Hidden Connections: The Abolitionist Movement

William Wilberforce began his campaign to abolish the slave trade in 1798

Following the American Declaration of Independence eminent statesmen such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton declared slavery to be evil and inconsistent with the principles of the American Declaration of Independence. The Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends) began to agitate against slavery both in America and in Britain and in 1783, set up a committee to obtain and publish ‘such information as may lead to the abolition of the slave trade’.

In 1787, a committee of twelve including six members of the Quakers was appointed to agitate for abolition. Two members of the committee were Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp who went to great lengths to collect evidence, finding out precisely how little space was allotted to slaves on the ships and other details. They began to publish pamphlets to stir public opinion against the trade.

In Parliament both Charles James Fox and Pitt the Younger agreed with the aims of the committee but were opposed by some of the most powerful economic interests of the day. Consequently the committee had to concern itself with direct political action.

Since Quakers were barred from becoming Members of Parliament until after 1828, their spokesman in Parliament became the Evangelical William Wilberforce, author of Practical Christianity, one of the century’s most widely read devotional works.

Wilberforce began his campaign to abolish the slave trade in 1798, and was rewarded for his efforts in 1807, when the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed outlawing the British Atlantic slave trade and making it illegal to carry slaves on British ships. While trade in slaves was forbidden, the practice of slavery continued as did the trade despite the fact that any British captain caught transporting slaves was to be fined £100 for each slave found on board ship.

In such cases where there was a possibility of being captured by the Royal Navy unscrupulous captains simply ordered the slaves to be thrown overboard. In 1819, the Royal Navy posted a squadron off the West African coast to enforce the ban and in 1827, Britain declared slave trading to be piracy, a crime punishable by death. In 1808, the United States of America also passed legislation banning the slave trade but not outlawing slavery itself.

In Britain the campaign for the abolition of slavery intensified and many anti-slavery groups were formed, principal among them the Anti Slavery Society whose members included Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Henry Brougham. They campaigned for better conditions for slaves in the West Indies and for the abolition of slavery.

Finally, in August 1833, three days before Wilberforce died, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, coming into law on 1 August 1834, when slavery was abolished throughout British possessions abroad and all slaves in the British colonies were emancipated.

Freedom, however, was only partial. All children under the age of six were free immediately but all of the others were required to enter into an ‘apprenticeship’ whereby they had to continue to work for their former owners for upwards of forty hours a week for a period of six years – for no pay. To further soften the blow for the plantation owners the government agreed to pay compensation to them depending on the number of slaves each owned. This resulted in a total payout of £20 million the equivalent of £1,220 million today.

PRONI has a selection of letters written to and from Wilberforce during this period. In one dated April 12 1814 Wilbeforce urges Lord Liverpool to make the abolition of the French slave trade a condition of the Treaty of Paris. (PRONI Reference D/3030/3973) In a letter to Lord Castlereagh three months later Wilberforce comments on the increase in British trade since the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. He also praises [Zachary] Macaulay’s work in Africa. Macaulay regularly visited Sierra Leone and in 1799, brought back forty African children to be educated in England. Along with others he formed an Anti-Slavery Society in 1823. (PRONI Reference D/3030/4176). In November that year Lord Castlereagh sent a book to Wilberforce that demonstrated abolition was 'not ruinous' to trade, observing that this will appeal to many who are ‘deaf to the moral appeal’ [of abolition]. (PRONI Reference D/3030/4328) 

The Black Man’s Lament or How to Make Sugar

This illustration, published in the1820s, was the frontispiece for a poem ‘Amelia Opie’ published in support of the campaign to emancipate the slaves within the British Empire. Like Stafford and Merton more than 30 years earlier it was aimed at producing juvenile abolitionists.

Brave black boy rescuing a white boy from a bull 

An illustration from Thomas Day’s, The History of Sandford and Merton (1789 edition), showing a brave black boy rescuing an English lad from being gored by a bull. 

The Negro Mother’s Appeal (1838) 

This woodcut shows a white mistress rejecting the appeal of the slave mother, who seeks to prevent the sale of her child. The ill treatment of women and children was a central issue in the debate about the wrongs inflicted by slavery. Women played a key role in organising the anti-slavery movement in Britain and the USA.