the treaty had become a dead issue.

The three countries also recognized, however, the need for caution in jettisoning the Berlin and Brussels acts. The humanitarian principles of those acts, along with the free trade and navigation clauses, had cast a spell over the public, particularly in Great Britain and the United States. Additionally, the acts harmonized with the spirit embodied in the newly created and popular League of Nations. Thus the Belgian, British, and French governments believed that they should not flout the United States, their own electorates, and interested neutral countries. Furthermore, the imperialistic Belgians, British, and French needed to exercise care in treating the Berlin and Brussels acts because they needed international public support in becoming the mandatory powers of the former German colonies.

The conclusion of World War I enabled the colonial powers to effect reconsideration of the Berlin and Brussels acts. Plans were made to replace the acts with treaties that would better suit the colonial powers themselves but still retain the model and many principles of the general act of Brussels. These conventions were signed on September 10, 1919, at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France.

The first convention dealt with the arms traffic. It was signed by the United States, Belgium, Bolivia, the British Empire, China, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Hedjaz, Italy, Japan, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Serb-Croat-Slovene State, Siam, and Czechoslovakia. The convention forbade the export of all modern arms except to signatories for their own use. No arms whatever were to be sent, except with permission, to Africa (excluding Algeria, Libya, and South Africa), the offshore islands of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Persia, Transcaucasia, Gwadar, or former Ottoman Asiatic territories.

The second convention at Saint-Germain-en-Laye treated the liquor traffic in Africa, with some regions of the continent excluded. The signatories were the United States, Belgium, the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan, and Portugal. This agreement entirely prohibited “trade spirits,” but left each territory free to define these liquors for itself. Other spirits would be levied customs duties.

The third convention at Saint-Germain-en-Laye revised the commercial clauses of the Berlin and Brussels acts. It was signed by the United States, Belgium, the British Empire (the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and India), France, Italy, Japan, and Portugal. The leading participants were Arthur James Balfour (Great Britain), Georges Clemenceau and Jules Cambon (France), Frank Lyon Polk (United States), Paul Hymans (Belgium), Alfred Milner (South Africa), Tommaso Tittoni and Guglielmo Marconi (Italy), Afonso Augusto da Costa (Portugal), and Chinda Sutemi (Japan). The agreement allowed Belgium, Great Britain, and France to fix their tariffs and fees for navigation in the basin of the Congo river. The signatory powers disposed of slavery and the slave trade in one sentence: “They will, in particular, endeavor to secure the complete suppression of slavery in all its forms and of the slave trade by land and sea.” Thus the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, like the Congress of Vienna more than a century earlier, treated slavery and the slave trade in a rhetorical manner only.


High hopes were placed in the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Indeed, there rose the joyous claim that for the first time in history there was a definite commitment to the complete suppression of slavery and of the slave trade. This claim ignored the fact that although slavery and slave trade had been persistent institutions throughout much of the world, it had largely disappeared under the influence of Christianity during the Middle Ages, only to reemerge with full-blown intensity when European countries began the to colonize the world in the fifteenth century. The words “in all its forms” in the convention conceivably included forced labor, pseudoadoption, forced concubinage, and debt slavery. Moreover, the German and Ottoman empires, viewed in a number of circles as laggards in attempts to eliminate slavery, had ceased to be.

The particular convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye dealing with slavery and the slave trade encountered serious problems. Two signatories did not ratify the agreement. One, the United States, refused because of its drift into isolationism. The other, Italy, manifesting jingoism, regarded the convention as an infringement on its sovereignty. Moreover, certain signatories that did ratify proved lukewarm in application of the convention. Belgium, France, and Portugal showed no eagerness in their colonial empires to eliminate forced labor, a situation that should have been understood as a form of slavery. South Africa, both in its provinces and in its mandate, former German Southwest Africa, displayed no enthusiasm.

