Christian Abolitionist Movement: Britain

British abolition
Figure 1.--The British Parliament voted to free the slaves throughout the Empire (1833). As photoihraphy had not yet been invented, there are no photographs of abolition. We are not sure just who drew and/or engrved this image. It was apparently done in 1863 for the Cassell history book. The caption of this ilkustration read, "Scene on a West Indian Plantation--Slaves Receiving the News of Their Emancipation." Some authors have used this illustration and presented it as based on on an eyewitness drawing. The illustration was, however, done three decaded after abolition. There do seemn to be somne realistic features such as long-handled hoes and the windmill. We are less sure about the clothing. Source: 'Cassell's Illustrated History of England, 1820-1861' (London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1863), vol. III, p. 234.

A key role in ending the African slave trade was the development of an abolition movement in Britain. And this was crucial because only Britain'd powerful Royal Navy had the capability of ending the maritime shipment of captive Africans. Here Christians played a cerntral role. The movement might be dated from the publication of John Wesley's Thought upon Slavery (1774). Wilberforce and Clarkson were two other key figures. The movement founded the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787). Debates in Parliament commenced shortly afterwards (1789). The abolitionists managed to get a bill committing Britain to ending the slave trade (1792). The insertion of the world "gradual" and the lack of a time table meant that little was done. Opponents claimed thst it would put Britain at a disadvantage to other countries. Another bill failed narowly (1796) and Britain's attention turned increasingly to Revolutionary France. Several parlimentarians played an important role. The Whig Party played an important role. Several parlimentarians played important roles. One was Henry Peter Brougham. The abolitionists after several years of work suceeding in passing a bill in ablolishing the slave trade in conquered territories (1805). This was finally followed with the passage of the bill outlawing the slave trade in the British Empire (1807). [Pollock] This was a major step because Britain with its powerful Royal Navy after Trafalgur (1805) dominated the world's oceans. Britain was the only country with the capability of ending the slave trade. The abolitionist movement in America was much weaker than in Britain. And as it developed it was highly sectional.


A key role in ending the African slave trade was the development of an abolition movement in Britain. And this was crucial because only Britain'd powerful Royal Navy had the capability of ending the maritime shipment of captive Africans. Nritish measures against slavery were crucial steps because Britain with its powerful Royal Navy after Trafalgur (1805) dominated the world's oceans. Britain was the only country with the capability of ending the slave trade. The abolitionist movement in America was much weaker than in Britain. And as it developed it was highly sectional.


The Abolitionist movement in both America and Britain began with the Quakers. Dutch and German Quakers registered their objections to slavery at Germantown, Pennsylvania (1688). Slavery in America at the time was still in its formative phase. English Quakers expressed their disapproval of the slave trade ( 1727). American Quakers became increaingly active in opposing s;lvery (1750s). Quaker opinions were mixed. Some Quakers owned slaves, mostly Quakers in America. There were Quakers who favored abolition, but others argued for improved consitions for slaves and that slave owners educate their slaves, teach Christianity, and prepare them for eventual emancipation. It was Quakers that helped found the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the most important British abolitionist group.


The African slave trade was not a matter of intelectual discourse until the 18th century. There were no protests questioning the morality of enslaving Africans. The first questions came from the rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment. They criticized slavery as a violation of the rights of man. Perhaps this had an impact on public discourse and attiutudes which the abolitionist movement would move, but the grear Enlightenment thinkers did not launch the abolitonist movement and were not among the leaders of the abolitonist movement which develoed. Some figures associated with Enligtenment thinking like Thomas Jefferson were slave owners. Rather the abolitionist movement in both Britain and America would develop wiuthin the Protesant chuches. A similar dynamic occurred in American during the Civil Rights movement. The leaders of the nmovement came from the churches and not the intellecual, university estsablishment.


