Ending the British slave trade


Ending the British slave trade

The British slave trade was one of the most efficient "machines' of the 18th century. It is estimated that more than 3 million African people were transported across the Atlantic to work in the colonies. Profits for Britain were massive so it may come as a surprise to discover that, in the 19th century, British people actually led the fight to end slavery.


The earliest records of British anti-slavery activity are from around 1783 when the Quaker movement petitioned Parliament to end the slave trade. There was a similar petition in 1785 from citizens of the town of Bridgwater in Somerset but these were largely ignored.

Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade

The first real blow for freedom came when the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in London in May 1787. The society's self-appointed task was to create a focus for British anti-slavery through the distribution of abolitionist books, pamphlets, prints and artefacts.

With a network of local "agents' and "country committees' an energetic man called Thomas Clarkson mobilised the anti-slavery movement. He organised new committees, distributed tracts and offered advice and encouragement to hundreds of grass-roots activists.



All this activity led to two nationwide petition campaigns. In 1788, over 100 petitions attacking the slave trade were presented to the House of Commons in the space of just three months. In 1792, after more canvassing, 519 petitions from every county in England, including a good number from Wales and Scotland, were presented to the Commons, the largest number ever submitted to the House on a single subject or in a single session.

William Wilberforce, who led the campaign in the Commons, hoped mass petitioning of Parliament would abolish the slave trade. The strategy almost worked; in 1792 the House resolved by 230 votes to 85 that the trade ought to be gradually abolished.

French Revolution

Unfortunately the French revolution, and British political reaction to the ongoing violence put the issue of slavery on hold. In 1793 the Commons refused to continue discussing slavery, effectively reversing the resolutions of the previous year.

The end of slavery only came when new territories in the West Indies, notably Berbice and Demerara (now British Guyana), were acquired by Britain and the local slave owners rejected the anti-slavery movement. This led to renewed campaigning by the abolitionists and in 1805 a Bill demanding the abolition of the slave trade to conquered territories passed both Houses.

By 1807 anti-slave-trade groups controlled some 40 parliamentary seats. Known as the "saints" this alliance was led by William Wilberforce, the most influential of the anti-slavetrade campaigners. The Saints had access to the legal skills of James Stephen, Wilberforce's son-in-law, and were extremely dedicated. Many saw their personal battle against slavery as a religious crusade.


One of several illustrations commonly reproduced in British antislavery literature. This shows a black woman on a West Indian island on bended knee with shackles around her ankles and wrists; in the background a group of slaves are working under the whip. The poem underneath is by William Cowper (died 1800), the celebrated English poet, who had lent his support to the British movement against the slave trade in the late eighteenth century. Cowper was author of the famous poem used by this movement, "The Negro's Complaint."


Above An anti-slave trade cartoon, reflecting an important incident in the British campaign against the slave trade. John Kimber was the captain of a slave ship, the "Recovery," owned by Bristol merchants, which had left New Calabar bound for the West Indies in 1791. In a speech before the House of Commons in 1792, Wilberforce accused Kimber of having caused the death of the girl by inflicting injuries on her because she had refused to dance naked on the deck of his ship. As a result of Wilberforce's speech, Kimber was arrested and tried before the High Court of Admiralty in 1792. He was ultimately acquitted, the jury having concluded that the girl had died of disease, and not maltreatment.


The dedication of the "Saints' led, in 1807, to the Slave Trade Act (An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade). In simple terms, this meant that vessels transporting slaves were to be treated as as pirates. Ships carrying slaves could be destroyed and any men captured could be executed.

Sadly, this wasn't the end of the story. After 1807 the British anti-slavery movement changed direction. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade gave way to the African Institution, whose principal aim was to ensure that the new legislation was enforced and that other countries followed Britain's example.


Enforcing anti-slavery legislation at home was relatively easy but persuading other countries to join Britain in outlawing the slave trade proved more difficult,

Failure to sway foreign powers forced abolitionists to rethink their ideas. Especially when reports from the West Indies suggested that conditions on the plantations had barely improved since 1807. The situation called for more direct action.

In 1823 some of the leading members of the African Institution, including, Clarkson, Wilberforce, and Zachary Macaulay, organised a new body, the Anti-Slavery Society
which demanded an improvement in slave conditions in the West Indies that included a plan for gradual emancipation leading eventually to complete freedom.

Mass Petitions

The Anti-Slavery Society concentrated on mass petitioning. Between 1828 and 1830 Parliament was deluged by over 5000 petitions calling for the gradual abolition (and mitigation) of slavery.

Eventually, in 1831 some of the Anti-Slavery Society's younger and more radical members organised the Agency Committee. This organisation, soon completely separate from the Anti-Slavery Society, exploited the struggle over the reform of Parliament and attempted to win over voters newly enfranchised by the Reform Act of 1832. Its efforts paid off.


In early 1833 Lord Stanley presented a plan to Parliament which called for the gradual abolition of slavery. West Indian planters received £20 million in compensation.

The end of the struggle

It took 46 years, between 1787 and 1833, for Britain to outlaw the slave trade and abolish slavery throughout her colonial possessions. For many people the struggle was over. For others, however, 1833 signalled a new beginning.

Despite Britain's withdrawal from the Atlantic slave trade, the traffic still flourished; in fact, since 1807 it had grown steadily (or so it appeared to contemporary writers). Slavery overseas still flourished, until the abolition of slavery in the United States 1865.

Click here out. to find out more at Christ Church Special Interest Weekend 29 March to 1st April 2007.

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