Abolition of Slavery
The Abolition movement started in the latter quarter of the 18th Century, and was one of the earliest examples of a pressure group, petitioning government, business and voter alike in order to force the issue. Slaves had been dehumanised for centuries. Taken from their homeland in Africa was only the beginning. Conditions on board slave ships were abominable. Men were stacked in conditions unfit for livestock, and traded as commodities. Runaways were commonplace. One such runaway, James Somerset, created the foundation for the common law precedent that slavery in Britain was illegal, a profound affront to human rights. Defended by avowed Abolitionist Granville Sharp, Lord Chief Justice William Mansfield was forced to free Somerset. In doing so, a legal precedent had been set.
But the Abolition movement’s optimism would evaporate in light of Mansfield’s decision to dismiss another case brought by Sharp, that there would be no prosecutions brought against the slave ship ‘Zong’ after 132 slaves were thrown overboard in an insurance claim. Mansfield threw it out: it was a civil matter. And despite the Somerset case, the Abolitionists needed to persuade the hearts and minds of the British people to rally behind the cause.
In May 1787, the Committee For The Abolition Of The Slave Trade was formed. Among them were Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. The committee was a predominantly Quaker organisation. Sharp and Thomas, as Anglicans, would do their bidding at government level. The abolition of the slave trade, rather than the wider goal of abolition and emancipation, was the committee’s target. They amassed over 100,000 signatures on an anti-slavery petition. Among them was social reformer and MP William Wilberforce.
Clarkson sought out evidence of abuse on board slave ships. Up to a fifth of the crew on slave ships died from the conditions. Recognising the power of an image, over 7,000 posters of the Brookes slave ship were distributed, showing the British people, no matter how literate they were, that to support the trade of sugar just under 500 men would be shoehorned onto slave ships, denied their freedom and greatly imperilled. In 1791, boycotts of sugar were organised. Around 300,000 would support it, while the parallel Freemen campaign promoted the purchase of sugar made without slavery.
By the turn of the 19th Century, the tide was turning against the slave trade. The Act Of Union 1800 brought Irish MPs into Westminster; the majority were in favour of Abolition. The Napoleonic Wars facilitated a tactical ploy which helped pain the slave trade as unpatriotic: anyone trading slaves with France and her allies were consorting with the enemy. A year later, 1807, the Abolition Act was passed. A £100 fine was levied against any Britain who participated in the trade. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 emancipated those already enslaved before 1807. £20 million was paid out in compensation to slave owners: even in abolition, there was a price on a man’s life. The recently emancipated received nothing.
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