Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade

… slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms …”

Article 4, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948


  1. Introduction
  2. Abolition of the Slave Trade
  3. End of Legal Slavery and International Mobilisation
  4. Video: Royal Navy Enforces Abolition
  5. Postscript:  Women Abolitionists and the Racist Response
  6. Modern Day Slavery
  7. Materials on Abolition
  8. Materials on Modern Slavery


Is the abolition of foreignness possible?  Was the abolition of the slave trade and legal slavery in most parts of the world or the emancipation of women possible?  Was it possible to overcome the ingrained racism of the early twentieth century?  This web page explores the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery as a case study in overcoming ingrained practices which had lasted for hundreds of years, underpinned by industries practising and depending on the slavery.  The emancipation of women and the eradication of racism present similar case studies.  Below we explore modern manifestations of slavery.

Abolition of the Slave Trade

In 1783 in Britain, and most of the world, slavery was an accepted and legal practice. 

Sick slave being thrown overboardIn that year, a case was heard before the British courts.  The insurer of the slave ship Zong, which carried African slaves from Africa to the Americas, refused to pay a claim for “lost cargo”.  That lost cargo was more than 100 sick slaves that had been thrown overboard by the ship’s captain, so that their value could be claimed against the insurers.  If the slaves had died of natural causes (their sickness), no claim could be brought against the insurers.  The insurers won their case.  Efforts to bring murder charges against the ship owners failed.  The slaves were not human beings they were goods.

Thomas Clarkson later in life.The growing realisation by a small number of people of the horror of slavery, and the brutality of the slave trade led to action.  Lawyers like Granville Sharp worked for changes to the law.  Former slaves like Olaudah Equiano wrote their stories and worked for freedom.  The Quakers had campaigned in North America and Britain against slavery for almost a century.  In 1783 British Quakers petitioned parliament for abolition of the trade.  In 1785 Peter Peckard, the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University set a Latin Essay on the topic Is it Right to Make Slaves of Others Against their Will?  A young man of 24 named Thomas Clarkson entered the competition and won.  What he learned was to change his life, which he devoted to abolition of the slave trade.  He and others, after a struggle of almost 20 years achieved their goal and abolished the trade.  Later he wrote about the effect the essay competition had on him:

… the subject of it almost wholly engrossed my thoughts. I became at times very seriously affected while upon the road. I stopped my horse occasionally, and dismounted and walked. I frequently tried to persuade myself in these intervals that the contents of my Essay could not be true. The more however I reflected upon them, or rather upon the authorities on which they were founded, the more I gave them credit. Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end. Agitated in this manner I reached home.

Abolition Campaign ImageShortly after the essay competition, Clarkson and others formed the “Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” which began a sustained campaign for the laws to ban the slave trade.  Their work was one of the world’s first true human rights campaigns and many of the techniques they used are still basic to human rights work:  letter campaigns, trade boycotts, submissions and petitions to parliament, collecting evidence of violations, distribution of promotional materials like medallions.

William Wilberforce parliamentary leader of abolitionThe campaign met with early success.  It looked like parliament would support the abolitionists.  Then the slave industry mobilised against.  They claimed that slaves were well treated, that the slave trade didn’t involve brutality, that the Africans were less human than others.  Year after year they defeated the best efforts of the abolitionists.  Parliamentarians supporting the cause, like William Wilberforce, were isolated and in a minority.  The war against Napoleon intervened and the abolitionists were regarded with suspicion as potential revolutionaries.

Eventually the war ended, and the campaign began again in earnest.  Finally in 1807, 18 years after the bill was first moved, the British Parliament adopted the Slave Trade Act, abolishing the slave trade.  The same year, showing the international nature of the campaign, the United States Congress also adopted a Bill abolishing the trade.  Slavery of course continued.

Clarkson wrote a history of the abolition campaign explaining why he felt it was important to write the account.

