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Slavery and abolition

For over four hundred years, from the mid-fifteenth century, Europeans enslaved millions of Africans through the transatlantic slave trade. It is thought that over 12 million Africans were loaded onto slave ships and that over three million died.

Transatlantic slave trade

Cross-section of the slave ship, 'Brookes'

Ships from Europe took goods to West and Central Africa where they were traded for African people. Most of the enslaved Africans were captured in battle or were kidnapped, but some were sold for debt or as a punishment. The captives were marched to the coast, often enduring journeys lasting weeks in shackles and chains.

The voyage across the Atlantic generally took six to eight weeks. Conditions were appalling in the packed and unhealthy ship holds, and up to one in five died. Uprisings were common, but were violently suppressed.

In the Americas, the captive Africans were sold into slavery to work on plantations, in mines and in a variety of skilled and unskilled tasks. Owners treated them with brutality and with disregard for their lives. The ships came back to Europe laden with goods which helped support a growing economy.

British ships made about 11,000 slaving voyages. Liverpool, London and Bristol accounted for 95 per cent of these voyages.

Words by Tony Tibbles. Copyright Royal Mail Group plc 2007

Path to abolition

Until the 19th century, slavery was considered an acceptable part of the economic system, enabling many countries in Europe and beyond to profit and prosper from the trade of goods produced by enslaved labour.

Concern about the slave trade and the treatment of African people started to become a social issue in the 1760s. People from all walks of life, (including former enslaved Africans such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, parliamentarians such as William Wilberforce, church leaders Thomas Clarkson and the Clapham Set and British citizens) signed petitions, marched, lobbied and prayed for change.

Many will already know a little about those great heroes of the abolition movement, such as William Wilberforce or Thomas Clarkson, but it is clear that the abolition of the slave trade wasn’t only the work of a few parliamentarians and members of the church. It was a grass-roots movement, similar in its day to the tens of thousands that joined the campaign to abolish apartheid in South Africa. People of courage and principle who chose to make their voices heard when it might have been unpopular to do so.

Slavery and abolition – key events

  • 1562 First English slaving expedition by Sir John Hawkins
  • 1619 First record of Africans landing in Virginia
  • 1625 First English settlement on Barbados
  • 1626 First boatload of African slaves to St Kitts
  • 1631 Charles I granted monopoly on Guinea trade to a group of London merchants
  • 1672 Royal Africa company granted charter to carry Africans to the Americas
  • 1772 The Somerset case held that no slave could be forcibly removed from Britain; the case led to the widespread belief that slavery itself was illegal in England, Wales and Ireland
  • 1778 Slavery declared illegal in Scotland
  • 1781 133 African slaves thrown overboard from the slave ship, 'Zong'
  • 1783 Committee on the Slave Trade established by Quakers’ Meeting for Sufferings
  • 1787 Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade founded: Granville Sharp as president of a mostly Quaker committee
  • 1791 23 August – St Domingue (Haiti) slave revolt
  • 1792 Resolution for gradual abolition of the slave trade defeated in the House of Lords
  • 1805 Bill for Abolition passed in Commons, rejected in House of Lords
  • 1807 25 March – Slave Trade Abolition Bill passed in the British Parliament
  • 1807 British West Africa Squadron (Royal Navy) established to suppress slave trading; by 1865, nearly 150,000 people freed by anti-slavery operations
  • 1815 End of Napoleonic Wars - at the Congress of Vienna, Britain puts pressure on France, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain to abolish slave trade
  • 1838 1 August – enslaved men, women and children in the Caribbean finally become free after a period of forced apprenticeship, following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833
  • 1842 Britain and United States signed Webster-Ashburton Treaty, banning slave trade on high seas
  • 1848 Emancipation by the French of their slaves
  • 1865 Slavery finally abolished in the United States territories
  • 1888 Slavery abolished in Brazil

More useful links

Information about the slave trade

Information about Parliament's role in the abolition of slavery on the UK Parliament's slavery abolition website

Download, 'Reflecting on the past and looking to the future' - a pamphlet produced to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire

Information on the role of the Royal Navy in the abolition of the slave trade

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