Furthermore, in several ways the third convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, dealing with slavery and the slave trade, formed a retrogression from the general acts of the conferences of Berlin (1885) and Brussels (1890). Many states that signed or adhered to those acts did not sign or later adhere to this particular convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. They were Austria, Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, Liberia, the Netherlands, Norway, Persia, the Soviet Union (formerly Russia), Spain, Sweden, Turkey (formerly the Ottoman Empire), and Zanzibar. Noteworthy, also, was the failure of other successor states to the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires to sign. They included Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Hedjaz, and Iraq.

Additionally, the 1919 Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye contained fundamental errors of omission. Article 22 of the General Act of the Conference of Brussels bound the signatory powers to the reciprocal right of visit, search, and seizure of vessels at sea engaged in the slave trade in the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. That provision was not repeated in the Convention of Saint-Germain-Laye. Furthermore, Article 27 of the General Act of the Conference of Brussels provided for an international bureau at Zanzibar for the holding of documents and information on the suppression of the slave trade, which the signatory powers were pledged to forward. No such provision occurred in the Convention of Saint-Germain-Laye.

Indeed, the very legality of the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye has been questioned. Officially that document styled itself as the “Convention Revising the General Act of Berlin, February 26, 1885, and the General Act and Declaration of Brussels, July 2, 1890.” The General Act of Brussels had no provision authorizing any contracting state to denounce it, thus it could be abrogated only with the consent of all the states that had signed and ratified it. Only some of those states, however, signed the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Consequently, it may be argued that the Brussels Act remains in force. Regardless of legalism, the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye represents a minor event in the attack on slavery and the slave trade. Victims of those monstrous activities benefited very little from the document. Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention[Saint Germain en Laye Convention]
Slavery;Saint-Germain-en-Laye Convention[Saint Germain en Laye Convention]

Further Reading

  • Coupland, Sir Reginald. The British Anti-Slavery Movement. London: Frank Cass, 1964. A brief, popular treatment of the campaign of a group of Britons for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. Their approach represented humanitarian imperialism. Neglects economic factors. One-page bibliography.
  • Davis, David Brion. Slavery and Human Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. A detailed, scholarly telling of the “momentous shift from ’progressive’ enslavement to ’progressive’ emancipation.” Excellent annotation and a helpful index.
  • Fischer, Hugo. “The Suppression of Slavery in International Law.” Parts 1-2. The International Law Quarterly 3 (January-October, 1950): 28-51, 503-522. Discusses the problem of slavery in international law. Surveys slavery in customary international law, suppression of the West African slave trade, the fight against the East African and Central African slave trade, and the period between the world wars.
  • Greenidge, C. W. W. Slavery. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1958. A short, popular description of slavery and the antislavery movement by a longtime secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society. Advocates invocation of the machinery of the General Act of Brussels. Appendixes include the Brussels Act of 1890, the Slavery Convention of 1926, and the Supplementary Convention of 1956.
  • Harris, John A. A Century of Emancipation. London: J. M. Dent, 1933. Popular, sympathetic narration of the antislavery movement. Stresses the aftermath of the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Admirable index.
  • MacMunn, Sir George. Slavery Through the Ages. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1970. A well-written, detailed survey of slavery to 1938. Praises the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Has illustrations and an index but no bibliography or annotations.
  • Miers, Suzanne. Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade. New York: Africana, 1975. First-rate account. Questions the significance of the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in regard to attacking the slave trade. Scholarly and objective. Voluminous notes, superb bibliography, fine maps, and a model index. Includes the text of the Brussels Conference.
  • _______. Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Pattern. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2003. Comprehensive discussion of the history of slavery and abolition in the twentieth century. Includes a chapter on the creation of a treaty network to fight the slave trade in the early part of the century. Bibliographic references and index.
  • “Official Documents.” Supplement to the American Journal of International Law (1921): 297-328. Complete text of the three conventions signed at Saint-Germain-Laye on September 10, 1919. Inadequate index.
  • Simon, Kathleen. Slavery. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1930. Spirited story of slavery in the early twentieth century, by an Englishwoman. Simon shows high regard for the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Well annotated, good print, serviceable index. Contains the text of the International Slavery Convention of 1926.

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