The British economy like ecomonies throughout Europe was largely based on agiculture and land. This began to change in the 18th century with the Industrial Revolution Capitalism was essentially invented by the Dutch and adopted on a larger scale by the British. The slave trade played an important role in generating the capital that financed the Industrial Revolution. And inputs from slave based economies (the cotton from southhern plantations) played a role in the Industrial Revolution. From an early point, however, Scottish economist Adam Smith's demostrated in the The Wealth of Nations slave labour was not cheaper than the work of free men. The central struggle in the abolition of slavery would be the American Civil War and it was the northern economy based on free labor that would defeat the slave-based economy of the Southern Confederacy. Karl Mark and other reformers generated a body of Marxist idelology in an attempt to address the social problem of 19th century capitalist society. Marx and other Marxist missed the capacity for reforn generated by free labor and democraic systems. It is no accident that it has been totalitarian states (mostly Marxist) in the 20th century which prohibited workers from organizing democratic labor unions that would adopt massive systems of slave labor. The Soviet Gulag was the best known, but other Communist countries set up slave labor systems (Cambodia, China, and North Korea). Other totalitariand like the NAZIs also set up slave labor systems.

Somersett Case (1772)

William Murray (1705-93), the future Lord Mansfield, was born to Scottish nobility. He attended a school in Perth before Westminster School at age 13 years. He began his university education Christ Church, Oxford (1723). He pursued aegal career in London and acquired the reputation as higly competent barrister. He entered politics and secured eledction to Parliament as a Member of Parliament for Boroughbridge. He was appointed Solicitor General. Without a stronghe Attorney General, he vame to be the government's most reliable sokesman in the House of Commons. He proved to be a eloquennt spolesman. He advanced to Attorney General (1754). He served as leader of the House of Commons under the Duke of Newcastle. He was appointed chief justice of the King's Bench (1756). Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield work to modernize English law as well as the English courts system. In particular he sped up the legal process. As a result of these reforms he is often called the founder of English commercial law. Two his most important commercial decesions were Carter vs Boehm and Pillans vs Van Mierop. His work was of emense importance in creating legal system able to deal with the developing capitalist system and Industrial Revolution, Lord Mansfield today is best known for his decesion in James Somerset vs. his master. James Somersett, was the property of Charles Steuart, a (1772). Slavery has gradually disappeared from Britain in the Middle Ages, although vestages remained into the modern age. This was primarily slaves brought to Britain from the colonies. (A similar circumstance would lead to the Dread Scott case in America.) Stewart was a Virginian planter who traveled to Britain. James Somersett, was the legal property of one Charles Steuart, a Royal Customs officer in Boston, Massachusetts which at the time was still a British colony, albeit an unruly one. Steuart brought Somersett along with him to England to work as a servant (1769). Somersett aided by friends he made ran away (1771). He was within a few months found and arrested. He was held on the ship Ann and Mary captained by John Knowles. The ship was bound for the British colony of Jamaica where Somersett could be easily sold and cause his owner Mr. Steuart no further problems. This was prevented when three persons (John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade) claimed to be Somersett's godparents and applied to the Court of King's Bench for a writ of habeas corpus. As a result, Captain Knowles was ordered to present Somersett before the Court of King's Bench so that the Court could determine if his imprisonment was legal. Steuart was of course shocked to find his slave taking him to court. This all seemed like a minor case at the time, but then the press got wind of it and soon numerous articles appeared. And Lord Mansfield's decesion proved to be shocker. Rather than rule narrowly on the imprisonmednt and property issue, he issued a landmark decesion. He held that slavery was unlawful in England, although not the slave trade and slavery in the colonies. His decision ended slavery on English soil. Lord Mansfiels ruled, "On the part of Somerset, the case which we gave notice should be decided, this day, the Court now proceeds to give its opinion….The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it's so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged."

