By Dr John Oldfield
In the space of just 46 years, the British government outlawed the slave trade that Britain had created and went on to abolish the practice of slavery throughout the colonies. John Oldfield shows how this national campaign became one of the most successful reform movements of the 19th century.
An Anti-slavery Banner
British anti-slavery was one of the most important reform movements of the 19th century. But its history is not without ironies. During the course of the 18th century the British perfected the Atlantic slave system. Indeed, it has been estimated that between 1700 and 1810 British merchants transported almost three million Africans across the Atlantic. That the British benefited from the Atlantic slave system is indisputable. Yet, paradoxically, it was also the British who led the struggle to bring this system to an end.
The history of British anti-slavery can be divided into a number of distinct phases. The first of these stretched from 1787 to 1807 and was directed against the slave trade. Of course, there had been initiatives before this date. The Quakers, for instance, petitioned Parliament against the slave trade as early as 1783 and a similar petition was submitted in 1785, this time from the inhabitants of Bridgwater in Somerset. But by and large these were piecemeal efforts, involving a relatively small number of people. It was the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, organised in May 1787, which set the movement on its modern course, evolving a structure and organisation that made it possible to mobilise thousands of Britons.
Abolishing the slave trade
Portrait style painting showing Thomas Clarkson
The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade or, to be more precise, the Society's guiding London Committee, was the prototype of the 19th-century reform organisation. Its self-appointed task was to create a constituency for British anti-slavery through the distribution of abolitionist books, pamphlets, prints and artefacts. The Committee also had its own network of local contacts ('agents' and 'country committees') scattered across the length and breadth of the country. And, finally, there was Thomas Clarkson, a sort of 'travelling agent', who provided a vital link between London and the provinces, organising committees, distributing tracts and offering advice and encouragement to hundreds of grass-roots activists.
These different activities culminated in two nationwide petition campaigns. In the first of these, in 1788, over 100 petitions attacking the slave trade were presented to the House of Commons in the space of just three months. The campaign of 1792 was more ambitious still. In all, 519 petitions were presented to the Commons, the largest number ever submitted to the House on a single subject or in a single session, but just as important as the size of the campaign was its range and diversity. While the industrial north provided the most enthusiastic support for abolition, every English county was represented in 1792, in addition to which Scotland and Wales made significant contributions.
Through the means of mass petitioning William Wilberforce, who led the campaign in the Commons, hoped to exert pressure on Parliament to 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. But petitioning on this scale was always likely to cause alarm in the minds of men with one eye on events in France. Ultimately, radicalism was to prove the Achilles heel of the early abolitionist movement. The rising tide of revolutionary violence in France and, with it, the growth of political reaction at home, inevitably took its toll. In 1793 the Commons refused to revive the subject of the slave trade, effectively reversing the resolutions of the previous year.
Extending the campaign
Ironically, however, war in Europe helped to prepare the way for final victory. The acquisition of new territories in the West Indies, notably Trinidad, Berbice, and Demerara, led many of the old planter élite, who were increasingly fearful of competition, to desert the anti-abolitionist ranks. Capitalising on this change of heart and the entry into Parliament of a batch of new liberal Irish MPs, the abolitionists in 1804 renewed their campaign. In 1805 a Bill providing for the abolition of the slave trade to conquered territories triumphantly passed both Houses. The following year this was superseded by a stronger measure that outlawed the British Atlantic slave trade altogether.
After 1807 British anti-slavery entered a new phase. 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. The first of these objectives was soon realised. Persuading other countries to join Britain in outlawing the slave trade proved more difficult, however. Despite the efforts of the African Institution, and those of British ministers, the Congresses of Paris (1814) and Vienna (1815) both failed to reach specific agreement, not least because of French opposition. The results of the Aix la Chapelle Congress in 1818 were equally unsatisfactory.
The failure of the British to sway foreign powers forced abolitionists to rethink their ideas. So, too, did reports from the West Indies which suggested that conditions on the plantations had hardly improved since 1807. The situation seemed to call for more direct action, namely an attack on the institution of slavery itself.
The Anti-Slavery Society
Black and white illustration showing the anti-slavery meeting held at Exeter Hall, London
An anti-slavery meeting in Exeter Hall, London
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. Modest in its ambitions, at least by later standards, the Anti-Slavery Society called for the adoption of measures to improve slave conditions in the West Indies, together with a plan for gradual emancipation leading ultimately to complete freedom.
Like the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the Anti-Slavery Society was a national organisation with its own network of local and regional auxiliaries. And like earlier organisations, its leaders endorsed mass petitioning. In fact, between 1828 and 1830 Parliament was deluged by over 5000 petitions calling for the gradual abolition (and mitigation) of slavery. But progress in the Commons was slow and halting. Finally, in 1831 some of the Anti-Slavery Society's younger and more radical elements organised the Agency Committee (which formally separated from the parent body in 1832). Revivalist in tone, the Agency Committee took abolition out into the country. More controversially, it also committed itself to the unconditional and immediate abolition of slavery.
