Although in the late 1700s the British parliament appeared full of slave trade supporting MPs, not for the first time the politicians in the House would soon be out of touch with public opinion. The Quakers’ excellence for organization saw the mass distribution of antislavery reports, pamphlets and essays throughout the country.
Similarly, because Britain was far from a literate society at that time, public talks and meetings were organized in towns and cities to hammer home the abolitionist message. Committees were also established up and down the country and what began as a meeting of 12 men soon developed into a national movement involving thousands of men and women.
Additionally, the antislavery movement included Africans such as Olaudah Equiano, who in 1789 published his autobiography before embarking on a national tour in order to promote both his work and the antislavery cause. Equiano’s travels would take him to the four corners of the British Isles and make him the most well known African of his time, speaking out passionately against the evils of the slave trade and slavery. His friend Quobna Ottobah Cugoano also joined Equiano in the growing abolitionist movement.
Cugoano was born in what is now Ghana in the 1750s. Like many of his peers, he was enslaved and taken to the West Indian island of Grenada. His master brought him to England during which time he obtained his freedom. Similar to Equiano, he was a man of faith and was baptized in 1773 as a sign of both his newly discovered freedom and his belief in Jesus Christ. Unlike Equiano, however, he chose to call himself ‘John Stuart’ – the name he took after his baptism.
Unlike many of his white counterparts, Cugoano called for the immediate emancipation of all Africans, as well as the ending of the slave trade. Another noted African freedom fighter was Ignatius Sancho, who was born on a slave ship, and whose letters and writings against slavery made him a noted figure in the abolition movement. He was also reported to be the first known African-Britain to vote in a British election.
The work of these African freedom fighters was also important because it dispelled many of the misconceptions that white people held about Africans at the time. In some British people’s minds, Africans were either ‘savages’, ‘pagans’ or similar to ‘children without opinions’, and yet here were Equiano and his friends, helping to totally debunk these theories through powerful, articulate speeches and witty, forceful letters. The British public turned out in good numbers to hear Equiano speak. Through his book-tour and accompanying speeches, he was able with other abolitionists to make the British public aware of the cruelty of the slave trade. Their combined efforts resulted in the abolitionist-instigated boycott of slave-produced West Indian sugar. Most people today associate boycotts with a refusal to purchase items from questionable foreign regimes or dubious corporate business practices but in the 1790s, the sugar boycott was against sugar grown in the British West Indies. The boycott was arguably the first mass refusal by British people to purchase a product and it captured the imagination of rich and poor alike who drank their hot beverages without the sweetening aid.
One of the amazing aspects of the movement was the way that it cut across boundaries of class, gender and ethnicity and produced a hitherto unknown form of solidarity. The urban poor labouring in factories, for example, could identify with the exploitation of Africans. The 18th century was one of rapid transformation where country gave way to town, and agricultural was matched by industrial. A series of inventions during the century enabled the industrialization of spinning and weaving and heralded the rise of factories and industrialized towns. Workers in these new factories often faced 80-hour weeks with children frequently forming the backbone of this new labour force. Death and maiming were common occurrences at these factories – the factory reforms and the movement for greater workers’ rights would only occur in the 19th century.
In Britain, the late 18th century was characterised by the birth of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of work-related exploitation. Although British workers were not slaves, factory owners brutalized them in their attempt to increase both production and profits. Moreover, enslaved Africans and Lancashire workers were inextricably linked by cotton; Africans grew the cotton in North America, which was then transported to Britain where textile workers turned the material into products, which were subsequently exported to Africa and the Americas.
Women could also relate to the powerlessness felt by the Africans in servitude, especially African women. According to the academic Vron Ware, ‘women were ready to link their own subordination with that of black people by referring to the Christian ideal of inner strength that might be possessed by the physically and mentally weak...’ In fact, the first novel ever written by a woman, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko or the Royal Slave, which was published in 1688, dealt with the subject of slavery. The novel dealt with a handsome African prince, Oroonoko, who is captured, enslaved and taken to Surinam in South America. While there, he leads a rebellion, which is brutally put down by local whites. Oroonoko is defiant to the last, even smoking his pipe while being chopped to death.
The book was a bestseller for its time and helped to change certain perceptions about Africans, especially African men, by downplaying the traditional emphasis on the ‘savage’ and highlighting the fact that Africans could be romantic and knew all about ‘love and loss’.