John Wesley (1703-91)

Christianity played a cerntral role in the British abolitionist movement. Chritian morality is at the heart of Lord Mamsfield's Somersett decesion. And the British Abolitionist Movement is commonly associated with Christian groups, espececially not conforming groups like the Quakers and Methodists. John Wesley was an Anglican clergyman, evangelist, and cofounder of Methodism. He was the fifteenth child of a former non-conformist minister, He graduated from Oxford University and became a priest in the Anglican Church of England (1728). He was active in a religious study group that his brother Charles (1707-1788) organized. The group became known derisively cas the "Methodists" as a result of the members methodical study and devotion. The study group evolved into a new Protestant denomination, the Methodists. Wesley was a life-long opponent of slavery. His opposition to slavery began decades before the issue had received any real public attention. His oipposition to slavery began early and continued throughout his life. A few years after becoming an Anglican priest, Wesley traveled to the North American colony of Georgia (1736). This was his introduction to slavery. While there he read Thomas Southerne's play 'Oroonoko', which was based on Aphra Behn's novel about Oroonoko, an African prince kidnapped and sold into slavery. When Wesley return to England, he spent time during the voyage teaching a young black man, presumably a slave, to read and write. Wesley met with many peopkle involved with slavery over the next few decades, but did not actively pursue abolition. This changed with Lord Mansfield's Somersett decesion (1772). The result was his widely published short pamphlet "Thought upon Slavery" (1774). He writes, "Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as Compassion there? Do you never feel another's pain? Have you no Sympathy? No sense of human woe? No pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them with the eyes of a tiger? When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in the ship, or when you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast? Do you feel no relenting now? If you do not, you must go on, till the measure of your iniquities is full. Then will the Great GOD deal with You, as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at your hands." Thanlks to Wesley, Methodists became an important voice for abolition.

Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846)

Thomas Clarkson was born in Wisbech (1760). He attended St. John's College, Cambridge. After grafuating he was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England and worked in London. Cambridge University held an essay competition with the title: "Is it rights to make men slaves against their will?" (1785). Slavery was not a subject Clarkson had considered while a student. The competition casused him to research the topic. His essay won first prize. He was was asked to read it to the University Senate. On his way home to London he had a spiritual experience. On the way home to London he exoperienced a "direct revelation from God ordering me to devote my life to abolishing the trade." He contacted Granville Sharp who he knew to be already working on a campaign to end the slave-trade. Clarkson and Sharp were key figures in forming the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787). Imprtant figures already active in the movement lent their support. They chose William Wilberforce, the MP for Hull, to be their principsal spokesman in Parliament. Thomas Clarkson peimarily responsibility became that of a esearcher on the slave trade. He interviewed amn estimates 20,000 sailors and collected examples of the chains and shackles (iron handcuffs, leg-shackles, and thumb screws) employed on on the slave-ships to control the captive Africams. Other devices included devices to force open slave's jaws (in case they refused to ea) and branding irons (to permanently mark them as oproperty). He published a ummary of his research--"A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition" (1787). Clarksom was not only a ethodical researchrer, but a pursasive writer as well. Authoress Jane Austin who was not an abolitionist, was so moved by his tyle that she claimed that she was "in love with its author". Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act (1807). Clarkson then published his monumental workm History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. Clarkson like other abolitionist saw the end as the slave trase as just one more step yoward abolition. He joined with Thomas Fowell Buxton to form the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Abolition would require more than two decades of further work until Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act ending slavey in te British Empire (1833).

William Wiberforce (1759-1833)