For obvious reasons, the Agency Committee was ideally placed to exploit the struggle over the reform of Parliament and to win over voters newly enfranchised by the Reform Act of 1832. Its efforts paid off. The first reformed Parliament was clearly sympathetic to abolition; perhaps just as important the Cabinet was ready to accept emancipation. In May 1833 Lord Stanley presented a plan to Parliament which finally passed into law on August 29. In essence, the new legislation called for the gradual abolition of slavery. Everyone over the age of six on August 1, 1834, when the law went into effect, was required to serve an apprenticeship of four years in the case of domestics and six years in the case of field hands (apprenticeship was later abolished by Parliament in 1838). By way of compensation the West Indian planters received £20 million.
Illustration showing the British and Foreign anti-slavery society logo
British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society
In the space of some 46 years, between 1787 and 1833, Britain had not only outlawed the slave trade but also abolished slavery throughout her colonial possessions. For many 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 steadily grown (or so it seemed to contemporaries). Slavery also still flourished, most notably in the United States. Here was a fresh challenge. In 1839, with the organisation of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, British anti-slavery entered a new (international) phase.
As its name implied, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was committed to the extirpation of the slave trade and slave systems globally. Among its targets were legalised slavery in British India and Ceylon, suppression of the Brazilian and Cuban slave trades, and, increasingly after 1850, the abolition of slavery in the United States. None of these issues had quite the immediacy of West Indian emancipation, however, and there is little question that support for British anti-slavery declined significantly during the 1850s and 1860s. Nevertheless, the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865 (and the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in March 1870 which extended the right of voting to all races) was properly regarded as a victory for abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic.
This remarkable story raises a simple but crucial question: why did the British turn against slavery and the slave trade? Part of the reason is undoubtedly the rise of compassionate humanitarianism, particularly amongst an increasingly leisured middle class. Scholars also point to the influence of Nonconformist religion, on the one hand, and Evangelical Protestantism, on the other. But of greater significance was a shift in economic thought. In the British case slavery flourished because West Indian planters were effectively subsidised by the British taxpayer. By the late 1820s, when many Britons began to see the benefits of a world economy untrammelled by restrictions and controls, such privileges seemed outmoded and frankly unwarranted. Indeed, it is probably true to say that the British slave system was 'not so much rendered unprofitable, but by-passed by the changing economic and social order in Britain'.
Find out more
The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848 by Robin Blackburn (1988)
Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade, 1787-1807 by John Oldfield (1995)
England, Slaves and Freedom by James Walvin (1987)
Making the Black Atlantic: Britain and the African Diaspora by James Walvin (2000)
Places to visit
There is a permanent exhibition on the transatlantic slave trade at Merseyside Maritime Museum [http://www.nmgm.org.uk/] in Liverpool.
The birthplace of William Wilberforce in Kingston upon Hull is now a museum [http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/museums/wilberforce/] dedicated to his life and fight against slavery. The website features a virtual tour [http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/wilberforce/] and a 3D virtual reality tour [http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/wilberforcehouse/] of the house.
About the author
Image of author Dr John Oldfield
Dr John Oldfield lectures at the University of Southampton. His publications include Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery (Manchester, 1995) and Civilization and Black Progress: Selected Writings of Alexander Crummell on the South (1995).
* Slavery and Economy in Barbados - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/empire/barbados_01.shtml
* Slave Island - New York's Hidden History - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/protest_reform/slave_island_01.shtml
* Multi-racial Britain - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/multicultural/dabbott_01.shtml
* Caribbean Family History - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/caribbean_01.shtml
* British Slaves on the Barbary Coast - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/protest_reform/white_slaves_01.shtml
* Georgian Room Panorama - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/society/launch_pan_georgian_room.shtml
* Audio Archive - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/multimedia_zone/audio_video/audio/report_index.shtml
* William Wilberforce - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/wilberforce_william.shtml
* Olaudah Equiano - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/equiano_olaudah.shtml
* William Cuffay - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/cuffay_william.shtml
* British Timeline - Abolition of the Slave Trade - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/timelines/britain/geo_slavetrade.shtml
* BBC News: Race UK - http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/uk/2002/race/
* BBC News: Focus on the Slave Trade - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1523100.stm
External Web Links
* Anti-slavery International - http://www.antislavery.org/
* Spartacus: Slave Narratives - http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/slavery.htm
* Black Presence in Britain - http://www.blackpresence.co.uk/
Published on BBC History: 01-01-2001
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