Bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade

by Roger Alford

On March 25, 1807, two hundred years ago today, Parliament passed An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Here is the key language of the Act:

Be it therefore enacted by the King’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the Authority of the same, That from and after the First Day of May One thousand eight hundred and seven, the African Slave Trade, and all and all manner of dealing and trading in the Purchase, Sale, Barter, or Transfer of Slaves, or of Persons intended to be sold, transferred, used, or dealt with as Slaves, practiced or carried on, in, at, to or from any Part of the Coast or Countries of Africa, shall be, and the same is hereby utterly abolished, prohibited, and declared to be unlawful

William Wilberforce, of course, was the leading voice in the movement to abolish the slave trade. Here is an excerpt of his famous 1789 speech before Parliament on abolition:

Having now disposed of the first part of this subject, I must speak of the transit of the slaves in the West Indies. This I confess, in my own opinion, is the most wretched part of the whole subject. So much misery condensed in so little room, is more than the human imagination had ever before conceived. I will not accuse the Liverpool merchants: I will allow them, nay, I will believe them to be men of humanity; and I will therefore believe, if it were not for the enormous magnitude and extent of the evil which distracts their attention from individual cases, and makes them think generally, and therefore less feelingly on the subject, they would never have persisted in the trade. I verily believe therefore, if the wretchedness of any one of the many hundred Negroes stowed in each ship could be brought before their view, and remain within the sight of the African Merchant, that there is no one among them whose heart would bear it. Let any one imagine to himself 6 or 700 of these wretches chained two and two, surrounded with every object that is nauseous and disgusting, diseased, and struggling under every kind of wretchedness! How can we bear to think of such a scene as this?… As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, I confess to you sir, so enormous so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might,—let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition.

The BBC has a good interactive guide to the slave trade available here. It includes a history of abolition, an abolition timeline, the post-abolition world, and stories of the abolition campaign led by William Wilberforce.

In addition, if you are in London, the Victoria and Albert Museum is celebrating the bicentennial with an exhibit on Uncomfortable Truths. The exhibit identifies 2007 as a landmark year, not just in British history but in human history, signalling the end of 400 years of slavery. The exhibit will examine uncomfortable topics such as “why is slavery so often discussed as something disconnected from the present? Why is transatlantic slavery seen as a black issue rather than a human one, by blacks as well as whites? Why does it take arbitrary anniversaries to bring these issues to the fore? How do we understand the roles of the perpetrators and the victims from our standpoint in the present? What can we learn from the history of resistance to slavery? How has slavery contributed to the benefit – and detriment – of the world we live in now? And, how has this institution, like many others, profited from the wealth generated through slave trading?”

5 Responses

  1. If one is interested in some literature that likewise addresses the aforementioned questions, this list of titles should make for a good start (I’m working on a more exhaustive bibliography of books in English):

    Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, revised ed., 2004.

    Bales, Kevin, ed. Understanding Global Slavery: A Reader. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.

    Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. London: Verso, 1988.

    Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. London: Verso, 1998.

    Chatterjee, Indrani and Richard M. Eaton, eds. Slavery and South Asian History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.

    Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

    Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Drescher, Seymour and Stanley Engerman, eds. A Historical Guide to World Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Eltis, David. The Rise of Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Eltis, David, Frank D. Lewis and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, eds. Slavery in the Development of the Americas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Fisher, N.R.E. Slavery in Classical Greece. London: Bristol Classical Press/Duckworth & Co., Ltd, 1995 ed.

    Garnsey, Peter. Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1976.

    Graber, Mark A. Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Hinks, Peter and John McKivigan, eds. Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition, 2 Vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

    Manning, Patrick. Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Matthews, Gelien. Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

    Miller, Joseph Calder. Slavery and Slaving in World History: A Bibliography, 1900-1996. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1999.

    Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

    Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, 2 Vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

    Sage, Jesse and Liora Kasten, eds. Enslaved: True Stories of Modern Day Slavery. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    Schama, Simon. Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. New York: Ecco, 2006.

    Schwartz, Stuart B. Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels: Reconsidering Brazilian Slavery. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

    Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

    Whyte, Iain. Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

    Willis, John Ralph, ed. Slaves &Slavery in Muslim Africa, Vo. 1: Islam and the Ideology of Slavery. London: Frank Cass, 2006.

  2. You linked to this:

    2007 marks the bi-centenary of the parliamentary abolition of the slave trade. It is a landmark year, not just in British history but in human history, signalling the end of 400 years of slavery.

