1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Movement Against the Slave Trade: England.

(Part 15)


Movement Against the Slave Trade: England.

It may be truly said that from the latter part of the 17th century, when the nature of the slave trade began to be understood by the public, all that was best in England, was adverse to it. Among those who denounced it—besides some whose names are now little known, but are recorded with the honour they deserve in the pages of Clarkson—were Baxter, Sir Richard Steele (in Inkle and Yarico), the poets Southern (in Oroonoko), Pope, Thomson, Shenstone, Dyer, Savage, and above all Cowper (see his Charity, and Task, bk. 2), Thomas Day (author of Sandford and Merton), Sterne, Warburton, Hutcheson, Beattie, John Wesley, Whitfield, Adam Smith, Millar, Robertson, Dr Johnson, Paley, Gregory, Gilbert Wakefield, Bishop Porteus, Dean Tucker. The question of the legal existence of slavery in Great Britain and Ireland Was raised in consequence of an opinion given in 1729 by York and Talbot, attorney-general and solicitor-general at the time, to the effect that a slave by coming into those countries from the West Indies did not become free, and might be compelled by his master to return to the plantations. Chief Justice Holt had expressed a contrary opinion ; and the matter was brought to a final issue by Mr Granville Sharp in the case of the negro Somerset. It was decided by Lord Mansfield, in the name of the whole bench, on June 22d 1772, that as soon as a slave set his foot on the soil of the British islands he became free. In 1776 it was moved in the House of Commons by David Hartley, son of the author of Observations on Man, that "the slave trade was contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men"; but this motion—the first which was made on the subject—failed; public opinion on the question was far from being yet fully ripe.

William Wilberforce image

William Wilberforce

The first persons in England who took united practical action against the slave trade were the Quakers, following the expression of sentiment which had emanated so early as 1671 from their founder George Fox. In 1727 they declared it to be "not a commendable or allowed" practice; in 1761 they excluded from their Society all who should be found concerned in it, and issued appeals to their members and the public against the system. In 1783 there was formed amongst them an association "for the relief and liberation of the negro slaves in the West Indies, and for the discouragement of the slave trade on the coast of Africa." This was the first society established in England for the purpose. The Quakers in America had taken action on the subject still earlier than those in England. The Pennsylvanian Quakers advised their members against the trade in 1696; in 1754 they issued to their brethren a strong dissuasive against encouraging it in any manner; in 1774 all persons concerned in the traffic, and in 1776 all slave holders who would not emancipate their slaves, were excluded from membership. The Quakers in the other American provinces followed the lead of their brethren in Pennsylvania. The individuals amongst the American Quakers who laboured most earnestly and indefatigably on behalf of the Africans were John Woolman (1720-1773) and Anthony Benezet (1713-1784), the latter a son of a French Huguenot driven from France by the revocation of the edict of Nantes. The former confined his efforts chiefly to America and indeed to his coreligionists there; the latter sought, and not without a large measure of success, to found a universal propaganda in favour of abolition. A Pennsylvanian society was formed in 1774 by James Pemberton and Dr Benjamin Rush, and in 1787 (after the war) was reconstructed on an enlarged basis under the presidency of Franklin. Other similar associations were founded about the same time in different parts of the United States. The next important movement took place in England. Dr Peckard, vice-chancellor of the university of Cambridge, who entertained strong convictions against the slave trade, proposed in 1785 as subject for a Latin prize dissertation the question, "An liceat invitos in servitutem dare." Thomas Clarkson resolved to compete for the prize. Reading Anthony Benezet’s Historical Account of Guinea and other works in the course of his study of the subject, he became so powerfully impressed with a sense of the vile and atrocious nature of the traffic that he ere long determined to devote his life to the work of its abolition, a resolution which he nobly kept. His essay, which obtained the first prize, was translated into English in an expanded form by its author, and published in 1786 with the title Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. In the process of its publication he was brought into contact with several persons already deeply interested in the question; amongst others with Granville Sharp, William Dillwyn (an American by birth, who had known Benezet), and the Rev. James Ramsay, who had lived nineteen years in St Christopher, and had published an Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of the African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies. The distribution of Clarkson’s book led to his forming connexions with many persons of influence, and especially with William Wilberforce, who, having already occupied himself with the subject, went fully into the evidence bearing on it which Clarkson laid before him, and, as the result of his inquiries, undertook the parliamentary conduct of the movement which was now decisively inaugurated. A committee was formed on 22d May 1787 for the abolition of the slave trade, under the presidency of Granville Sharp, which after twenty years of labour succeeded, with the help of eminent public men, in effecting the object of its foundation, and thus removing a grave blot on the character of the British nation, and mitigating one of the greatest evils that ever afflicted humanity. It is unquestionable that the principal motive power which originated and sustained their efforts was Christian principle and feeling. The most earnest and unremitting exertions were made by the persons so associated in investigating facts and collecting evidence, in forming branch committees and procuring petitions, in the instruction of the public and in the information and support of those who pleaded the cause in parliament. To the original members were afterwards added several remarkable persons, amongst whom were Josiah Wedgwood, Bennet Langton (Dr Johnson’s friend), and, later, Zachary Macaulay, Henry Brougham, and James Stephen.

