The Big Campaign

A look back to the campaign for the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade which will be commemorated this year....

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On the 25 th of March many events will be happening around the country to commemorate the Bicentenary of the Parliamentary Act which was passed to abolish Britain’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade – the forced transportation of Africans from their continent to the British Colonies in the Americas. A film will also have just been released in this country. Called ‘Amazing Grace’, this film explores how William Wilberforce led the campaign in Parliament.

This achievement was, and is truly something to celebrate, but many people do not realise that the campaign took 20 years to achieve its aim and that it took a further 26 years for the Government to pass an Act to abolish actual slavery. This was despite the fact that the campaign was one of the biggest in British history and involved communities big and small and all across the land. In this article I would like to look at how, at the start of the campaign, a large percentage of the population gained in some way from the slave trade and how as time passed, there was a gradual change in opinion and circumstances which slowly led to the profound change.

In 1787, as the abolition campaign began to gain public interest, the big ports such as Liverpool, Bristol and London, and even some small coastal towns such as Whitehaven and Lyme Regis owed much of their wealth to what has been called the ‘Triangular Trade’. Ships from Europe travelled the coast of West Africa carrying goods with which they purchased enslaved Africans. The black people, chained together and packed in the ships, were transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies where they were traded for more goods to be sold on the return to Europe.

The ships would leave the British ports laden with a whole range of locally produced goods which were seen as desirable in West Africa, including textiles, brass pots, pans, kettles, alcohol, fine china, furniture and even beads plus the guns, shackles and manacles used in the despicable business. All people involved in the manufacture of these goods, the metalworkers, weavers, potters, carpenters, bead makers and gunsmiths gained from the trade.

British people also needed to satisfy their craving for tobacco, coffee and chocolate, as well as sugar, all of which were grown on plantations using enslaved labour so trade with the West Indies and Southern States of America was vital. The cotton mills in the north also relied on imports of raw cotton from across the Atlantic. People then, as now, were often unaware of the conditions in which they were manufactured or grown and of the workforce involved.

Public awareness of the immorality of the trade took a long time growing. Extreme cases would be reported in the newspapers such as the case of the English slave ship The Zong in 1781. There had been sickness on board the Zong and the captain threw one hundred and thirty black men, women and children overboard, rather than allow them to infect others and use valuable supplies of food and water. He hoped to claim for the losses on the insurance. The abolitionist Granville Sharp was unsuccessful in his attempt to have the Zong captain prosecuted for murder. At this time when only 5% of Englishmen and no women were allowed to vote, the population may have been able to express their horror to each other there was little else they could do. That is until the official abolition campaign was started.

Led initially by the Quakers who excluded anyone connected with the slave trade from their meetings, in 1783, they sent a petition to Sir Cecil Wray, Member of Parliament for Retford in Nottinghamshire who was bringing a bill into the House of Commons for the regulation of the African Trade . They also appointed a committee to consider the problem of slavery.

The Quaker committee met frequently to prepare and print texts on the slave trade but they made little progress with influencing national opinion (and Cecil Wray had lost his Parliamentary seat). By 1787 the committee included not just Quakers but also Anglicans such as Thomas Clarkson, and Granville Sharpe, and soon gained the support of the Evangelical MP William Wilberforce as the Parliamentary spokesperson.

They decided, though with objections from Granville Sharp, to concentrate their efforts on abolishing the trade rather than slavery itself as it was felt that with without the continuous supply of enslaved Africans the problem of slavery would solve itself. Thomas Clarkson took on the task of collecting every possible source of evidence against the trade and the committee distributed anti-slavery literature and stirred public opinion against the trade. Very soon anti-slavery societies sprang up all over the country and petitions began to swamp parliament.

Over 100 petitions attacking the slave trade were presented to the House of Commons in the space of just three months in 1788 and in April 1792, a record number of 519 petitions from every county in England, including a good number from Wales and Scotland, were presented to the Commons. Manchester sent in one containing 20,000 signatures .