William Wiberforce was born in Hull (1759). He was born nearly blind. He was sickly as a boy and had health problems as an afult. His father was a wealthy merchant, descended from an old family. They were proprietors of Wilberfoss, in the East Riding of York. His father died when he was 9 years old and he was raised by relatives. He came to hate slavery as a boy. From school he wrote to a York newspaper "in condemnation of the odious traffic in human flesh". He entered St. John's College at Cambridge at age 17 years. He came into a considerable fortune when he reached his majority. He used it to enter Parliament. He won election to a Hull constiuency (1780). He had met Pitt at Cambridge and in Parliament they became inseparable. Wilberforce held himself independent from party in Parliament. He did not immedinately begin his great work to abolish slavery. He founded an association for the discouragement of vice (1787). It was the following year that he embarked on his great enterprise to abloish the slave trade and he devoted the rest of his life to it. He was motivated by his strong Christian convictions. He proposed the abolition of the slave-trade (1791). It was roundly voted down by entrenched interests, but he persisted. No member was more assiciated with the abolition movement tham Wiberforce. Wilberforde published a telling indictment of the slave trade. It had aful impact on public opinion and tin the Parlimentary debates there was increasing support for abolition. The Comoons finally carried his bill (1804), but was voted down in the Lords. The next year he failed to get a majority in the Common (1805). Finally Wilberforce achieved his goal. Mr. Fox moved a resolution pledging the total abolition of the slave-trade in the following session and it was approved by aonmfortavle majority (1806). And this time it was carried in the Lords. Sir Samuel Romilly, an ally in the House, speking in session compared the feelings of Napoleon, then at the height of his glory, with those of the English philanthropist, "who would that day lay his head upon his pillow and remember that the slave-trade was no more," and the whole house burst into applause, and greeted Wilberforce with enthusiastic cheers. Wilberforce habing achieved his first goal of ending the British slave trade immediately began working to end the slave trade of other countries. And here he had Britain's oyal Navy to help in the effort. Only 2 years before success in the House, Lord Nelson had defeated the combined Spanish-French fleet at Trafalgur (1805). This meant that Britain commanded the sea lanes over which slavers had to carry their cargo. He also began efforts to abolish slavery in the Empire. This proved a very difficult undertaking because slavery was such as important part of the labor force in rge West Indies and other British colonies. Never in good health, he finally had to withdraw from Parliament without obtaining his goal (1825). His tireless work helped bring the Common closer to abolition. The final votes occurred after theGreat Slave Revolt in Jamaica. Military officers testified that they may not be able to defeat the next revolt. And the cost of maintaining aarge military force on Jamaica and other sugar islnds had to be considered. Sir T. Fowell Buxton took over the leadershipo of abolitionist forces in Parliament. Wilberforce with his strength failing finally received word that the Abolition Bill had passed a second reading (1833). He thanked God that he had lived to see his countrymen spend twenty millions sterling in such a cause. Three days later he passed away. He was buried as a national benefactor in Westminster Abbey.

Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787)

Six Quakers pioneered the British abolitionist movement (1783). The London Society of Friends' held an annual meeting. The Quakers presented a petition against the slave trade to parliament. Over 300 Quakers had signed it. They later decided that any real action against slavery woulkd need the support of a broader segment of the British public. They decided to form a non-denominational group so as to obtain Church of England support and greater influence in Parliament. The new, non-denominational committee had nine Quaker members (who because they were Quakers were not allowed to stand for Parliament) and three Anglicans. These were the founding members of the Society for effecting the abolition of the slave trade. The Quaker members were John Barton; William Dillwyn; George Harrison; Samuel Hoare Jr; Joseph Hooper; John Lloyd;Joseph Woods Sr; James Phillips; and Richard Phillips.[ The three Anglicans co-founded were Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and Philip Sansom. They founded the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787). Women at the time could not vote or sit in Parliment. They could join associations, although they often had to form separate associtions. They would play an important role in the Abolitionist Movement. Women in particular were horrified that wives and children could be separated from their families. The Anti-Slavery Society pursed the strategy of pursuing gradual abolition and this strategy was pursue by the majority. Many women advocated a nore agressive approach. Elizabeth Heyrick published a pamphlet titled "Immediate not Gradual Abolition" (1824). She advocated the immediate emancipation of the slaves.

English Religious Melieu

An understanding of the English religious melieu is needed to understand the development of the British abolitionist movement. The established chitch was the Anglican Church oif England (CoE). The CoE’s hierarchy was dominated by prelated from aristocratic families. The younger sons of nobel familirs did not inherit tirles or esttes. They commonly pursued careers in the military or chutch--mormally the CoE. They were thus men of a conservative mindset who saw the church has a vocation rather than a calling. They thus were coppetent chuurchmen in terms of conducting the rites and protecting the interests of the CoE. They were not the kind of men who were prepared either intelecually or emotionally to lead a great moral crusade. This is jot to say there were not men of great character in the COE, but it is to say the leadership was not prepared or inclined to lead the movement. [Virgin] This is hy the leadership of the movement came from the Quakers, Nethodists, and other non-conforming sects where the church leadership took on a more spiritual cast. Yet te abolitionists needed the CoE to convince the British establishment to pusue anti-slavery measures. It was the Evangelical Reaction in the CoE which made this possible. The evangelical movement within the CoE began as a companion to Methodism. The evangelists sought to rediscover and return the CoE to its historic roots with a focus on Christian morality. And this was pursued by studying the Holy Scriptures. The most influential group to come out of the CoE reform movement was the Clapham Saints.

Early Parliamentary Debates

Lord Mansfield's decision in the Somersett case launced an intense national devate in Britain over slavery. The Somersett decesion ended slavery in England, but it neither ended the slave trade or slavery in the colonies. Both generate huge profits for shippers and planters. Abolition was was one of the leading, most widely debated, and devisive issues of the day. Fervent abolitionists fought wealthy merchants, ship captains and slave owners for decades both inside and outside Parliament. Abolitionists as ati-Abolitionists virtually event the legislative art of lobbying. Prime Minister William Pitt just before the outbreak of the French Revolution introduced the first bill attempting to regulate the slave trade (1778). This was the beginning of a series of contentious debates in Parliament. William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharpe emerged as the most prominent abolitionist leaders. They partitioned the Government and wrote aonstabt stream of articles. The first target was the slave trade, recognizing that abolition itself would be more difficult to achieve. Wilberforce and Pitt brought a motion before the House of Commons which would gradually abolish of the slave trade and a water-down bill passed (1792). The insertion of the world "gradual" and the lack of am actual time table meant that little was achieved. Opponents claimed thst it would put Britain at a disadvantage to other countries, especially France. Briatain at the time was habing to confront Revolutionary France. Another bill failed, but oly narowly (1796). The West Indian lobby with money to bribe MPs was able to defeat the motion. Pitt, Wilberforce and Clarkson persisted a brought assitional motions (1799, 1801 and 1802), but each time failed.

The French Revolution (1789)

African slavery became well established in European colonies, including French colonies, during the 17th century. African slavery was an important economic institition by the 18th century, especially important for the Caribbean sugar islands which were a major element in Western European economies. France lost most of its empire to the British, but retained imporant Caribbean islands. Liberty was a byword of the French Revolution as it had been in the American Revolution. But like the Americans, the leaders of the French Revolution did not move toward abolition. In America any step toward abolition during the Revolution or the frameing of the Constitution would have meant disunion as it would have been unacceptable to the southern colonies. In France it appears to redlect the bouergoise character of the Revolution and the economic importance of Caribbean slavery to the French economy--especially Haiti. While France did not move toward abolition, the Revolution did have substantial reverberations, both in the Caribbean and in England which affected slavery. Neither the Revolutionaries or Napoleon moved yoward abolition. Neither did the restored French momarchy after the Naoleonic Wars. This in fact posed a problen for Britain which after abolishing slavery gave the Royal Navy the task of ending the Atalantic slave trade.

The Whigs

Several parlimentarians played an important role. The Whig Party played an important role.

Clapham Saints (1790-1830)

The Claphan Saints less emotionally known as the Clapham Sect or Evangelistswere a group of Church of England (CoE) reformers centered around Clapham, a village south of London (now a suburb). Both Wilberforce and Henry Thornton lived there--two of the principal leaders. The Clapham Saints were wealthy, influential social reformers active during the Napoleonic ad Regency periods (1790-1830). This of course was just when the issue of slavery was afddressed by the British establishment. Thus slavery became the most important social issue the group addressed, although penal reform was also imporant. . The Clapham Saints were men of moral principle, but they were mem from the estanlisment that were not given to emotional outbursts. They were very different from Young England Abolitionists who were moral crusaders with an uncompromising moralist outlook. They say the anti-sdlavery effort as a moral crusade against evil in which no compromise was possible. The Clapham Saints were more practical men who wre capable of compromise and capable of seeing what was possible to achieve. They were just the type of men who could influence Parliament.

