Abolition of the Slave Trade
A strong movement emerged in
18th-century Britain to put an end to the buying and selling
of human beings. This campaign to abolish the slave trade
developed alongside international events such as the French
Revolution, as well as retaliation by maroon
communities, sporadic unrest, and individual acts of resistance
from enslaved people in the British colonies.
The campaigners faced a long and difficult struggle. These
early activists included men such as Thomas Clarkson and George
Fox, who argued that the only way to end the suffering of
enslaved Africans was to make the slave trade illegal by banning
British ships from taking part in the trade. Those involved
came together in 1787 to form the Society for Effecting the
Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Document | Transcript
'Am I not a Woman and a Sister?'
White Women Abolitionists
Recent studies show that, in addition to the more well-known
abolitionists Mary Birkett, Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft,
a considerable body of working and middle-class women in
Britain were involved in the campaign from the very early
stages. These White women spoke out against the slave trade,
boycotted slave-grown produce and wrote anti-slave trade
verses to raise awareness of the violation of family life
under slavery. The strength of their support for the campaign
can also be gauged through their subscriptions to the Abolition
Society; as the historian Clare Midgley reveals, 10% of the
1787-8 subscribers were women.
Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter and abolitionist, produced
a ceramic cameo of a kneeling male slave in chains with the
slogan 'Am I not a Man and a Brother?'. Later,
women campaigners secured production of a similar ceramic
brooch, with the caption 'Am I not a Woman and a Sister?'.
A number of Africans were also involved in the abolition
movement and worked alongside British abolitionists to bring
an end to the commercial trafficking of humans. Ignatius
Sancho came to England in 1731, at the age of two. As
a freed man and well-known shopkeeper, Sancho became the first
African prose writer to have his work published in England.
On the issue of the greed underpinning the slave trade, he
wrote that he 'loved England for its freedom and for the many
blessings he enjoyed', but 'the grand object of English navigators,
indeed of all Christian navigators is money - money - money…'
'O, ye nominal Christians!
Might not an African ask you,
learned you this from your God?'
Equiano, later to be known as Gustavus Vassa, also had
direct experience of enslavement. He had been kidnapped in
what is now Nigeria at the age of 11, sold to a Virginia planter,
then bought by a British naval officer, Captain Pascal, and
later sold on to a Quaker merchant. After eventually buying
his freedom, he settled in Britain where he wrote and published
Equiano travelled extensively around Britain giving public
talks about his experiences as a young boy kidnapped in Africa,
his life as a slave, and the evils of the slave trade.
A third African who publicly demanded the abolition of the
slave trade, as well as the emancipation of slaves, was Ottabah
Cugoano. Born in
the country we now know as Ghana, he too had been kidnapped
and enslaved. Cugoano came to England from Grenada around
1752 and was set free. In Thoughts and Sentiments on
the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of
Human Species, published in 1787, he declared that enslaved
people had both the moral right and the moral duty to resist
Under the auspices of the Abolition Society, campaigners
set out to inform the British public about the barbarity of
the trade in human cargo and its connection with sugar production.
The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson embarked on gathering evidence
to support these claims. His investigations took him to slaving
ports such as Liverpool and Bristol. When he boarded the slave
ship Fly, he recorded that 'The sight of the rooms
below and of the gratings above filled me both with melancholy
and horror. I found soon afterwards a fire of indignation
kindling within me…' To ensure that the lawmakers gained
a strong and lasting impression of what he had experienced,
Clarkson produced exact drawings and dimensions of the ship
Brookes, prepared by Captain Parrey of the Royal
Navy. The drawings showed men, women and children crammed
together in chains below deck.
Another assiduous campaigner was Granville Sharp. On learning
about the murders on the slave ship Zong in 1781,
Olaudah Equiano alerted Sharp, who began a campaign against
Captain Luke Collingwood. Faced with a large number of deaths
due to overcrowding, Collingwood had ordered that all sick
Africans be thrown overboard. The aim was to protect himself
and the ship's owners - for if sick slaves died a natural
death, the owners of the ship received no compensation. If,
however, to safeguard the safety of the ship, those deemed
chattels were thrown overboard while still alive, the insurers
would pay out.
|Although there was, in fact, no
threat to the crew's safety, over the next few days up
to 133 enslaved men and women were thrown overboard alive.
The outrage over the case of the Zong contributed to a process
of re-examining the slave trade, and Clarkson believed that
by revealing his own findings he could persuade Parliament
to pass the necessary legislation to end the trade.
Public meetings were held to enlist support, and local communities
were encouraged to petition Parliament to demand change.
Clarkson also told the public about the human cost to British
families, given the heavy loss of British sailors on slaving
voyages. These losses, he argued, were clearly not in the
national interest. John Newton, a former slave trader, lent
his experience to the movement and later wrote the famous
hymn 'Amazing Grace'.
Tours the Slave Ports
Abolition of the Slave Trade
Despite opposition from a variety of people with vested interests,
the abolitionists and their supporters persisted. In 1806,
Lord Grenville made a passionate speech arguing that the trade
was 'contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound
policy'. When the bill to abolish the slave trade was finally
voted upon, there was a majority of 41 votes to 20 in the
Lords and a majority of 114 to 15 in the Commons.
On 25 March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act entered
the statute books. Nevertheless, although the Act made it
illegal to engage in the slave trade throughout the British
colonies, trafficking between the Caribbean islands continued,
regardless, until 1811.
References and Further Reading
Clarkson, T., An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of
the Human Species, particularly the African (first published
1785), Miami, 1969
Clarkson, T., History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment
of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British
Parliament, London, 1808
Cugoano, O. (ed. Carretta, V.), Thoughts and Sentiments
on the Evil of Slavery, London, 1999
Edwards, P. and Rewt, P., The Letters of Ignatius Sancho,
Hurwitz, E. F., Politics and the Public Conscience, London,
Midgley, C., Women against Slavery: The British Campaigns
1780-1870, London and New York, 1992
Reyahn King et al., Ignatius Sancho, an African Man
National Portrait Gallery, 1997
Walvin, J., An African's Life: The Life and Times of
Olaudah Equiano 1745-1797, London, 1998
For more on Britain and the French Revolution, see:
For more about Thomas Clarkson, see:
For more about the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, see: