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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 Glossary - opens new windowmaroon 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.

Cameo of Woman kneeling 'Am I not a Woman and a Sister' - opens new window
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'Am I not a Woman and a Sister?'
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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?'.

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African Abolitionists

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…'


Extracts from Equiano's autobiography - opens new window
'O, ye nominal Christians!
Might not an African ask you,
learned you this from your God?'
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Glossary - opens new windowOlaudah 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 his autobiography. 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.

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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 the Human Species, published in 1787, he declared that enslaved people had both the moral right and the moral duty to resist their masters.

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Political Strategy

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.

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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'.

Thomas Clarkson Tours the Slave Ports around Britain - opens new window
Thomas Clarkson
Tours the Slave Ports
around Britain
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Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, 1807

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.


Slave Trading Continues - opens new window
Slave Trading
Continues (148KB)
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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, Edinburgh, 1994

Hurwitz, E. F., Politics and the Public Conscience, London, 1973

Midgley, C., Women against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870, London and New York, 1992

Reyahn King et al., Ignatius Sancho, an African Man of Letters, 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:

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