“For it cannot be otherwise than useful to us to know the means which have been used, and the different persons who have moved, in so great a cause. It cannot be otherwise than useful to us to be impressively reminded of the simple axiom, which the perusal of this history will particularly suggest to us, that “the greatest works must have a beginning;” because the fostering of such an idea in our minds cannot but encourage us to undertake the removal of evils, however vast they may appear in their size, or however difficult to overcome. It cannot again be otherwise than useful to us to be assured (and this history will assure us of it) that in any work, which is a work of righteousness, however small the beginning may be, or however small the progress may be that we may make in it, we ought never to despair; for that, whatever checks and discouragements we may meet with, “no virtuous effort is ever ultimately lost.” And finally, it cannot be otherwise than useful to us to form the opinion, which the contemplation of this subject must always produce, namely, that many of the evils, which are still left among us, may, by an union of wise and virtuous individuals, be greatly alleviated, if not entirely done away: for if the great evil of the Slave-trade, so deeply entrenched by its hundred interests, has fallen prostrate before the efforts of those who attacked it, what evil of a less magnitude shall not be more easily subdued?

Clarkson’s words give a sense of the magnitude of the struggle and the magnitude of the achievement.  They also remind us that the achievement of social change begins with ordinary people doing what they can, but equally that the price of change is generations of dedicated work

End of Legal Slavery and International Mobilisation

Worldwide Progress of Abolition of Slavery and Serfdom

It is remarkable but nonetheless true that the naval forces of the British Empire (initially the greatest slave trading nation) were to be sent in the course of time to suppress the slave trade in African waters.  Abolitionists in Britain having achieved the abolition of the slave trade then worked to bring about the entire abolition of slavery in the British Empire.  This was achieved by 1833 with the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act.  The abolitionists also campaigned for the adoption of international treaties against slavery and most countries individually as well as collectively progressively abolished legal slavery over the course of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.  The American Civil War was instrumental in the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Royal Navy Role in Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Postscript:  Women Abolitionist and the Racist Response

After the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, the next major confrontation between slavers and abolitionists occurred in the United States.  Women played a major role in the abolition struggle in North America, and as one of the abolitionist women, Abby Kelly Foster commented “In striving to strike off his chains, we found most surely we were chained ourselves.”  It was abolitionist women who realizing that women were not free themselves began the organised movement for the emancipation of women in North America.

As the abolitionists campaigned with images and materials calling for freedom of the slaves and asserting the equality of all men, the slave owners responding with material that we would recognise today as racist:  cartoons and caricatures of Africans and the beginnings of white supremacy.  The response to abolition in North America was therefore an important source of modern racism.

Modern Slavery

Despite the legal abolition of slavery in the entire world, and its recognition today as a crime against humanity, slavery and slave like practices continue in the modern day, with an estimated 27,000,000 illegally held as slaves.  The main forms of modern slavery are associated with people trafficking by international criminal groups.  Such trafficking continues in the context of laws criminalising the crossing of international boundaries.  A number of organisations including the Anti-slavery Society continued to campaign against modern day slavery.  Organisations such as the Anti-Slavery Society and Free the Slaves.

Modern slavery significantly feeds on laws which criminalize the crossing of international borders.  Slavers often prey on individuals desire for a better life in other countries to lure their victims into slavery.  Laws which threaten the enslaved with expulsion if they are found in a country illegally contribute to their isolation and powerlessness to free themselves from slavery.  As observed by US Ambassador at Large on Modern Day Slavery (04-06), “In most countries, what distinguishes the victims is not their color but their foreignness or otherness” (The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2008 p 52).

Materials on Abolition

  1. Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament Volume 1 (1808) (pdf 1MB)
  2. Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade Volume 2 (pdf 1MB)
  3. Amazing Grace – a movie dramatisation of work to abolish the slave trade produced in 2007 to mark the 200th anniversary of abolition.

Materials on Modern Slavery

  1. Call it Slavery:  Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2008, p 52 by John R. Miller

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *