PortCities London

London and the transatlantic slave trade

The abolition campaigns
 

Opposition to the trade

Anti-slavery half penny
View full size imageAnti-slavery half penny. © NMM
As the trade in enslaved people reached its peak in the 1780s, more and more people began to voice concerns about the moral implications of slavery and the brutality of the system. From the beginning, the inhuman trade had caused controversy.

Many religious groups, such as the Quakers, objected to it on principle. John Wesley, the leader of the increasingly popular Methodist movement, was against Britain’s involvement in the trade. 

In the last quarter of the 18th century, the trade faced organized opposition in the form of a highly vocal and very determined abolition campaign.

Clarkson and the abolition movement

Thomas Clarkson, 1760-1846
View full size image Thomas Clarkson. © NMM

London was the focus for the abolition campaign, being home both to Parliament and to the important financial institutions of the City. As early as 1776, the House of Commons debated a motion 'that the slave trade is contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men'. 

Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce were two of the most prominent abolitionists, playing a vital role in the ultimate success of the campaign.

Clarkson, a headmaster’s son from Wisbech, had intended to enter the Church. At the age of 24, however, he was converted to the abolitionist cause. Clarkson devoted the rest of his life to that cause.

Slave Emancipation Society medallion
View full size imageSlave Emancipation Society medallion. © NMM
In 1787, Clarkson took the lead in establishing the London-based Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The committee took as its emblem the Wedgwood plaque of a chained and kneeling African, bearing the motto 'Am I not a man and a brother?'

Clarkson was a tireless campaigner and lobbyist. He made an in-depth study of the horrors of the trade and published his findings. Clarkson toured Britain and Europe to spread the abolitionist word and inspire action. As a result, the abolition campaign grew into a popular mass movement.

Wilberforce and the Parliamentary campaign

William Wilberforce Esqr, 1759-1833
View full size imageWilliam Wilberforce. © NMM

While Clarkson was the major force behind the national campaign, William Wilberforce was the key figure supporting the cause within Parliament. 

Wilberforce was the MP for Hull. Like Clarkson, Wilberforce was tireless in his pursuit of abolition. He was an effective lobbyist and a shrewd political operator.

As the campaign increased its pressure, Parliament was bombarded with vast petitions from both sides in the debate. In 1792, Wilberforce succeeded in gaining House of Commons support for a gradual abolition of the trade in enslaved people. This was a hollow victory as no timetable was agreed for abolition.

He pressed on with his mission, despite the outbreak of war against France in 1793. There were, however, many setbacks in the 1790s as Wilberforce repeatedly failed to secure the Parliamentary majority necessary to end Britain’s involvement in the trade.

Africans and the abolition campaign

Wilberforce and Clarkson were the main campaigners for abolition. But Africans living in London also made very important contributions to the cause. 

London-based Africans raised public awareness both of the plight of blacks in 18th-century Britain and of the horrors of the trade.

Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho
View full size imageIgnatius Sancho. © NMM
Ignatius Sancho was born in 1729 on a slave ship bound for the Caribbean. He was orphaned aged two and taken to London by his master. He was given to three spinster sisters living in Greenwich, but the sisters would not have him educated.

A neighbour, the Duke of Montagu, encouraged Sancho and employed him in his household. Sancho became a playwright, theatre critic, keen correspondent, and an opponent of slavery and racism. His correspondence was published after his death in 1782.

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Eqiano

View full size imageOlaudah Equiano was the first political leader of England’s black community. © NMM

Olaudah Equiano was a hugely significant figure in the abolition campaign. According to his autobiography, Equiano was captured in West Africa, forcibly transported to the Americas and sold into slavery. He eventually bought his freedom. 

Equiano’s adventurous career included a spell in the Royal Navy. He was a keen opponent of the trade.

Equiano published his autobiography – The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings – in 1789. It was reprinted many times, becoming one of the most powerful condemnations of the trade and an enormously important piece of abolitionist literature.

The scale of the problem

Engraved commemorative coin, 1788
View full size imageEngraved commemorative coin, 1788. © NMM
The task faced by Clarkson, Wilberforce and the other abolitionists was enormous. Parlaiment passed legislation restricting the number of Africans that could be carried on an individual ship, but the scale of the trade continued to grow throughout the abolition campaign.

Between 1791 and 1800, around 1,340 slaving voyages were mounted from British ports, carrying nearly 400,000 Africans to the Americas. In 1798 alone, almost 150 ships left Liverpool for West Africa. New colonies in the Caribbean and the continued consumer demand for plantations goods fuelled the trade.

The trade abolished

Plate to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade
View full size imagePlate to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade. © NMM

In 1806-07, with the abolition campaign gaining further momentum, Wilberforce had a breakthrough in Parliament. Legislation was finally passed in both the Commons and the Lords. This brought an end to Britain’s involvement in the trade. 

The bill received royal assent in March and the trade was made illegal from 1 May 1807. It was now against the law for any British ship or British subject to trade in enslaved people.

There were enormous protests from slave traders, but the government held firm. However, some merchants continued to trade illegally. 

The Royal Navy was given the task of carrying out anti-slavery patrols in the Atlantic. Navy ships were used to intercept vessels suspected of slave trading. 

Britain, once the largest of the slave trading nations, now took the lead in clamping down on the international trade.

The end of slavery

To the friends of Negro Emancipation. (Negros rejoicing at their freedom)
View full size imageTo the friends of Negro Emancipation. (Negros rejoicing at their freedom.) © NMM

Although the abolitionists had won the end of Britain’s involvement in the trade, plantation slavery still existed in British colonies. The abolition of slavery now became the main focus of the campaign. 

This too was a long and difficult struggle. The abolition of slavery again caught the public imagination. It became one of the largest mass movements of 19th-century Britain.

Laws preventing the possession of enslaved people within the British Empire and by British subjects were passed in 1833. The enslaved Africans on the plantation were not freed at once. The planters persuaded Parliament to:

  • compensate them for the loss of their 'property'
  • introduce an apprenticeship scheme, which tied the ex-slaves to the plantation for a fixed period.

Full emancipation was not achieved until 1838. None of the ex-slaves received compensation.





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