Parlimentary Debates

Several parlimentarians played important roles. One was Henry Peter Brougham. One of the first measures Broufgman helped carry in the House was a bill to make the slave-trade a felony. Much later as Lord Chancellor he participated in the final measure of emancipation throughout the Empire. The abolitionists after several years of work suceeding in passing a bill in abolishing the slave trade in conquered territories (1805)

Britain Abolishes the Slave Trade (1807)

Unlike America, actions on slavery could be accomplished with a imple majority vote in Parliament. After years of work, the abolitions finally suceeded in ending the slave rade. The British Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars voted to ban the slave trade (1807). [Pollock] Parliament abolished slave trading in British ships and by British subjects. Parliament's action has been described as one of the most important victories for human rights in human history. The ban was even more restrictive than the American ban which became effective in the same year. And the British with the powerful Royal Navy had the means to act. At the time tens of thousands of slaves were being transported annually, many on British ships. This was a decession made on moral grounds after a long campaign in Britain against slavery led by religious reformers like William Wilberforce. It was a action taken at considerable cost and at at a time of War. There was some support for the slave trade by sugar merchants, cotton mill owners, Liverpool slavers, and some politicians, but the British public strongly supported the effort. [Vogel] "People o’er the hills, and Alps on Alps arise", wrote Pope. The anolition of the slave trade was a reat achievement. It was, however, onlt one more strp. Slavery itself continued outside of Britain itself. Particularly in the West Indies the economy still depended on slaves. And while slaves could no longer be imported, preocreation provided future generations of slaves.

Power Politics

Ending the slave trade is normally seen in moral terms. As important if not more important in the struggle over the slave trade is European power politics. British abolition of the slave trade occurred at the heighth of the Napoleonnic Wars. British support for Wilberforce was initially because abolition was seen as weakening the French in the Caribbean. And French reluctance to end the slave trade was in part because it was seem as a British attempt to use the power of the Royal Navy. weaken the French evonomy. The failure of America to cooperate effectively with the Royal Navy was American reluctanceto allow any interference with American commerce.

Jamaican Great Slave Rebellion (1831)

The greatest slave revolt was the Baptist War. Rainfall was below normal in 1831. Some plantations experenced drought conditions. This reduced the crop yields. Some planters to make up for falling revenue reduced rations. The slaves as axresult of the missions supported by the anti-slavery movement in Britain were aware of efforts to end slavery. It was here that ideas about emancipation and the white preachers at the missions were so different than the planters. Religious meetings also gave slaves the opportunity to plot abd exchange pans with slaves on other plantations. This provided an element that was never available to slaves in the United States. [Reckord, p. 108.] the white missionaries preached a message of patient obedience and resignation. There was also a native Baptist church with led by blacks which preached a more activist message. The revolt began during the Christmas holiday (1831). Samuel Sharp, a domestic slave and Baptist deacon, organized a peaceful general strike to achieve emancipation and a living wage. The signal to begin the strike was a fire on the Kensington Estate in St. James Parish. The strike, however, soon got out of hand. Here the actual course of events are not entirely known. It is clear that from the beginning that the plantrs saw the strike as rebellion pure and simple. Rebellion swept the western parishes. The Revolt becamne known as the Baptist War because of the role of the missions. The slaves destroyed 106 sugar plantations in St. James Parish alone. A militia force organized by the planters and the small British garrison supressed the strike after only 10 days. The authorities reported killing 201 slaves, the actual total was probably about 400. Missionaries were arrested. Hunting down escapee slaves continued for weeks after. Sharpe was hung. An estimated 20,000 slaves participated in the rebellion. They killed planters and ruined crops. The British and planters convinced them to lay down their revolt with promises of abolition. These romises were not met. The Britsh hung 3,440 slaves were were identified as leaders. Large numbers were punished in various ways such as whippings. The British Parliament held two inquiries to assess the property damage and loss of life.