Events on the other side of the channel had always cast a long shadow over British affairs. The French were not only rivals in war but also in commerce. By the 1780s, they had possession of St Domingue, the smaller section of the island of Hispaniola, which was at the time the most productive and financially lucrative sugar-based economy in the world. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, was always concerned that Britain should not end its participation in slave trading without a similar agreement from France and was especially worried that Britain’s removal from the slave trade would leave the door open for its French rivals to monopolize the slave trade.
However, in 1789 France was overtaken by a revolution preaching liberty, equality and fraternity. However, the French Revolution would lose its appeal for many in Britain and within a few years after the initial heady days of revolt, the highminded revolutionary principles had dissipated into a frenzy of violence and revenge. This resulted in an obvious loss of support from the wealthy in British society and the Revolution helped to split the well-formed alliances as well as the abolitionist movement itself. The conservative abolitionists were particularly alarmed by events in France and feared that it would stoke up similar sentiments in Britain. Believing in a divine order of society, and not wanting to lose their own heads, conservative abolitionists denounced the Revolution as seditious and looked to curtail the ire of their more revolutionary colleagues.
The real blow to the more radical abolitionists came with the revolution in St Domingue, a disaster waiting to happen. A careful analysis of most slave societies will reveal that all were subject to both passive and active resistance, and outright uprisings – although not common – did occur in these societies. The St Domingue rebellion was notable, however, because it was fuelled by ideas emanating from revolutionary France, which provided a political framework to an activity that was usually characterized by wanton violence. This particular revolution was also noted for its barbarity, during which the Africans mercilessly slaughtered whites in their struggle to free themselves from an equally brutal system.
Public opinion in Britain was firmly behind the unfortunate white elite in St Domingue and the London-based Society of West Indian Planters and Merchants wasted no time in using the violence and destruction as confirmation of the maligned influence of the abolitionists. They called on all ‘right-minded’ abolitionists (those with conservative tendencies and overseas properties) to identify with the losses suffered by the French property owning classes in St Domingue, which obviously included sugar planters.
Most British abolitionists wanted to free the Africans with conditions attached so that after the slavery system was dismantled, real power still remained in the hands of the colonial (white) masters. It was the case that most abolitionists, despite their relative progressiveness, were still either unconditioned or reluctant to perceive Africans as the agents of their own freedom. Similarly, the writings of Revd Raymond Harris, a clergyman with the knack of twisting the most innocuous of Bible verses in order to justify slavery, came into their own during this period.
Harris’s writings were not only a rebuke for those trying to use the Bible to condemn the slave trade, but also his considered response on the idea that there was little contradiction between the scriptures and enslavement. Harris’s arguments were published in a book that was dedicated to Liverpool’s mayor as well as aldermen, bailiffs and councilmen, all of whom had direct links to the slave trade, giving rise to the rumour that Harris had been paid by slave trading interests to write the book. Harris’ work was extremely well received and sold well in the late 1780s.
Not all Christians shared Harris’ ideas. The great evangelical founder of Methodism, John Wesley, had denounced slavery in no uncertain terms in his 1774 treatise Thoughts on Slavery and had encouraged Wilberforce in his work. Wilberforce needed this as the debates on the slave trade were taking place within parliament and the abolitionists had found themselves on the back foot due to the St Domingue Revolution. Slave trade supporting parliamentarians such as the Liverpudlian former war hero Banastre Tarleton argued that the work of the abolitionists would result in similar St Domingue revolutionary-like scenarios. The abolitionists lost the vote and their defeat received a literal ringing endorsement from the churches in Bristol whose bells rejoiced in celebration.
Chief among the Christian abolitionists were the ‘Clapham Sect’, a group of wealthy Church of England evangelicals who lived in the leafy village of Clapham, South London in the late eighteenth century. The Clapham Sect took an interest in a range of social reform activities, including the ending of the slave trade. Wilberforce was part of the group, and the Sect was the living embodiment of his ‘twin objects’ – the ending of the slave trade and the reformation of manners (moral values).
Other prime movers in the group included Granville Sharp, Zachary Macaulay, who went on to be Governor of Sierra Leone, James Stephen who was a lawyer and Henry Thornton, who was MP for Southwark. All members were as much concerned with the Africans’ spiritual well-being as they were about ending the slave trade.
