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Radicals and rebels behind the abolition of slavery

This article is over 16 years, 10 months old
The forces that abolished slavery rose up from below – and gave birth to today’s social justice movements, writes historian Adam Hochschild
Issue 2043
Thomas Clarkson
Thomas Clarkson

In the coming months, it will be hard to turn on the television or pick up a newspaper in Britain without seeing some mention of the 200th anniversary of parliament’s abolition of the slave trade. A flood of forums, lecture series, museum exhibitions and commemorative ceremonies are also marking this event.

But the real heroes and heroines of British abolition are not the members of a very unrepresentative parliament who finally, after much prodding, voted to end the traffic in human beings.

The people we should really be remembering include the resourceful, determined activists who for some 20 years campaigned to get parliament to make this historic move. And after this victory, they kept on agitating for another 25 years until parliament finally voted to abolish British slavery altogether.

There’s another group of people going largely unremembered this year – the slaves themselves. A series of slave revolts in the West Indies had considerable influence on what happened in Britain – and a decisive effect on parliament’s vote in 1833 to finally free the slaves of the British Empire.

If we were to pick a spot where the British side of this movement began, it would be a Quaker bookstore and printing shop at 2 George Yard, a small courtyard in London’s City financial district. George Yard is still there today, a few minutes’ walk from Bank tube station, though the building has long since been demolished.

The Quakers were the only religious denomination in Britain that took a principled stand against slavery. During the 18th century they had known something of prison and persecution themselves.

On the late afternoon of 22 May 1787, after the press workers and typesetters had gone home for the day, 12 men filed through the doors of the shop.

They formed themselves into a committee with what must have seemed to their fellow Londoners a hopelessly idealistic and impractical aim – ending the British slave trade.

This business was dominated by British ships, which at that point carried about half the slaves taken to the New World. Starting a movement in Britain to outlaw this trade in 1787 was as utopian a task as starting a renewable energy movement in Saudi Arabia today.

Throughout history, of course, slaves and other oppressed people have periodically staged uprisings. But the movement that grew out of the George Yard meeting was unprecedented in that it was the first time a large number of people in one country became outraged over the plight of other people, of another colour, in another part of the world.

Across the barriers

In a sense, all modern movements for social justice sprung from this moment. And if we cannot figure out ways to engender such feelings of identification with the oppression of others, across the barriers of class, ethnicity, nationality and geography, there is not much hope for the human race.

The anti-slavery movement took off immediately, in a way that earlier scattered efforts never had. One reason was that this was a point in time midway between the American war of independence and the French Revolution – and a lot of heady new ideas about human freedom were in the air.

Petitions against the slave trade flooded parliament, which the following year took the timid first step of regulating conditions on slave ships. Slavery became the prime topic of the London debating societies.

In a seven-year period, the committee’s firebrand travelling organiser Thomas Clarkson rode 35,000 miles by horseback throughout England, Scotland and Wales, setting up local anti-slavery committees.

No one was more astonished than the powerful slave owners’ lobby, which had previously only concerned itself with sugar tariffs and the like.

“The press teems with pamphlets upon this subject, and my table is covered with them,” wrote Stephen Fuller, London agent for the Jamaican planters, in despair to his employers. “The stream of popularity runs against us.”

Although the abolitionist leaders and organisers were almost all middle and upper class, a few, like Clarkson, were radical sympathisers with the French Revolution. One remarkable aspect of the movement was that it cut across class boundaries. Working class people quickly identified with the plight of the slaves.

Some of the petitions coming into parliament were signed by every literate inhabitant of a small town or village. Some 769 metalworkers in Sheffield petitioned parliament in 1789 against the slave trade.

“Cutlery wares,” they wrote, “are being sent in considerable quantities to the coast of Africa as the price of slaves. Your petitioners may be supposed to be prejudiced in their interests if the said trade in slaves should be abolished.

“But your petitioners, having always understood that the natives of Africa have the greatest aversion to foreign slavery, consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own.”

One reason the abolitionist campaigners were so successful was their imagination in finding new ways to convey their message. As well as the traditional tools of books and pamphlets, they boldly seized on what might be called the “new media” of the day.

In 1788 a local anti-slavery committee in Plymouth created a diagram of a slave ship, based on a real ship, the Brookes of Liverpool. You have probably seen this now famous image, with its top-down view of a slave ship’s decks showing slaves packed together in rows like sardines.

As soon as the London committee realised what a powerful image this was, they ran off 8,000 copies and put them up in pubs all over England. This was almost certainly the world’s first widely distributed political poster – a tool we still use today.