In consequence of the numerous petitions presented to parliament, a committee of privy council was appointed by the crown in 1788 to inquire concerning the slave trade ; and Mr Pitt moved that the House of Commons should early in the next session take the subject into consideration. Wilberforce’s first motion for a committee of the whole House upon the question was made on 19th March 1789, and this committee proceeded to business on 12th May of the same year. After an admirable speech, Wilberforce laid on the table twelve resolutions which were intended as the basis of a future motion for the abolition of the trade. The discussion of these was postponed to the next session, and in 1790-91 evidence was taken upon them. At length, on 18th April of the latter year, a motion was made for the introduction of a bill to prevent the further importation of slaves into the British colonies in the West Indies. Opinion had been prejudiced by the insurrections in St Domingo and Martinique, and in the British island of Dominica; and the motion was defeated by 163 votes against 88. Legislative sanction was, however, given to the establishment of the Sierra Leone Company, for the colonization of a district on the west coast of Africa and the discouragement of the slave trade there. It was hoped at the time that that place would become the centre from which the civilization of Africa would proceed; but this expectation was not fulfilled. On 2d April 1792 Wilberforce again moved that the trade ought to be abolished; an amendment in favour of gradual abolition was carried, and it was finally resolved that the trade should cease on 1st January 1796. When a similar motion was brought forward in the Lords the consideration of it was postponed to the following year, in order to give time for the examination of witnesses by a committee of the House. A bill in the Commons in the following year to abolish that part of the trade by which British merchants supplied foreign settlements with slaves was lost on the third reading; it was renewed in the Commons in 1794 and carried there, but defeated in the Lords. Then followed several years during which efforts were made by the abolitionists in parliament with little success. But in 1806, Lord Grenville and Fox having come into power, a bill was passed in both Houses to put an end to the British slave trade for foreign supply, and to forbid the importation of slaves into the colonies won by the British arms in the course of the war. On 10th June of the same year Fox brought forward a resolution "that effectual measures should be taken for the abolition of the African slave trade in such a manner and at such a period as should be deemed advisable," which was carried by a large majority.

A similar resolution was successful in the House of Lords. A bill was then passed through both Houses forbidding the employment of any new vessel in the trade. Finally, in 1807, a bill was presented by Lord Grenville in the House of Lords providing for the abolition of the trade, was passed by a large majority, was then sent to the Commons (where it was moved by Lord Howick), was there amended and passed, and received the royal assent on 25th March. The bill enacted that no vessel should clear out for slaves from any port within the British dominions after 1st May 1807, and that no slave should be landed in the colonies after 1st March 1808.

In 1807 the African Institution was formed, with the primary objects of keeping a vigilant watch on the slave traders and procuring, if possible, the abolition of the slave trade by the other European nations. It was also to be made an instrument for promoting the instruction of the negro races and diffusing information respecting the agricultural and commercial capabilities of the African continent.

The Act of 1807 was habitually violated, as the traders knew that, if one voyage in three was successful, they were abundantly remunerated for their losses. This state of things, it was plain, must continue as long as the trade was only a contraband commerce, involving merely pecuniary penalties. Accordingly, in 1811, Brougham carried through parliament a bill declaring the traffic to be a felony punishable with transportation. Some years later another Act was passed, making it a capital offence; but this was afterwards repealed. The law of 1811 proved effectual, and brought the slave trade to an end so far as the British dominions were concerned. Mauritius, indeed, continued it for a time. That island, which had been ceded by France in 1810, three years after the abolition, had special facilities for escaping observation in consequence of the proximity of the African coast; but it was soon obliged to conform.

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