British Abolitionists Against the Slave Trade

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

Up to the 1790s, there had been isolated criticisms of slavery, but a general condemnation of slavery was remarkably absent. So, how did the voices and action against slavery become more widespread?

The painting "The Slave Trade" depicts the casual and everyday nature of the trade, with the bored-looking white trader almost dozing by his ledger book while his workers inspect and brand slaves
Though slavery itself was banned in Britain, the slave trade conducted by the British still carried on. The abolitionist campaigned to stop it. (Image: François-Auguste Biard/Public Domain)

The Enlightenment and Slavery

The Enlightenment criticized many ancient institutions, including slavery. But Enlightenment criticism had not been consistent. The English philosopher John Locke, for instance, wrote powerfully about inalienable natural rights, and voluntarily social contracts, but he also was an investor in the Royal African Company.

But many thinkers did speak out against slavery along Enlightenment lines. Diderot’s Encyclopédie condemned slavery as a violation of natural law, and it said that if slavery was not a crime, then anything at all could be justified. The British Enlightenment economist Adam Smith saw slavery as less efficient, less profitable than free labor and free trade. The American Benjamin Franklin, also an Enlightenment thinker, was also an abolitionist.

Learn more about the British slavery abolition act.

Quakers against Slavery

It was, however, religion that produced the beginnings of a truly mass mobilization against slavery. In particular, this involved the Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends as they called themselves.

The Quakers saw a fundamental equality in all people because of the immediate relationship that each could have with the Divine, in a priesthood of all believers. Thus the Quakers, both in England and in the American colonies, spoke out against slavery.

As early as 1688, Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, condemned slavery and the slave trade. By the 1760s, Quakers in Britain and in America were refusing to accept slave traders into their own faith communities. In Philadelphia in 1775, Quakers founded the world’s first antislavery society.

Around the same time in England Quakers began to cooperate with Evangelicals, with Methodists, and with Baptists, to together work against the slave trade. In 1772, a legal case in Britain had prohibited slavery in the British Isles, but these activists were not content and had a global outlook.

The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Image of the frontispiece of Olaudah Equiano's autobiography, showing his portrait.
Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography was a great resource for anti-slavery campaigners in Britain. (Image: Daniel Orme, after W. Denton/Public domain)

The pioneers of this movement included Thomas Clarkson, a tireless organizer; the politician William Wilberforce in Parliament; and the African Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who had bought his freedom and had published a searing autobiography about his experiences.

The first meetings of this group, which called itself The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, took place 1787. This group decided to concentrate first on the slave trade, rather than working on banning all slavery at once.

Slavery itself seemed to these activists too socially and economically entrenched to be overthrown all at once, so their hope was that by ending the trade, this would lead to the gradual extinction of the practice as a whole.

Learn more about how settlements achieved success with tobacco and the forced recruitment of African slaves.

Clarkson, Wilberforce, and Newton

The key organizer, Thomas Clarkson, had won an essay prize at University of Cambridge on the question of whether slavery was lawful. This had been just a rhetorical exercise, but when he’d written his essay, he became obsessed with this question. His friends called him a “moral steam engine”, and he travelled the country, collecting information on the slave trade.

The movement’s political voice was William Wilberforce, a man with a matchless, compelling voice and rhetoric. He was a real political insider who had converted to the Evangelical faith and now advanced the legal cause of abolition in Parliament.

There was also an unlikely recruit to the movement: a former slave captain, John Newton, who after four slave voyages had experienced a religious change of heart, and became a minister, and then a famous preacher. In 1772, it was Newton who wrote “Amazing Grace”, a hymn which praises the power of repentance.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Pamphleteering and Fundraising against Slavery

This movement was itself very businesslike, efficient, and innovative in its tactics. Activists worked to gather the dreadful facts of the slave trade, and let those facts speak for themselves.

They printed masses of pamphlets in many languages, to convince an international audience. In France, the marquis de Lafayette, helped start a society there for the same aims, named the ‘Society of the Friends of the Blacks’.

“Am I Not a Man and A Brother?”

Image showing design with a chained and kneeling African with arms upraised, with the words "AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?" on a scroll.
The celebrated design which originated with Wedgwood, became a symbol for the abolition movement. (Image: Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) and either William Hackwood or Henry Webber; “Josiah Wedgewood…produced the emblem as a jasper-ware cameo at his pottery factory. Although the artist who designed and engraved the seal is unknown, the design for the cameo is attributed to William Hackwood or to Henry Webber, who were both modelers at the Wedgewood factory.” (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h67.html PBS])/Public domain)

One activist was the manufacturer of china, Josiah Wedgwood, who became official potter to the Queen. For the cause, Wedgwood used his talents to create an image for a medallion that became an icon. It showed a kneeling African in chains, asking the question, “Am I not a man and a brother?”

This image was soon everywhere—on pottery, on bracelets, on hairpins, on cufflinks, on snuffboxes. Benjamin Franklin actually praised this image as equal to the best pamphlet in the world in terms of changing minds.

The Role of Women in the Abolition Movement

Another key winning tactic was using the role of women. Women spoke up in public meetings on the topic, which was unusual at the time. Women were also key activists in huge petitions that were organized to appeal to Parliament.

The act of signing a petition was, in a subtle way, very democratizing. People were urged to sign up regardless of what their class was, regardless of whether they were men or women, and regardless of whether they currently had the right to vote or not.

Women also organized the powerful boycott of West Indian sugar from 1791, to protest the slave origins of this commodity, the largest British import. It’s estimated that in Britain, half a million people took part, and women, as the organizers of their households, are the ones who made it happen.

All these activities created tremendous pressure on the British government to stop the slave trade.

Common Questions about British Abolitionists Against the Slave Trade

Q. Why were the Quakers against the slave trade?

The Quakers believed that every person had an individual connection to the Divine, and so slavery was seen as immoral and unethical.

Q. Why did the British abolitionists focus on the slave trade rather than slavery?

The British abolitionists decided that slavery was too big an issue to be fought successfully. So, they canvassed for the end of the slave trade which, they felt, would soon end slavery itself.

Q. What was Josiah Wedgwood’s contribution to the British abolitionist cause?

Josiah Wedgwood designed and popularized an image of a kneeling African slave with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” The image became an icon for the abolition movement in Britain.

Q. How did British women help the abolitionist cause?

British women were key activists in abolitionist petitions that were organized to appeal to Parliament. Women also organized the powerful boycott of West Indian sugar from 1791, to protest its slave origins.

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