A new member of the committee, the pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood, created a seal for the movement – a kneeling slave in chains, surrounded by the legend, “Am I not a man and a brother?” It rapidly appeared on coat buttons, hatpins, and women’s jewellery, and was probably the first logo ever specifically designed for a political movement.

The very idea of a national committee agitating for a cause, with its headquarters in the nation’s capital, in communication with local chapters in cities around the country, was then a relatively new one. It certainly had never previously been undertaken in such a sophisticated way.

Today almost every campaigning organisation – working on any issue from stopping the war in Iraq to justice for labour – uses the same model.

In 1791 the movement developed a new tactic. Hundreds of thousands of people began boycotting West Indian sugar – the principal product grown by slaves. This was the first widespread, well-organised consumer boycott – another tool we still use today.

Significantly, it was a tactic that sprang up from the grassroots. The abolition committee in London, though sympathetic, never officially endorsed the boycott because it was opposed by the deeply conservative William Wilberforce MP, leader of the anti-slavery forces in parliament.

The boycott was an especially important advance in political campaigning because the people who made the decisions about what food to buy for a household were almost always women.

Women could not vote or hold public office – so this was the first time large numbers of British women could make their voices heard politically.

An anti-slave trade speech at a London debating society a few years earlier is believed to be the first public political speech by a woman (other than a queen) outside a religious meeting in Britain.

The British slave trade was abolished in 1807. When it became evident that British slavery itself was not going to wither away and die as a result, the movement revived in the 1820s, pushing for the emancipation of the slaves.

The hardy organiser Thomas Clarkson – now in his 60s – took to the road again, travelling for 13 months around the country by stagecoach. Women were profoundly important in this phase of the movement too.

Inspired by the outspoken radical Quaker pamphleteer Elizabeth Heyrick, more than 70 “ladies’ anti-slavery societies”, as they were called, took root – and they were almost always more radical than their male equivalents.

The all-male national anti-slavery society believed that pressing for gradual emancipation was the only way to get a bill through parliament. But under pressure from the women, it finally changed its position in 1830 to one of demanding immediate freedom.

High point

Anti-slavery campaigning reached a high point during and after the 1832 general election. Lecturers toured the country talking to huge crowds, sometimes displaying props such as slave whips. Activists published adverts showing where rival parliamentary candidates stood on slavery – for, against, or undecided.

The anti-slavery lobby staged huge mass meetings, a street demonstration and a march on 10 Downing Street.

Working class organisations – who were now starting to agitate over issues such as child labour and factory conditions – saw the connections between the slaves and their own lives. They paraded during the election campaign with signs that read “End slavery at home and abroad.”

At the same time – and partly inspired by rumours of the campaigning going on in Britain itself – some 20,000 Jamaican slaves led by Samuel Sharpe staged a huge uprising in 1831, the largest ever seen in British territory.

They seized much of the northwest corner of the island, then Britain’s largest slave colony, and burned 100 plantations to the ground.

It took the British army and the local militia a month to put down the revolt, at the cost of the lives of more than 500 slaves who died fighting or were executed soon after. Significantly, officials returning to Britain testified before parliament that they expected further slave revolts – and that they might have even more difficulty suppressing them.

There is no question that the Jamaica revolt helped push parliament in 1833 to vote to emancipate the slaves, a measure that took effect in 1838.

The plantation owners still owned the plantations, however, and were buttressed economically by the “compensation” for their freed slaves that parliament had voted to give them.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 set aside an astonishing £20 million in compensation for slave owners – roughly £50 billion in today’s money.

But not everyone lived happily ever after. There was no compensation for the ex-slaves, who now found themselves having to pay rent to their landlords for the miserable huts they occupied and taxes to the government.

Most of them had little choice but to continue working in the sugar cane fields. The class structure of the West Indian islands did not change.

Even today the ownership of land and wealth on islands like Jamaica is skewed heavily in favour of the descendants of plantation owners rather than those who are the descendants of slaves.

Nonetheless, the emancipation of Britain’s slaves was a huge step forward. It gave hope to millions of other slaves throughout the Americas – though the largest group of these, in the southern US, would have to wait another quarter century for their freedom, and those in Cuba and Brazil still longer.

But a struggle for justice anywhere in this very unequal world of ours is one that takes decades and sometimes centuries. The efforts that began in Britain some 200 years ago over the plight of some the most oppressed people on earth are still well worth remembering, learning from, and celebrating.

Adam Hochschild is the author of Bury the Chains: the British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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