October is Black History Month in the UK. We’ve been exploring the history of slavery in Britain, from the country’s first steps into the Atlantic slave trade, through its height in the 17th and 18th centuries, to its abolition in the 19th. In this, our final blog, we look at abolition.
According to British historian Martin Meredith, "In the decade between 1791 and 1800, British ships made about 1,340 voyages across the Atlantic, landing nearly 400,000 slaves. Between 1801 and 1807, they took a further 266,000. The slave trade remained one of Britain's most profitable businesses." However, resistance and risings bought the horrors of the trade to the public conscience and by the end of the 18th century, public opinion in Britain began to turn against it.
The first group to publicly announce its opposition to slavery was the Society of Friends (a Christian group also known as the Quakers) in 1761. They decided none of their members, many of whom were wealthy merchants and industrialists, could be involved in the slave trade. Yet support for abolition would only be gained gradually, yet it was gained.
Even terrible events such as the Zong Massacre of 1781, when more than 130 enslaved Africans were killed by the crew of the British slave ship Zong for insurance purposes, had little impact initially, demonstrating the difficulty faced by the early abolitionists. Campaigners boycotted sugar, wrote letters and presented petitions. Tours and talks were undertaken, for example the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson went on a speaking tour, showing people chains and irons and a model of a slave ship The Brooke. The tours and powerful image of the cramped conditions of The Brooke helped to change public opinion allowing the abolitionists to write letters to parliament with thousands of signatures.
Former slaves also played a significant role in bringing the horrors of slavery to the public eye. They included Africans such as Olaudah Equiano, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and Ignatius Sancho. They formed their own group 'The Sons of Africa', to campaign for abolition which has been called Britain's first black political organisation. Euquiano campaigned hard against prevailing financial interests and ingrained prejudices to bring the horrors of The Zong to the fore and in 1789 shared his experience of the horrors of slavery by touring the country and giving talks. Sancho wrote many influential letters, including one to Laurence Sterne encouraging the famous writer to use his pen to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade. Sterne's widely publicised response became an integral part of 18th-century abolitionist literature.
In 1787, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was set up. Independent MP William Wilberforce represented the Committee in Parliament and nine of the original twelve members were Quakers. Wilberforce had he come into contact with Clarkson and a group of anti-slave-trade activists, including Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton in the same year and they had persuaded him to take on the cause of abolition. Wilberforce was an Evangelical Christian himself, a group that had been gradually moving towards seeing slavery a sin and demanding it's abolition. And so, Wilberforce was pushed to the fore of the English abolition movement.
1787 also saw the establishment of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Linked to the Sons of Africa, the mission of the Society was to inform the public of the inhuman and immoral treatment of enslaved Africans committed in the name of slavery, to campaign in favour of a new law to abolish the slave trade and enforce this on the high seas, and to establish areas in West Africa where Africans could live free of the risk of capture and sale into slavery. It pursued these proposals vigorously by writing and publishing anti-slavery books, abolitionist prints, posters and pamphlets, and organizing lecture tours in the towns and cities of England.
The Slave Trade Act 1788, also known as Dolben's Act due to the support of Tory MP Sir William Dolben, was passed the following year becoming the first piece of legislation to regulate the slave trade, placing limitations on the number of people that British slave ships could transport, related to tonnage. Its renewal in 1794 included an amendment that limited the scope of insurance policies concerning slaves, rendering illegal such generalised phrases that promised to insure against "all other Perils, Losses, and Misfortunes." (The Zong owners' representatives had highlighted such a phrase in seeking their claim at the King's Bench hearing.). The Slave Trade Act of 1799 was passed to make these provisions permanent.
It would not however be until 1807 that Britain’s parliament passed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. While this act abolished the trading in enslaved peoples, it did not end enslaved labour. This continued across British colonies for almost another thirty years. The ending of slavery was not achieved until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was passed and came into force in 1834. This expanded the jurisdiction of the Slave Trade Act 1807 and made the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire, with the exception of "the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company", Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Saint Helena. In these territories the Company had been independently regulating, and in part prohibiting the slave trade since 1774; with regulations prohibiting enslavement, the sale without a written deed, and the transport of slaves into Company territory prohibited over the period.
Protecting profit remained a crucial factor in allowing the end of slavery in the colonies. When the practice of enslavement was abolished the enslavers who owned the plantations were given £20 million worth of compensation. The enslaved people were not given compensation. Instead a system of apprenticeship was established tying the formerly enslaved people to the plantations on which they had lived. They were still expected to work ten-hour working days and punishments, such as flogging, were still allowed.
It is believed that after 1833 clandestine slave-trading continued within the British Empire. For example in 1854 Nathaniel Isaacs, owner of the island of Matakong off the coast of Sierra Leone was accused of slave-trading by the governor of Sierra Leone, Sir Arthur Kennedy. Papers relating to the charges were lost when the Forerunner was wrecked off Madeira in October 1854. In the absence of the papers, the English courts refused to proceed with the prosecution. In Australia, blackbirding and the holding of indigenous workers' pay "in trust" continued, in some instances into the 1970s. Unfortunately, modern slavery, both in the form of human trafficking and people imprisoned for forced or compulsory labour, continues to this day.
These scenes were built by James Pegrum and Dan Harris as part of a series of models for Black History Month. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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