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About the abolition

Introduction

For The National Archives the 2007 bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act is an important occasion. It represents an opportunity to broaden the public understanding of the significance of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and slavery as well as its role in their eventual suppression and abolition. We will do this by promoting and providing access to our significant collections and online resources on these subjects, and make links to other archives with relevant collections. In particular, we hope to encourage new audiences to gain access to The National Archives to understand and interpret how slavery and the slave trade shaped the history of Britain, Africa and the former British empire in general, and to consider its consequences for modern-day British, African and Caribbean societies.

Britain and the transatlantic slave trade

The British were actively involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Forms of slavery were practised in British settlements and colonies, particularly in the Caribbean and North America, for around 200 years.

Britain was not the first country to enter the slave trade itself, nor the last to leave it. But during the time that Britain was involved (between 1660 and 1807) it turned the trade into a profitable business more than any other nation. At the height of the trade in the 18th century British ships carried more Africans than those of any other maritime nation. It is estimated that these ships transported over 3.1 million Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas. Approximately 2.7 million arrived – the others died during the notorious Middle Passage.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed on 25 March 1807. However, ships that had lawfully been cleared to leave British ports before 1 May 1807 could trade until 1 March 1808. It is estimated that 34 ships left British ports for Africa after 1 May; the last slaving ship, the Eliza, left Liverpool on 16 August 1807. Several ships (including the Eliza) disembarked their slaves in February 1808. There is evidence that at least two ships legally traded after the 1 March deadline because they had been captured. These included the Robert, which arrived in Martinique (under British control) on 12 March, and Royal Edwards, which arrived in Surinam (also under British control) with 316 slaves on 3 October.

Throughout the duration of the transatlantic slave trade (started by the Portuguese in 1519 and ended in 1867) it is estimated that around 11 million Africans boarded ships to be transported to the Caribbean and America. Roughly 9.6 million survived the voyage to be sold into enslavement in the plantations, estates, mines and households of mainly European settlers.

The colonies

The British first successfully settled in the Americas in 1607 and in the Caribbean in 1623. Although Africans were among the early settlers it is uncertain what their exact status was – whether free settlers, indentured servants or slaves. Dutch planters from Brazil introduced sugar agriculture and African slaves to Barbados in 1640. It soon became apparent how much economic wealth could be gained from sugar. British colonies rapidly converted from predominantly white European settlements with small-scale agriculture aimed at domestic produce to slave colonies employing thousands of African slaves on large, white-owned plantations producing monoculture crops, mainly for export.

It is estimated that 361,000 Africans were transported to the North American colonies and another 2.2 million to the Caribbean. Slavery was abolished on 1 August 1834 but only children under the age of six were freed immediately under the terms of the 1833 Emancipation Act. Slaves in the Bahamas and Antigua were also freed at this point. All other former slaves were bound, as apprentices, to their former masters for periods up to a further six years. Laws were passed in the Bahamas and Antigua to abolish the apprenticeship clause, with political and public pressure forcing the other colonies to follow suit on 1 August 1838. For this reason 1838 is often considered to be the date that slavery was abolished in the Caribbean.

Relevant records held by The National Archives

The National Archives of England, Wales and the United Kingdom has one of the largest archival collections in the world, spanning 1,000 years of British history. We hold extensive records describing Britain's involvement in slavery and the slave trade, and their abolition. The important collections include:

  • Colonial Office records describing how slavery shaped the history of Britain's former colonies, the abolition of slavery in the colonies, as well as Britain’s relationship with colonial governments on legal, social, military and economic matters in general;
  • Records of British African companies describing Britain's early relationships with Africa and the supplying of Africans to the Americas;
  • Britain's diplomatic, legal and naval roles in suppressing the slave trade and to its eventual international abolition;
  • Slave registers containing personal details of enslaved persons;
  • Records of the Slave Compensation Commissioners showing who was awarded compensation for the emancipation and the amounts they received.

The National Archives does not, however, have many records relating to the anti-slave trade movement or discussions leading to the abolition of the slave trade legislation. These movements were conducted directly through Parliament rather than by government departments.

More information is available in our research guides.