Great Reform Act (1832)

The nature of the anti-slavery movemnent changed with Psarliament's passage of he Great Reform Act (1832). Before this the unreformed Commons was dominated by a large numbers of MPs that represented small constiuences often called 'rotton boroughs'. This mean that carrying any neasure through Pasrliament did no so much mean mounfing a mass movement as it did convincing these MPs or people who could influence these MPs. This amounted to a very small group of people. As a result, the leadership of the anti-slavery movement was centered in a small London group, especially in Clapham. The Great Reform Act created a very different Commons. The constiuencies in the reformed Commoms came from much more trpresentative constituencies. And as aesult the MPs were more responsive to public opinion. Thus mass movements could for the first time have a major impsact on public policy. Future campaigns, including anti-slavery campaiigns would have to target the wider British public. The campaign would have to be conducted on a national basis and target constituencies throughout the country. Groups would have to be organized at the local level. And this in turn reduced the importance of central leadership.

Abolition (1833)

Abolitionists finally secured the abolish slavery in all British possessions (1833). It was, however, a compromise measure. Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) succeded Wilberforce in leading the aboliion movement in the Commons. Buxton realized that there were MPs that were willing to vote for anolition, but only if the slave owners were compensated. For them the moral imperatitive was the santity of private property. Thus to achieve abolition, a comproise was necessary. This offended many abolitionists who saw abolitioin as the great moral crusade of the age and were unwilling to compromise. Thus Buxton saw that the issue could be converted into a financial one. He managed to pconvince the British Government to compensate the slave owners. The cost was £15 million. Many abolitionists chasrged that Buxton was rewarding the slave owners for their 'wickedness'. The planters also demanded that their freed slaves should work our the remainder of their libes as unpaid 'apprentices'. This would be another form of forced labor. Here the practical Buxton negotiated another compromise. Freed slaves above the age of 6 years would serve as apprentices, on an unpaid basis, for three quarters of the working day, over a period of 6 years. The ages and period were arrived at through a practcal calculation--it was the best deal he could get in the Commons. Buxton wisely took it. Without these compromises, there would have been no abolition in 1833. Full Anolition would have eventually come, nut who knows when. Whether it would have come by 1839 when all the slaves were fully emamcipated is highly questionable. Thd radical section of the Abolitionist movement who saw compromises with the planters as a comproimise with the Devil charged Buxton with selling out.

Division in the Movement

Parliament's decesion to end the slave trade (1807) most immediately affected British slavers, but the British Government during the War could act against slavers flying beligerant flags. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815), the British Govermnent had to use diplomacy to convince other countries to end the slave trade. Thus the effort became an international crusade. The impetus behind the anti-slavery crusade was surely Christian religious morality. There were, however, other factors, mamely economic. If the slave trade was only ended within the British Empire, it could put te Vritish at a disafvantage when competing with other countries which still permitted the slave trade. The same vasic question arose with the abolition od slavery. The British anti-slavery movement split as to whether it shouls consider their goal accomplished or wether the movement should now work on abolition outside the Empire. Some believed the British anti-slavery workers should not be concerned about the policies of other countries. T B Macaulay declared that his goal haf been achieved. Sir George Stephen who was the anti-slavery movement historian declared that the the Movement should now wind itself up. The majority of the abti-slavery campaigners did not believe that morality stoped at the pink-colored bordrs of the Empire. For most human rights were indivisible. Anyone’s enslavement diminished mankind. The issue, however, was carried by the more hard-headed officials that were less moced by morality. Now that Britain had abolished slavery, countries that still permitted slavery had a commercial advantage. Thus it was in Britain's interest to promote abolition in the colonies of other countries.

