By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee
As the movement for ending the slave trade and slavery grew, Britain at large was inflamed with this cause. The message appeared in debates, newspapers, and even in poems. Yet, it took years of struggle before slavery was abolished by Britain.
The First Step: Voting in Parliament
In Parliament, William Wilberforce pushed the cause. His first speech against the trade was given in 1789, and Edmund Burke, the parliamentarian, called it one of the greatest speeches of all time. Parliamentary committees investigated the details of the slave trade in hearings, putting powerful facts on record.
The facts were damning, and in particular one image: It is a print of the inside of one ship, a ship called the Brookes, owned by a Liverpool family with that same last name. It was a slave ship that transported people from the Gold Coast in Africa to Jamaica.
This famous diagram gave front, side, and top cutaway views of the inside, showing the inhuman crowding on the ship. In their care, not to be accused of exaggerating, the committee that prepared this document even showed fewer slaves in their illustration than were sometimes carried by the ship. They showed 482 people crammed in the hold, not the over 700 who sometimes were forced into it. That diagram had an electric effect, and to this day, it’s one of the most reproduced political images ever.
In Parliament, pro-slavery forces, organized as the West Indian Lobby, rallied and advanced some really ludicrous arguments in favor of continuing the institution. But in spite of all of the moral engagement, the proposed bills failed again and again; legislation was blocked by the House of Lords.
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Slave Trade Act 1807
But consciences in society had been mobilized, and at long last Parliament did pass, in the year 1807, a ban on the slave trade, which was declared a form of piracy. This legislation did damage to the British economy, and some historians have even called it an act of “econocide,”—that’s to say, doing damage to oneself, and one’s economic resources—but the moral argument trumped these economic considerations.
Soon after, the United States, the Netherlands, and France also prohibited the importation of slaves, but it would take another quarter century until the goal of freeing of slaves was achieved.
In the meantime, the British government took action. This action intersected with a crucial political fact of the times: the supremacy of the Royal Navy. At this point, Britain truly ruled the waves as the superpower of its day, and it saw its role as an international policeman to ensure the world order.
This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, Wondrium.
British Naval Action Against the Slave Trade
For the next decades after 1807, even during those years when Britain was at war against Napoleon, Royal Navy ships patrolled the slave ship routes to stop the trade. At one point, a third of British Navy ships were involved in this exercise. They captured many, but not all slave ships.
Some slave ships, when they were pursued by the British Navy, would actually throw their captives overboard as a way of destroying the evidence. The Royal Navy did manage to release some 116,000 slaves, but this was only part of the continuing slave trade; even after 1807, some three million more Africans were shipped, mostly from Africa to Cuba and Brazil. Many liberated slaves were set down in Sierra Leone, which became a British colony in Africa.
The British movement against slavery actually slowed down in the next decades; it seemed to run out of energy, and some activists became content to be gradualist in their hopes, until a new generation of women activists rose up to reenergize the movement and to demand immediate abolition of slavery everywhere in the British Empire.
Slavery Abolition Act 1833
Slave uprisings in Haiti and Jamaica also helped convince many that emancipation had to come. This finally led to the legislation in Parliament in 1833, which decreed the freeing of some 800,000 slaves in the British Empire, mainly in the Caribbean islands. That emancipation came in stages, and the owners of slaves were promised compensation, even though ex-slaves got none.
But at long last, on August 1, 1838, the slaves were finally free. At the ground level, even if economic exploitation still continued, the former slaves must have experienced the moral difference in status, from slave to free; this must have felt profound.
This did not end the story, nor was the crime of slavery ended all at once. Ex-slaves continued to labor in hard conditions on plantations, but at least without the old shackles, without the legal status of slavery. Slavery however did continue elsewhere in the Americas.
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The Abolition of Slavery Worldwide
American abolitionists, black as well as white, often traveled to Britain and cooperated in a transatlantic movement for abolition. Figures included William Lloyd Garrison and the former slave Frederick Douglass. But it would take the U.S. Civil War, which exacted some 750,000 lives, to finally free the slaves in the United States.
The last open slave market in the Americas, in Havana, Cuba, was finally shut down in 1869. Cuba stopped exporting slaves in 1870, due to naval interdiction by the United States and Britain, and abolished slavery in 1886. Finally, in 1888, slavery was also at last abolished in Brazil.
But in the fight against this injustice, this legal abolition of the slave trade and then of slavery was a powerful turning point. It created a new model for social mobilization, with key tactics and tools invented by the abolitionists, which could later be used by other movements, spearheaded by ordinary people.
Common Questions about the Slavery Abolition Act
The abolitionists showed a print of the inside of a slave ship called the Brookes, demonstrating the inhuman conditions in which the slaves were transported.
Royal Navy ships patrolled the slave ship routes to stop the trade. At one point, a third of British Navy ships were involved in this exercise. They captured many, but not all slave ships.
The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 formally ended slavery, but it was only on August 1, 1838 that all British slaves were finally free.
The worldwide end of slavery occurred in phases in different parts of the world. It took a civil war to end slavery in the United States. The last open slave market in Havana, Cuba, was shut down in 1869. Finally, in 1888, slavery was also at last abolished in Brazil.