From their ‘spiritual’ base at Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common, they planned and strategized how to improve society’s apparent moral and social failings – as typified by William Hogarth’s paintings of the era. Much has been written about the Victorians, their values and the work they carried out among the poor. In truth, it was Georgian Christians such as the Clapham Sect who were the standard bearers of a new type of social and moral agitation. It is possible to see today the legacy of the Clapham Sect’s work through the Sunday School movement.
These establishments were indicative of their activities among the urban poor; lashings of scripture accompanied by healthy doses of lectures on good behaviour. When not focusing on the earthly and spiritual well-being of Britons, the Sect acted as the forerunner for the more strategic British missionary work that was to take place in Africa and Asia during the nineteenth century. Members of the Clapham Sect helped to establish the Bible Society, Church Mission Society and a whole host of philanthropic groups.
The Clapham Sect would have looked on in horror though as they saw the situation in France quickly deteriorate. Many within the group had been in favour of the Revolution initially, but they probably revolted at its departure from the heady ideals of 1789 to the tyranny and violence of the mid 1790s. The situation in France openly questioned the priorities and principals of all within Britain and Prime Minister Pitt argued that he had to overlook the slavery question due to the pressing issue of protecting his country from a workers-led revolution and French designs on Britain. Additionally, with one eye on the finances, he weighed up the possibilities of a British invasion of the slave-free state of St Domingue in order to reinstate European colonial rule on that section of the island. Pitt knew that St Domingue had been France’s most lucrative West Indian colony and he wanted it to become a similar moneyspinner for Britain. In 1794, the financial arguments won out and Britain embarked on an ill-fated attempted to capture St Domingue, soon to experience a similar fate to the French forces. Wilberforce found himself faced with a choice between two equally unsatisfactory options and appeared compromised by events beyond his control. He refused to condemn the British invasion of St Domingue, even though if successful would reinstate slavery and domestically, sided with laws that suppressed seditious activity.
Although he considered himself an independent in regards to his parliamentary voting record, Wilberforce was a conservative at heart and as such was deeply opposed to any activity threatening king or country.
Consequently, he supported Pitt’s Gagging Acts, which banned meetings of over 50 people, and instructed local magistrates to arrest anyone suspected of spreading seditious libel. He also sided with the Combination Acts, which prevented the formation of trade unions among the workers.
The hopes of the abolitionists coincided with a changing mood in Britain – even among conservative parliamentarians – believing that the slave trade was not in keeping with British pretensions as the world’s leading moral and cultural force. The efforts to end the slave trade appeared in keeping with Britain’s so-called historic role as the true bastion of freedom and champion of human rights. In the early nineteenth century, many in Britain believed that the ending of the slave trade was wholly compatible with other ambitions such as being the world’s leading industrial nation. MP James Stephen used his in-depth knowledge of maritime law and familiarity with the slave trade to argue that slavery was against Britain’s ultimate economic interests. With Wilberforce’s assistance, he raised the issue in a parliament that had become increasingly receptive to the abolitionist message. The apologists countered with their usual suggestion that Britain’s withdrawal would serve the financial interests of its rivals, namely France. However, this argument carried less weight after 1804 when St Domingue became an independent nation, called Haiti, and free from both slavery and French domination.
The slave trading apologists came out fighting, mounting a desperate campaign to safeguard their threatened financial interests. They took out adverts in the press, urged their parliamentarians to use every opportunity to speak in favour of the trade and especially promote the numerous economic benefits of slave trading. But the abolitionists countered with a propaganda campaign of their own which included thousands of petitions, showing that the great British public was now firmly against the slave trade.
The death of William Pitt in 1806 also worked in the abolitionists’ favour. A new prime minister was also the ideal stimulus for the abolition campaign and Lord Grenville wasted no time in overseeing the passing of the Importation Restriction Bill in 1806, which upheld many of Stephen’s proposals.
The way was now open for the eventual ending of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. In desperation, the slave trade lobby mounted one last defence, pointing out that the trade was still a lucrative proposition and that ships leaving Liverpool made handsome profits of £15,000 a time. In the Lords, the Duke of Clarence, Lord Hawkesbury and others of a similar mindset were mobilized to end the madness. However, the abolitionists had won the argument and the bill to end British involvement in the slave trade was passed by 283 votes to 16; King George III, often described as ‘mad’ by his critics, gave it Royal Assent on 25th March 1807.
Richard Reddie is the project director of set all free, the Churches Together in England campaign looking to highlight the significance of the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.
Adapted with permission from Abolition! by Richard S Reddie published by Lion £9.99 (ISBN 978074595229).