Young England Abolitionists

Sugar Duties

Slavery in the United States is associated with cotton. The slave trade, however, from a very early stage was based on sugar and he production of sugar in both the West Indies and Brazil. The sugar island of the West Indies became immensably valuable possessions. In the negiotiations ending the French and Indian/Seven Years, French diplomsats showed more interest in their Caribbean sugar island than Canada. And after the Napoleoiv Wars (1815) and Abolition, sugar continued to be a very important commodity. And the issue soon came to a head in considering import duries. Britain within its Empire puraued an amazing degree of free trade. The comonies could trade with other countries. This has been an issue in the Evoluntionary War in America and free trade policies were one of the reforms which followed Britain's loss of the American colonies. A political controversy arose in Parliament Britain as to whether import duties on foreign sugar should be maintained (1840). Free traders debated with those insisting on high import duties. Liberal free traders wanted the duries abolished allowing competition. This would afford consumers access to cheaper sugar. Britain's West Indian sugar planters wanted the sugar duties maintained so that they could monopolize the British market. The issue created a quandry for the the anti-slavery campaigners. They were of course not concerned wih the fortunes of the West Indian planters. Their workers were another mattewr. The anti-slavery movement had worked tirely to free the salbes in Britain'sw West Indian colonies. But now they were free wage earners on the plantations. To lower or remove the sugar duties would lower the prie of sugar and thus the wages that the planters could afford to py the former slaves. Many of these former slaves could be left jibless and in worse condition than before anolition. Anti-slavery campaigners had argued that prosperous West Indies and sugar industry was possible with free labor. Now the question od subsidization with sugar duties arose. But remocing the duty anf creating a free market in sugar, would in effect support slavery in the countries that still permitted slavery in the colonies (France, Portuhal and Spain) as well as iundependent Brazil. British imports would thus be promoting slavery.

Ending the Slave Trade

The United States banned the importation of slaves (1808). There was, however, only minimal enforcement by the U.S. Navy. It was the Royal Navy that eventually ended the slave trade. The slave trade had been a lynch pin in thr triangular trade that has been a key element of the British economy and helped bring great wealth to Britain. It had in part helped to finance the growth of the Royal Navy. The expansion of the British merchant fleet under the protection of the Royal Navy resulted in Britain dominating the slave trade by the 18th century. British ships beginning about 1650 are believed to have transported as many as 4 million Africans to the New World and slavery. The British Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars banned the slave trade (1807). This was a decession made on moral grounds after a long campaign in Britain against slavery at considerable cost at a time of War. After Trafalgur (1805) the powerful British Royal Navy could intercept suspected slave ships under belligerent rights. After the cesation of hostilities this became more complicated. The only internationally recognized reason for boarding foreign ships was suspected piracy. Thus Britain had to persue a major diplomatic effort to convince other countries to sign anti-slavery treaties which permitted the Royal Navy to board their vessels if suspected of transporting slaves. Nearly 30 countries eventually signed these treaties. The anti-slavery effort required a substantial effort on the part of the Royal Navy. The major effort was carried out by the West Coast of Africa Station which the Admiralty referred to as the ‘preventive squadron’. The Royal Navy from this station for 50 years conducted operations to intercept slavers. At the peak of these operartions abour 25 ships and 2,000 officers and men were deployed. There were about 1,000 Kroomen, African sailors, operating West African Station. The Royal Navy deployed smaller, shallow draft vessels so that slavers could be persued in shallow waters. Britain also targeted African leaders who engaged in the slave trade. A British forced in one operation deposed the King of Lagos (1851). The climate and exposure to filthy diseased laden slave ships made the West African station dangerous. The officers and men were rewarded with Prize money for both freeing slaves and capturing the ships. The Royal Navy's task in East Africa and the Indian Ocean was even more difficult. This was in part because of the support for slavery among Islamic powers (both Arabian and Persian). The slave trade persisted into the 1860s, in part because of the continued existence of slavery in the United states. Eventhough thecslave trade was outlawed in America, the American Navy was not used to aggresively inters=dict the slave trade. This did not change until President Lincoln signed the Right of Search Treaty in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. Spain abolished slavery in Cuba (1886). Brazil abolished slavery (1888).


Pollock, John. Wilberforce: God’s Statesman (1977, 2001).

____________. William Wilberforce: A Man Who Changed His Times (1996).

Reckord, Mary. "The Jamaica Slave Rebellion of 1831," Past and Present, No. 40 (July 1968), pp. 108-125.

Virgin. Peter. The Church in an Age of Negligence: Ecclesiastical Structure and Problems of Church Reform, 1700-1840 (Cambridge 1989).

Vogel, Robert. Without Consent or Contract (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989).


Navigate the Children in History Website:
[Return to the Main Christian abolitionist movement page]
[Return to the Main American slavery page]
>[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]

Created: 5:08 AM 4/17/2010
Last updated: 5:08 AM 4/17/2010