Exeter Hall: the great anti-slavery meeting by Thomas H. Shepherd, artist. Harden Sidney Melville, engraver. 1841. Source: The New York Public Library. Image ID 807773.

Decorative Initial Although slavery had been a feature of human life since at least as early as 2,600 B.C.E. in Egypt, it became an extremely lucrative European trade in the late fifteenth century. It did not take Britain long to cash in on the trade in human beings. Ships left British west coast ports like Liverpool and Bristol laden which firearms, gunpowder, metals, alcohol, cotton goods, beads, knives, mirrors — the sort of things which African chiefs did not have, and which were often of very poor quality. Many of the cheaper goods were made in Birmingham and were known as "Brummagem ware". These goods were exchanged for slaves — people who had been captured in local tribal wars perhaps, or who had been taken prisoner especially for this trade.

The slaves were then packed tightly into the slave ships, so that they could hardly move. Often they were chained down; they were allowed little exercise and they were kept in horrendous conditions in the hold of the ship. By the middle of the eighteenth century British ships were carrying about 50,000 slaves a year. Royal Navy sailors said that they could smell the stench of a ship carrying slaves anything up to 10 miles downwind. The slavers sailed from Africa across the Atlantic. Any slaves who had managed to survive the journey were taken to shore and were sold to plantation owners in the West Indies, the southern colonies of America (Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia) where they spent the rest of their lives working to produce goods like cotton, tobacco, sugar cane and coffee.

The slave-produced goods were shipped back to Britain — the "Mother Country" — where they were manufactured or refined (if necessary) and then either sold domestically or re-exported at a vast profit. The slave trade brought in huge amounts of money to Britain, and few people even knew what was going on in the plantations, let alone cared. Men who owned plantations in the West Indies, including Sir John Gladstone, formed an important political group which opposed the abolition of the slave trade.

One of the earliest voluntary organisations in Britain which was devoted to a single cause was the anti-slavery movement. In 1787 a committee of twelve was appointed, including six members of the Society of Friends (Quakers). The Quakers had set up a committee of their own in 1783 in order to obtain and publish "such information as may tend to the abolition of the slave trade." Two other members of the committee were Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp. These men in particular went to great lengths to collect evidence, finding out precisely how little space was allotted to slaves on the ships and similar details. They began to publish pamphlets to stir public opinion against the trade. In her New York Times review of two books on the anti-slavery movement, Marilynne Robinson describes Sharp as

a minor government clerk who educated himself in the law in the course of defending the rights of Africans brought into England as slaves. He devoted himself and his slender resources to this work over decades with the object of finally putting an end to slavery itself. The trial, which is said to have abolished slavery within England by legal precedent, was centered on the question of Steuart's right to sell Somerset into the West Indies. Lord Mansfield ruled in favor of Somerset on the grounds that slavery "is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law." There being no such law in England, "the black must be discharged." This decision freed an estimated 15,000 Africans then held as slaves in England.

Wilberforce holding the broken chain of slavery, Christ Church, Chelsea. [Click on thumnail for larger image

In parliament, both Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger agreed with the aims of the committee in which Sharp layed an importrant role, but some of the most powerful economic interests of the day opposed them. Consequently the committee had to concern itself with direct political action. Since Quakers were barred from becoming MPs until after 1828, their spokesman in parliament became the Evangelical William Wilberforce, author of Practical Christianity, one of the century's most widely read devotional works.

In 1793 Britain went to war against the French following the French Revolution and the cause of the slave-traders appeared to be a patriotic cause: the trade was seen as the "nursery of seamen." Abolition of the trade was postponed although Wilberforce regularly continued to propose legislation for abolition. His moral case was very strong and the evils of the trade were generally admitted. In 1807 the slave trade in the British colonies was abolished and it became illegal to carry slaves in British ships. This was only the beginning: the ultimate aim was the abolition of slavery itself.

Left: The Printing Press and the Abolition of Slavery by David d'Angers (1788-1856) a bas relief from his monument to Johannes Gutenberg in Strasbourg, France. Wilberforce is one of those depicted bringing freedom to enslaved Africans. Right: Exeter Hall: the great anti-slavery meeting [Click on thumnail for larger image

In 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, European statesmen condemned slavery but nothing was done to improve the conditions of slaves. The campaign to abolish slavery continued in Britain. Wilberforce and his co-workers held meetings all over the country to try to persuade people that abolition should be supported. They discovered that many people were unaware of the horrors of slavery and that others were not interested in something which happened thousands of miles away. They also met opposition from the West India lobby.

After 1830 when the mood of the nation changed in favour of a variety of types of reform, the antislavery campaign gathered momentum. In 1833 Wilberforce's efforts were finally rewarded when the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed. Wilberforce, on his death-bed, was informed of the passing of the Act in the nick of time. The main terms of the Act were:

In the West Indies the economic results of the Act were disastrous. The islands depended on the sugar trade which in turn depended on slave labour. Ultimately, the planters were unable to make the West Indies the thriving centres of trade which they had been in the eighteenth century. However, a moral victory had been won, and the 1833 Act marked the beginning of the end of slavery in the New World.

Related Material

Last modified 9 March 2016

Thanks to Wendy Fox of Canada for pointing out a broken link.