Conference Panel “The Congress of Vienna and the Slave Trade – Religion, International Relations and Humanitarianism”

As described in one of my earlier posts the Leibniz Institute of European History Mainz successfully applied for the panel “The Congress of Vienna and the Slave Trade -Religion, International Relations and Humanitarianism” at the international conference “The Vienna Congress and Its Global Dimensions.”, which takes place from Thursday 18th to Monday 22nd September 2014 at the University of Vienna.

Here are the abstracts our today’s panel papers.


When evaluating the Congress of Vienna of 1814/15, historians traditionally concentrate on the negotiations to redraw the political map of Europe and on the establishment of an order meant to ensure peace on the continent in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. However, the implications of the congress went far beyond the European scope and were directly linked to manifold global issues such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, one of the burning issues of the time. By signing the “Déclaration des 8 Cours, relative à l’Abolition Universelle de la Traite des Nègres” on 8 February 1815 the representatives of the major European powers established for the first time in history a humanitarian norm in international law. The aim of the proposed panel is to investigate the miscellaneous entanglements of this norm-setting process by focusing on the role of religion and religious actors, emerging humanitarianism, international relations and the impact of abolition on the process of Latin-American independence.



Prof. Dr. Johannes Paulmann, Director of the Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz

Presentation 1, Dr. Thomas Weller: Consalvi, Castlereagh, and the Clapham Sect: The Declaration against the Slave Trade at the Congress of Vienna and the Role of the Holy See

On the eve of the Congress of Vienna, the British government, responding to public pressure exerted by the abolitionist movement in Great Britain, tried its utmost to convince the other European powers to impose an international ban on the Atlantic slave trade. In the run-up to the congress, British diplomats and leading abolitionists had placed great hopes in Pope Pius VII, who was assigned a key role within the British campaign because of his moral authority and supposed influence on the Catholic monarchies of Spain and Portugal, the most recalcitrant opponents of any restriction on the Atlantic slave trade. By analyzing the correspondence of Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, Secretary of State and representative of the Holy See at the Congress of Vienna, my paper reveals the ambivalent position of the Catholic Church as it faced one of the major humanitarian questions of the modern age. Although high-level Church representatives, including Consalvi himself, were tacitly or even expressly in sympathy with the abolitionist cause, the papacy responded hesitantly to the British initiative. Papal reluctance was motivated not only by ideological differences deriving from the religious and political background of the abolitionist movement but also by political calculations made with reference to the colonial interests of the Catholic powers.

Presentation 2, Dr. Jorge Luengo Sánchez: The Congress of Vienna, the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and Latin-American Independence

Abolitionism was a central topic at the Congress of Vienna and remained a major issue in international relations in the aftermath of the Vienna summit. The different interpretations offered by European powers regarding the abolition of the slave trade influenced significantly the diplomatic climate within Europe, but also on the other side of the Atlantic, especially in the wake of the Latin-American revolution. The ambitions of the Spanish colonies for gaining their independence and the reaction of the Spanish monarchy to counter these efforts became a key aspect for understanding how different actors in the Hispanic world regarded abolition and tried to use it in the diplomatic arena.

In my paper, I will focus on the significant entanglement of abolition and the struggle for independence in Latin America. In other words, my aim is to analyze the issue of abolition as a diplomatic instrument to seek and, at the same time, to counter ambitions of independence. In this context, Latin American colonies promoted strongly abolition efforts in order to gain crucial political support for their independence from Great Britain. On the other hand Spain was very reluctant to abolish the slave trade and rejected time after time to join the prohibition regime against the trade proposed by Great Britain. However, in its urgent need of getting monetary resources to finance the military expeditions against the rebels in its colonies, the Spanish monarchy accepted the British compensation offer and after all joined the prohibition regime.

The triangular relationship between Spain, Great Britain, and Latin America will be used as a framework for analyzing the importance of abolition of slave trade during the process of independence on both sides of the Atlantic. In this respect, the Congress of Vienna is considered as a main international forum in which contesting positions on Atlantic abolitionism converged and became a major issue in international relations.

Presentation 3, Dr. Fabian Klose: Enforcing Abolition – the Congress of Vienna and the Origins of Humanitarian Intervention

In the context of the Congress of Vienna, the practice of intervention is usually attributed a clear function after 1815: the Great Powers would jointly intervene under all circumstances to put down revolutions that posed a danger for the newly created international order.

However, to associate the practice of intervention only with the Congress of Vienna and to interpret it as having derived strictly from antirevolutionary concerns is to overlook another aspect taking shape in the shadows of the congress, one that would become firmly established in nineteenth-century international politics, namely, the use of military intervention to enforce an internationally stipulated humanitarian norm. In addition to the various territorial provisions, the congress also produced the “Déclaration des 8 Cours, relative à l’AbolitionUniverselle de la Traite des Nègres”, one of the first important documents in history for international humanitarian law.

In my paper I argue that the international ban of the slave trade, as declared by the Congress of Vienna, not only created an international humanitarian norm but also conceived the corresponding international apparatus to enforce it, especially in regard to Spain and Portugal as the most reluctant opponents of the idea of abolition. The British government championed a new practice of intervention that innovatively combined the use of military and legal means on the international level. Therefore, it is my central argument that the origins of the practice of humanitarian intervention should be traced to the milieu of the Congress of Vienna and the context of the struggle against the transatlantic slave trade.

Cite this blog post
Fabian Klose (2014, September 19). Conference Panel “The Congress of Vienna and the Slave Trade – Religion, International Relations and Humanitarianism”. Humanitarianism & Human Rights. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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