xxxxxThe Portuguese began the trade in West African slaves around 1444, but the Trans-Atlantic trade started in the first years of the 16th century. As we have seen by the Asiento de Negros of 1713 (AN), this was a despicable, degrading, traffic which took some 8 to 15 million Africans to work in the New World. The Quakers were the first to protest. In Britain, a Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in 1787, mainly the work of the philanthropist Granville Sharp and the cleric Thomas Clarkson, assisted by the pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood. A nationwide campaign was launched, and gained the support of men such as John Wesley, William Pitt, Edmund Burke and Charles Fox. The fight in Parliament was led by the brilliant orator William Wilberforce. After many attempts to obtain legislation, Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807. As we shall see, however, it was not until 1833 (W4) that slavery was banned in British colonies. Some European nations, such as Denmark, had condemned slavery much earlier, but it was not until 1870 that most others had followed suit. In the United States the northern states opposed the slavery in the deep South, and this antagonism gained momentum with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852. It took the American Civil War, ten years later, to settle the issue.

xxxxxThe trade in West African slaves was begun by the Portuguese as early as 1444, during their expeditions along the west coast of Africa. The Trans-Atlantic trade by which young West Africans were transported to the New World, began as a trickle in 1502 but, over the years, grew into a vast torrent, stimulated by the growth of the plantation system. Slavery had been a factor in life, of course, since the earliest “civilisations”, but the trade across the Atlantic was particularly degrading, harsh and inhuman, if only because of the dreadful conditions which had to be endured - and were often not endured - on the long outward sea journey. It was a traffic in misery which, as we have seen by the Asiento de Negros of 1713 (AN), had reached enormous proportions by the beginning of the 18th century.

xxxxxThe Asiento de Negros was a contract concerning the supply of slaves. Initiated by the Spanish early in the 16th century, it was a monopoly granted for the supply of Africans to work in the American Spanish colonies. It is estimated that by this system alone some 450,000 Africans were transported to Spanish America between 1600 and 1750. But this was but a small percentage of the overall total. From the middle of the 16th century until 1870, when the trade virtually came to an end, it is thought that 8 to 15 million Africans were forcibly taken to the New World. The vast majority came from West and Central Africa, and most were put to work in the Caribbean islands, the Guianas, and the Portuguese territory of Brazil (some 40 percent alone). By comparison, only a small number were settled on mainland Spanish America and in the former American colonies.

xxxxxIn North America, as in England, the first organised denunciation of slavery came from the Quakers in the 1720s. At least by then an increasing number of colonists were coming to regard it as an evil, necessary though it might be. Indeed, in 1774 Rhode Island became the first state to abolish slavery, and the other Northern states soon followed, but in 1788 the U.S. Constitution accepted that in the southern states it would remain a fact of life, at least for the next twenty years. In these states slavery had become such an integral part of the agricultural and social economy, that its abolition was not seen as a possibility, especially after the introduction of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, an invention of 1793 which required a vast increase in the number of field hands in the plantations.

xxxxxIn Britain, the Quakers had campaigned against the slave trade for many years, and had presented petitions to Parliament in 1783 and 1787. However, the first positive step was taken in 1787 with the establishment of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. It was formed by the English philanthropist Granville Sharp (1735-1813) (illustrated left), and the English cleric Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) (illustrated right), together with the English pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, a man passionately interested in social reform. Of the twelve members on the committee, nine were Quakers. Pamphlets and books supporting this cause were widely distributed; agents and committees were set up across the country; and for many years Clarkson toured the land as a fact finder, collecting statements and equipment - such as leg-shackles and branding irons - as evidence against the trade. Much of this material was used by Wilberforce in his speeches in the Commons. At this time, too, his Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, published in 1786, gained the sympathy of many, including John Wesley, William Pitt, Edmund Burke and Charles Fox. In addition, use was again made of petitions to parliament. In the nationwide campaign of 1792, for example, over 500 - containing some 400,000 signatures - were presented to the Commons, coming from Scotland and Wales as well as every county in England. And, as we have seen, the autobiography The Life of Olaudah Equiano, the African, published in 1789, proved immensely influential.

xxxxxIn these measures the Society was greatly assisted by the member of parliament William Wilberforce. An ardent supporter, and a close friend of the then prime minister William Pitt, he led the campaign in the Commons. In 1791 his first bill to abolish the slave trade was easily defeated, but in 1792, following the presentation of the petitions, the House decided by 230 to 85 votes that the slave trade should be “gradually” abolished. Unfortunately, this decision was taken against the alarming events taking place on the continent - the outbreak of the Revolutionary Wars in France and the overthrow of Louis XVI. These events, and the violence they brought in their wake, quickly aroused strong political reaction at home. The following year the Commons was unwilling to discuss further the matter of the slave trade. National movements calling for change were viewed with the utmost suspicion. As a result, public enthusiasm for the cause virtually collapsed, and although Wilberforce reintroduced the abolition bill throughout the 1790s little progress was made.

xxxxxBut Wilberforce and his associates continued their struggle. The bill fell again in 1804 and 1805, but with the news that Napoleon was opposed to the emancipation of slaves, the mood changed. In February 1807 Parliament outlawed the slave trade by a huge majority, 114 to 15. The Act provided for the search and seizure of ships thought to be involved in such business, and it sanctioned payment for the liberation of slaves. Slavery remained a fact in British colonies, but it was seen as the first step on the road to the complete abolition of slavery as such. At the Congress of Vienna in 1814 a number of countries followed Britain’s lead, though a few, like Denmark in 1792, had adopted such measures many years earlier. It was to be some time, however, before this particularly vile trade had been banned by all European countries and - more to the point - finally brought to an end. In Britain, a further step was taken in 1823 with the establishment of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions. As we shall see, these aims were achieved in 1833 (W4), just three days before the death of the society’s chief campaigner William Wilberforce.

