This essay will examine the abolition movement, identify its most prominent supporters and reflect upon how their actions and arguments against slavery, influenced public opinion and Parliament- which led to the full emancipation of slaves across the British Empire.
Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, remained unchallenged up until the mid-18th Century. While some Christians cited scripture to propagate slavery, others cited scripture to end it, and it was The Quakers, on both sides of the Atlantic, who initiated the abolition movement’s inception, by becoming the first Christian group to collectively oppose slavery. Anthony Benezet (1713-1784), a French-born, English educated Quaker, who became an educational and social reformer in America, in 1775, founded the first abolition society- ‘The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage’. Benezet’s anti-slavery pamphlets, which also circulated in Britain, were the ‘first to combine religious and philosophical arguments with extensive documentation of the slave trade based on eyewitness reports from Africa and the colonies’ (LSU Press). As a result of his campaigning, Benezet was influential in securing emancipation for Pennsylvania’ (Oxford DNB), with the Gradual Abolition Act (1780)- ‘the first such legislative enactment in America’. (Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission).
In 1783, at the London Society of Friends annual meeting, the Quakers established ‘The Friends Committee’, the first dedicated anti-slavery organization to promote abolition in the United Kingdom, presented the first ever pro-abolition of the slave trade petition to Parliament. Benezet’s pamphlet, ‘The Case of the Oppressed Africans’ (1783), which accompanied the petition, presented a religious and moral argument against slavery, which in emotive language stated, that the Quakers were, ‘engaged, under a sense of duty, to bear a public testimony against a species of oppression…which in the injustice of its origin, and the inhumanity of its progress, has not, we apprehend, been exceeded, or even equalled’ (Reading 7.3).
The concerns regarding the physical and spiritual condition of enslaved Africans, was shared by many ‘organized religious dissenters….who added their support to the Quaker cadres on grounds of morality, justice, and religion (Dresher, cited in Thomson, 2017, p.320). To gain greater Anglican and Parliamentary support, in 1787, The Friends Committee became the non-denominational group The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which incorporated amongst its ranks, the prominent Anglican abolitionists Granville Sharp (1735-1813) and Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846). In persuading William Wilberforce (1759-1833), an Anglican evangelical MP, to act as its Parliamentary speaker, secured the Parliamentary platform which the Quakers were discriminated from holding. This coalition, allowed the matching of different resources which were vital to the success of the abolition movement, especially as Quakers had maintained a wide transatlantic network, which was used to distribute information and provide financial contributions towards the campaign.
The Society subsequently informed the public on a grassroots level, through a variety of print, including- pamphlets, books, prints, posters and newspaper articles- whilst events in the public sphere, included lecture tours, anti-slavery meetings and petitions. Clarkson was instrumental in obtaining evidence that was used against the slave trade. This ranged from testimonies taken from sailors, to utilising pictures and artefacts, which arguably influenced public opinion more than words alone. Amongst these, were the print of ‘The Brookes’, a slave ship which was boarded to its full capacity, ‘became the most widely recognisable image of the Middle Passage’ (History) and a variety of equipment which was used to punish slaves, such as handcuffs, leg shackles, thumb screws and branding irons.
In 1788, in what was to be the first mass public petition presented to Parliament, (despite the Mancunian industrialised economy being heavily dependent on slave-picked cotton), a petition against the slave trade with ‘10,639 signatures– more than a fifth of the city’s population’ (Understanding Slavery Institute) demonstrated ‘the moral case for the abolition of slavery, even if this might conflict with the business interests of the city’ (Thomson, 2017, p.320).
Through the pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795), who was a prominent abolitionist supporter, adapting the seal of The Society which depicted a kneeling slave in chains with the motto “Am I not a Man and a Brother”, into medallions, badges, hairpins, brooches, snuffboxes and a variety of other items adorning the image, was ‘one of the earliest examples of a fashion item that was used to support a cause.’ (Wedgewood Museum).
Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), a former slave who was living as a freeman in London, was a prominent figure within the campaign group, the ‘Sons of Africa’, a London based group of 12 educated free black men. In travelling widely to promote his autobiography ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ (1789), which centred on his enslavement, freedom and spiritual Christian awakening, was a bestseller and became the first slave narrative to gain a significant readership. In being courageous, resourceful, literate, cultured and by possessing a Christian ethic which people admired and aspired to, Equiano had the ability to relate at first-hand, the horrors of slavery to help sway public opinion.