    I am not a historian, but that statement seems a bit innaccurate.

  3. My husband and I recently saw the film “Amazing Grace” which describes the efforts of Wilberforce, Pitt and the abolitionists to abolish slavery and the slave trade by Great Britain. (Great film! A real eye opener.)

    We had a question. Was Great Britain the first government to outlaw slavery and the slave trade?

    (Excellent links — the answer may be in there but haven’t followed them all.) Thank you.


  4. I seem to recall that Prussia went there a few years earlier. But, of course, Prussia was nowhere near as important as the UK on this point. The UK (which I think has been called this since 1805) was not only a major economic force in the slave trade until 1807, but was also easily the greatest naval power at the time. This meant that, when the Royal Navy started interdicting slavers on the High Seas a few years later (as recounted in another film, Amistad), the slave trade worldwide was in a spot of trouble.

  5. Early in 2005, Houghton Mifflin published Adam Hochschild’s latest book, Bury the Chains, in which the author documents the amazing accomplishments of a committee of twelve men who decided in 1787 to stop English slave trading. They not only ended slave trading, in 1838 they also abolished human bondage in the British Empire. The title of the book refers to the symbolic burying of chains and whips in Jamaica in 1838, after slavery was eradicated.

    Hochschild believes the British abolitionists he documented in his book can provide inspiration for people today. He wrote, “Their passion and optimism are still contagious and still relevant to our times, when, in so many parts of the world, equal rights for all men and women seem far distant.”

    The struggle described in the book reminds me of the biblical story of David and Goliath. “David” represents the twelve men dedicated to stopping slavery during a period when various forms of it were so extensive. In 1787 only one fourth of the world’s population had even limited freedom. “Goliath” represents the leaders of the English government who benefited financially from the slave trade and did not want to give it up. Instead of slingshot and stones, “David” used petition drives, mass propaganda, and lobbying to end British involvement in slave trafficking.

    The author explained why abolitionists were more effective in England than in other parts of the world. The following are a few of the characteristics of life in England in the last few years of the 18th century that contributed to their effectiveness:

    · Reading and debating were very popular in England, so it was possible to get people involved in learning about and discussing the topic of slave trading.

    · The well-maintained roads and excellent postal system made it easy to send or take messages quickly to any place in England and facilitated activities such as petition drives.

    · The Quakers throughout England dedicated themselves to ending slavery and contributed money and a countrywide network of committed men and women to the cause.

    The author described some of the ways the twelve members contributed to the committee. Nine of the twelve men were Quakers who believed that all people, regardless of race, had a divine spark inside them and were equal in the eyes of God. At the time most people thought blacks inferior to whites. The Quakers beliefs led them to establish Britain’s first antislavery society.

    The nine Quakers had little success with their antislavery efforts until three Anglican evangelists joined them and they established the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The three new members contributed unique talents.

    Granville Sharp, a lawyer, had already been involved with trying to stop slavery for twenty years. He provided the group with experience and helped them with legal matters.

    William Wilberforce, an eloquent member of the British Parliament, presented the committee’s case before Parliament every year until it was accepted.

    Thomas Clarkson, an indefatigable Cambridge divinity graduate, devoted himself to the Society for over 50 years. Clarkson, skilled in mass organization, started petition drives, direct mailings, newsletters, boycotts, legal test cases and lobbying in an attempt to pressure the British to stop slave trafficking.

    Within five years of the creation of the Society, more than 300,000 Britons refused to eat the major slave-grown product, which was sugar from sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. Even London’s society leaders wore antislavery badges.

    In addition to the committee members, other men and women contributed to the cause. John Newton, a former slave ship captain famous for writing the song Amazing Grace, helped to document the brutality of the inhumane trade.

    Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, wrote a book about his experiences as a slave. His book helped the citizens of Britain recognize he was a human, just like them, and not the sub human the slavery industry claimed.

    In 1807 the British Parliament abolished slave trading and the British began forcing other European nations to give up the trade as well.

    Clarkson and his associates assumed that ending the slave trafficking would lead to the freeing of all beings. When this didn’t happen, Clarkson helped form the British Anti-Slavery Society, which at first advocated gradual abolition. When planters in the Caribbean refused to make concessions, abolitionists began demanding immediate emancipation. This pressure and continuing slave unrest led Parliament to pass the Emancipation Act in 1833. By 1838 all slaves in the British Empire were set free.

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