xxxxxAnd it was in that year, 1833, that the American Anti-Slavery Society was formed in Philadelphia. As early as 1808 the U.S. government had prohibited the import of slaves from Africa. In the United States, however, it was a domestic not a colonial issue. The whole question was bedevilled by the wide use of slavery in the southern states, made the more divisive by the annexation of Texas in 1845, a slave state of enormous size. And, as we shall see, the anti-slave movement was given sharp impetus in 1852 with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an emotional appeal by the American writer Harriet Elizabeth Beecher Stowe. By then the United States was just ten years off the American Civil War, a ferocious struggle fought to decide the very issue of slavery.

xxxxxMeanwhile in South America slaves gained their freedom as each colony achieved its independence - though it was often a freedom in name only - and slavery was not abolished in Cuba and Brazil until the 1880s. For many slaves, like those in the French and Dutch colonies, freedom was still a long way off.


xxxxxIncidentally, one of the biggest slave rebellions in the United States took place in Virginia in 1831. Some 70 slaves, led by “Nat” Turner - a Christian who believed he was doing God’s work - went on the rampage and killed their white masters and family members - some 60 in total. The uprising was crushed within two days and 55 of the rebels, including Turner, were caught and hanged. White gangs, out for revenge, then beat, tortured and killed another 200 blacks, and Virginia and other southern States passed new laws restricting the rights of assembly.


Sharp: detail, by the German painter Johann Joseph Zoffany (1733-1810), 1779/81 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Clarkson: by the Swedish painter Carl Frederik von Breda (1759-1818), 1788 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Rebellion: date and artist unknown – Rare Books and Special Collections, Library of Congress, Washington. Wilberforce: detail, by the English portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), 1828 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Slave Trade: date and artist unknown. Holy Trinity: watercolour, artist unknown, contained in Ecclesiastical Topography Round London, first published in 1809.


William Wilberforce


xxxxxThe English philanthropist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) entered parliament in 1780 and, over the next 45 years, spent much of his time campaigning against the slave trade and slavery in general. Supporting the Anti-Slavery Society (formed in 1787) and, in particular, its members Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, he attempted many times to have a ban imposed. Eventually, in 1792 the Commons agreed that the trade should be “gradually” abolished but, as the French Revolution became more violent, the matter was abandoned. A string of bills failed throughout the 1790s, and in the early years of the 19th century, but then the decision of Napoleon to re-impose slavery in the French colonies turned the tide. In 1807 Parliament outlawed the slave trade by a massive majority, and Wilberforce’s success was widely acclaimed. He retired from the Commons in 1825, but he continued his support against slavery and, as we shall see, just lived long enough to see slavery abolished in all British possessions in 1833 (W4).

xxxxxAs we have seen, the English philanthropist and politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833) played a leading part in the long struggle to persuade the British government to abolish the slave trade and slavery in general. An eloquent and persuasive orator, he championed this worthy cause in parliament over many years and, despite numerous setbacks, witnessed its successful conclusion just before his death.

xxxxxThe son of a wealthy merchant, Wilberforce was born in Hull, Yorkshire, in 1759, and attended Cambridge University. It was here that he became a close friend of William Pitt, the future Tory prime minister. They both entered the House of Commons in 1780, where Wilberforce was soon taking a leading part in demanding parliamentary reform and political rights for Roman Catholics. Such was the strength of his radical views that in 1792, at the height of the French Revolution, he was appointed an honorary citizen of France, a title which proved a political embarrassment as the revolution took its course. He was obliged to support repressive measures to prove his loyalty to king and country.

xxxxxHis support for the anti-slavery campaign stemmed from his conversion to Evangelical Christianity in 1784. Three years later he not only helped to found the Anti-Slavery Society (though he did not officially join it until 1794), but also the Proclamation Society, an organisation aimed at reforming public morals and putting an end, in particular, to the publication of obscenity. In that year he wrote, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects - the abolition of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners." In the war against slavery he became the acknowledged leader, supported especially by the philanthropist Granville Sharp and the cleric Thomas Clarkson.

xxxxxAs we have seen, following the failure of the 1792 bid to introduce the gradual abolition of the slave trade - thwarted by the government’s reactionary measures in the face of the French Revolution - and the failure of bills throughout the 1790s, the break through came in the early years of the 19th Century. Attempts in 1804 and 1805 fared no better but opinion changed drastically with the news that slavery, abolished by the French government in 1794, had been re-imposed by Napoleon throughout the French possessions. In February 1807 the British government outlawed the slave trade by a huge majority. It is said that emotional tributes were made to Wilberforce that evening, and members stood to applaud his efforts. However, as we shall see, it was to be another 25 years before his second aim, the abolition of slavery throughout the British Dominions, was to be realised in July 1833 (W4). Having retired in 1825, in this achievement he was to play a significant but less active role.

xxxxxIncidentally, when the Anti-Slavery Society was first formed in 1787 - officially known as “The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade” - its members were derisively called “Saints”, but from 1797 they became known as the “Clapham Sect”. This was because Wilberforce was a member of a group of evangelical Christians centred on the Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common, south London, where John Venn (1759-1813), one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society, was the Rector. Apart from their support for the anti-slavery movement, the members of Holy Trinity Church were also opposed to cruel sports and gambling, worked for prison reform, and sponsored several missionaries at home and overseas.