As soon as Europeans began to settle in America, in the early 16th century, they imported enslaved Africans to work for them. As European settlement grew, so did the demand for enslaved people. Over the next 300 years more than 11 million enslaved people were transported across the Atlantic from Africa to America and the West Indies, and Britain led this trade from the mid-17th century onwards. Ports such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow sent out many slaving ships each year, bringing great prosperity to their owners. Many other cities also grew rich on the profits of industries which depended on slave-produced materials such as cotton, sugar and tobacco.
The campaign in Britain to abolish slavery began in the 1760s, supported by both black and white abolitionists. The battle was long and hard-fought, with pro-slavery campaigners arguing that the slave trade was important for the British economy and claiming that enslaved Africans were happy and well-treated. However the frequent rebellions by enslaved Africans and evidence of the appalling conditions endured by them during and after transportation led to growing support for the demands to abolish the slave trade. Eventually, in 1807, Parliament passed an Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which abolished the trade by Britain in enslaved peoples between Africa, the West Indies and America.
The pro-slavery campaigners had argued that with no new enslaved Africans being traded slave-owners would treat their existing slaves better. However, it was clear that enslaved people were still harshly treated and many continued to resist and rebel against their enslavement. In 1833 Parliament passed a further act to abolish slavery in the British West Indies, Canada and the Cape of Good Hope (southern Africa), meaning that it was now illegal to buy or own a person. However, slavery continued in other areas of the British Empire including the territories run by the East India Company, Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and St Helena. Between 1808 and 1869 the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron seized over 1,600 slave ships and freed about 150,000 Africans but, despite this, it is estimated that a further 1 million people were enslaved and transported throughout the 19th century.
Enslavement is both a result and a cause of racism. A belief that certain people were racially inferior allowed Europeans to set up the trade in African enslaved people in the 1520s. It encouraged whites to believe that the cruelty of the capture of enslaved people, the inhuman conditions on the slave-ships and the incredibly harsh treatment the enslaved received in the Americas were somehow justified. Source 2 is just another example of this. Enslavement has also caused racism by setting up a stereotype of black people as victims in the past.
The triangular trade
The British trade in enslaved people was a three-legged voyage: from British ports to West Africa, where enslaved people were bought with guns and other British-manufactured articles. Then came the dreaded ‘middle passage’ to the Americas, with as many enslaved people as possible were crammed below decks. The enslaved were then sold in the southern USA, the Caribbean Islands and South America, where they were used to work the plantations. Plantations were farms growing only crops that Europe wanted: tobacco, sugar, cotton. The merchant ships would load up with these products and take them back to Britain on the last leg of their journey. Profits from this trade made merchants rich as well as providing the capital (money) for many of the enterprises of the early Industrial Revolution.
The enslaved people were worked in gangs, made up of both men and women, driven on by the whip of the overseer. They worked for ten to 12 hours a day in the tropical sun, for six days a week. Other enslaved people worked as craftspeople, or servants. The fact that they could be bought or sold away from the plantation at any time made it very difficult to maintain normal family life. Some of the ‘runaways’ listed in Source 1 may well have just been trying to visit friends or relations who had been sold to another plantation.
African songs, games, stories and religion helped to maintain the enslaveds’ belief in themselves. From the 17th century, gangs of runaways – called ‘Maroons’ in Jamaica – set up independent, permanent communities which resisted all efforts of the white owners and soldiers to crush them. Sometimes this broke out into open conflict, such as the Maroon Wars of 1730-1740 and 1795-6. There were also slave revolts, in Antigua in 1735, Tacky’s revolt in Jamaica in 1760, Kofi’s revolt in Guyana in 1763, in Granada in 1795-7, and so on.
The case against enslavement had several arguments:
- the moral argument: enslavement is wicked, un-Christian
- the economic argument: enslavement is expensive and inefficient
- the legal argument: enslavement is illegal under British law
- problems in the plantations: enslaved people continued to resist enslavement and would not be suppressed
The campaign to abolish enslavement was the first popular peaceful mass protest movement of modern times. Leading white abolitionists were Granville Sharpe, who helped black people fight test cases in the courts; Thomas Clarkson, who collected evidence of the cruelty of the enslavement trade from all over Britain; and William Wilberforce, who fought for legislation in Parliament. They worked with black abolitionist campaigners, such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cuguano. Mary Prince, who had been enslaved for part of her life, wrote an important book about her experiences which helped to influence the eventual abolition of enslavement in 1833.
Clearly, the campaign to abolish enslavement did not end in 1833. Plantation owners still used forced labour in the form of indentured workers (a worker who works for a fixed term for their transportation, board and lodgings) particularly on tobacco plantations. Being an indentured worker meant, in theory, that you should be treated fairly and that although you weren’t paid for your labour, you would be given proper food and somewhere to stay. In actual fact, indentured workers were often treated no better than enslaved workers, with beatings, and even death, a common factor.
Enslavement goes on today. Look at the links on the right to find out about enslavement in the 21st century and its abolition.
This lesson has a video starter activity based on one of our documents to ‘hook’ students into the lesson tasks that follow.
This lesson offers graphic evidence of the cruelty on which enslavement was based. The Court Records from Dominica reveal all kinds of details about the way enslaved African society worked. Most of all, however, it shows the punishments meted out to enslaved people, in all its brutality. From this point the whole story of enslavement – why the enslaved were there, who ran the plantations, why they ran away – can be explored. It is also an important piece of evidence of the reasons why the abolition campaign proceeded beyond 1807 to full abolition of the institution of enslavement in 1833.
The story of enslavement often ends in 1833. But that was not the end of enslavement, even in the Americas. It was not abolished in the USA until 1863, after a bloody Civil War had been fought over the issue. It was not abolished in Brazil until 1888. Britain’s high moral line about enslavement after 1833 is not often dealt with. Sources 2a, b and c reveal just how much effort Britain put into its anti-enslavement activities in several parts of the world right through the 19th century.
Illustration ZPER 34/29 – an illustration from the Illustrated London News showing a slave sale in South Carolina around 1856
Source 1 CO 71/51 – these are extracts from the court records for Dominica showing punishments for enslaved Africans
Sources 2 a, b, c FO 84/1310 – these photographs are a set showing East African enslaved people rescued by the British naval ship, HMS Daphne. HMS Daphne was often used to rescue enslaved people from slave runners after the 1833 abolition of slavery by Great Britain. Enslaved people who were rescued were often taken to a nearby island where they would then set up new colonies.
Son of the South
A useful site with lots of enslavement related images and resources.
A site detailing some of the UK’s main shipping ports, including their links to the enslavement trade.
This site gives information about enslavement in the 21st century, as well as providing resources about African enslavement.