Wilberforce hoped that mass petitioning of Parliament would abolish the slave trade and his strategy almost worked when in 1792 the House resolved by 230 votes to 85 that the trade ought to be gradually abolished. But unfortunately concern about the French revolution intervened and in 1793 the Commons effectively reversed the resolutions of the previous year by refusing to continue discussing the issue. The campaign was put on hold until 1805.

In 1787 the committee had approved a ‘logo’, which depicted a kneeling slave. Initially a seal for closing envelopes this design began to be used as a stamp on all abolitionist publications and as a cameo on cufflinks, brooches, snuff boxes and tea sets. 400,000 people expressed their dissatisfaction by boycotting slave grown sugar.

People had also been encouraged to collect items that would help them reflect on the cause, such as pottery decorated with ‘The Kneeling Slave’ or poems on enslavement. ‘The Print’, a detailed plan of a 320 ton Liverpool slaver ‘The Brookes’ which illustrated how the enslaved men, women and children would be packed on to ship, was also widely distributed.

Whilst gathering witnesses for the Parliamentary enquiry into the slave trade, Thomas Clarkson also collected a large wooden Chest full of articles connected with the trade and Africa. He obtained small pieces of naturally dyed cloth and finely worked cotton cloth as well as samples of crops, gums and wood samples. He wanted everyone, and especially those in Parliament to see that the people of Africa were capable of great achievements in their own country.

It is worth noting that at this time, when an estimated 10,000 black people lived in Britain and black writers such as the former slaves Olaudah Equiano and Quobna Ottobah Cugoano had both published books and gained extensive support for abolition, there was no black representative on the committee. As the recently formed ‘Understanding Slavery’ education partnership explains ‘The upper class leaders of both Parliament and the Anti-Slavery Committee might have been moved by sympathy for the enslaved, but they were not motivated by the issue of equality’.

Whatever their motives, abolition was not achieved until March 25, 1807 with the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act outlawing the trade within the British Colonies. Fines of £100 for every slave found aboard a British ship were imposed and the Royal Navy were drafted in to enforce the act. But some ships continued trading and it was believed that some captains in danger of being caught threw their captives overboard to reduce the fine. In 1827, participation in the slave trade was declared to be piracy and punishable by death.

The Act also did not stop people within the British Colonies form owning enslaved Africans. In 1822, The Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery throughout the British Dominions was formed and many of the committee were those who had previously campaigned against the transatlantic slave trade. These included Thomas Clarkson who once again started travelling around the country.

By the summer of 1824, 800 groups had been set up, or re-established in towns around the country and 777 petitions had been sent to Parliament, but despite this public interest, the government chose to improve the conditions of slaves rather than abolish ownership. In 1830, the aim of the Society was changed from gradually abolishing slavery, to the entire Abolition of Colonial Slavery. Once again there was a sugar boycott, this time involving 300,000 people.

The Abolition of Slavery in the British Colonies finally took place on 1st August 1834, with all children under six years freed immediately, and all other slaves required to work as ‘apprentices’ to their former masters for a 4 years before gaining full freedom. They had to work for the same number of hours as before but received no pay. Twenty million pounds was paid out to the ‘masters’ in compensation for their losses. In 1838, apprenticeship was abandoned and full freedom granted.

Since 1839, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (now called Anti-Slavery International) has worked to outlaw slavery in all its forms, included bonded labour, child-labour and trafficking around the world. They have recently been joined in their work by a new campaign inspired by the film Amazing Grace.


For more information on the two campaigns, go to the following websites-

But the simplest way to help reduce slavery in the world is to buy FAIR-TRADE and ethically traded goods and look out for the RUGMARK when buying hand woven rugs and carpets. Anti-Slavery International believes thatboycotting goods can sometimes worsen the poverty of already impoverished countries.

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