Although the abolition movement was overwhelmingly religiously inspired, the Enlightenment of the 17th-18th centuries was also influential. Many Enlightenment thinkers although not directly involved in the abolition movement, rejected the idea of slavery, which they believed to be a direct violation of personal liberty, freedom and natural rights. The Scottish Enlightenment economist, Adam Smith (1723-1790), rejected the ‘mercantilist policies of protectionism that propped up Britain’s Caribbean sugar trade’ (Thomson, 2017, p.314), in favour of the rights, dignity and effectiveness of free labour. This economic argument against slavery was later reflected by Clarkson, who believed that sugar ‘cane can be cultivated by free men…without the importation of another African from the coast’ (Reading 7.2). Furthermore, as Enlightenment ideals heavily influenced The French Revolution (1789-1799), this inspired the slave Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1804), to lead a successful slave revolt in Saint Domingue against French colonial rule, to become the sovereign nation of Haiti in 1804, thus the first country to be founded by former slaves.
As Parliament failed to pass a slave trade abolition bill in 1791, in what was to become the first example of consumers ethically using their purchasing power, William Fox and Martha Gurney, kickstarted the campaign for a sugar boycott, with their pamphlet ‘An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Property of Abstaining from West India Sugar and Rum’ (1791). In stating, ‘the consumption of sugar in this country is so immense, that the quantity commonly used by individuals will have an important effect’ (Fox, (1792 1791), the message appealed to the public consciousness, that by abstaining from slave-grown sugar, they could play a decisive role in pressuring parliament to abolish slavery. Although the politicisation of sugar consumption proved unsuccessful in influencing Parliament, it did lead to approximately ”400,000 people in Britain boycotting slave-grown sugar…whilst others used sugar from the East Indies, where it was produced by free labour’ (The Abolition Project).
The result of 20 years persistent campaigning, was a significant factor towards influencing Parliament with The Slave Trade Act (1807), which abolished the trade in slaves. Although over the next 16 years, there was a lull in anti-slavery activity, ‘because many abolitionists believed that slavery would wither on the vine’ (Thomson, 2017, p.328), The Anti-Slavery Society, was founded in 1823 which campaigned for measures to improve slave conditions in the Caribbean, alongside a plan for gradual emancipation.
In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick (1769-1831), a Quaker philanthropist, published the anti-slavery pamphlet, the ‘Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition’, which changed the landscape of the abolitionist debate, by attacking the preferred abolitionist stance of a gradual emancipation. Like the sugar boycott of 1791, the pamphlet directly appealed to the public consciousness, to ethically abstain from slave grown sugar to encourage Parliament, to grant emancipation. As most anti-slavery pamphlets throughout the history of the abolition movement were published anonymously, this gave women such as Heyrick and Gurney, the opportunity to voice their opinions in an influential manner. Furthemore, alongside being active in grassroots activism, women founded, a number of female anti-slavery associations, who successfully managed to convince The Anti-Slavery Society in 1830, to finally adopt the immediate emancipation stance, that Heyrick advocated for.
Three years later, The Slavery Act (1833) was passed which abolished slavery across the British Empire, (though until 1843, the territories of the East India Company were exempt). Alongside providing compensation to slave-owners, to further recompense any loss of earnings, the government proposed a transitional apprenticeship system, in which ‘slaves would be forced to continue another 12 years without pay’ (BBC). Although compensation and apprenticeships angered many within the abolition movement, Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) (who took over as leader of the abolition movement in parliament after Wilberforce retired in 1825), was successful in negotiating the apprenticeship period being shortened ‘to six years for agricultural workers, four years for domestic workers’ (BBC, to which, the final package for abolition was agreed. However, due to local fears of rebellion and pressure from abolitionist supporters, this led to parliament prematurely abolishing the apprenticeship system in 1838.
In conclusion, despite the foundations of the abolition movement being religiously motivated, throughout the duration of the campaign, the tessellation of strong Christian beliefs and progressive Enlightenment ideals- which championed the rights of the individual, conjoined together to invoke a powerful, anti-slavery message. Furthermore, as the movement possessed a diverse group of supporters, which transcended Christian denomination, race, social class and gender, it had a broad outreach which engaged with the public on a variety of social and print platforms, which was successful in appealing to their moral, religious and ethical consciousness. In addition, the movement was the first pressure group in British history, to gravitate public opinion to apply political pressure in a manner, that to this day, is still utilised by many humanitarian campaign groups to garner attention and support.