Parliament and the British Slave Trade

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries Parliament significantly shaped the progress and development of the transatlantic slave system. The Act of Parliament to abolish the British slave trade, passed on 25 March 1807, was the culmination of one of the first and most successful public campaigns in history.

By the end of the 17th century Parliament, with Royal support and backing, had supervised the development of a large and growing African population throughout English colonial possessions in the Americas.

The tentative efforts under Elizabeth I to break into the foreign monopolies on lucrative overseas trade whetted the appetite for more.

But it was the military and political turmoil in Europe in the early 17th century which allowed the English to establish their own trading systems to Africa and the Americas.

Above all, it was the pull of exotic commodities and riches which proved irresistible.

At first, Europeans were not drawn to Africa for slaves, although they did occasionally acquire them. The continent was more attractive to the early pioneering settlers for its valuable commodities – especially gold. The early trading companies focused on gold, dyes, timbers, ivory and hides.

What transformed everything was the development of colonies in the Americas.

The settlement of these and the Caribbean islands was to transform Europe’s dealings with Africa. The introduction of plantations, especially those growing sugar, led to the extensive use of African slave labour. In time some 70 per cent of all enslaved Africans shipped across the Atlantic were destined to work in the sugar fields.

Pioneered by the Spaniards and perfected by the Dutch, sugar plantations were eagerly adopted by the English from the 1620s. Sugar though was not the only crop. In the North American colonies the development of the tobacco industry – a crop acquired from local Indians – also led to the use of enslaved African labour.

shutterstock_242815078Trading with Africa
The plantations in the Americas created a rush of traders to the African coast. Trade there expanded enormously and became a source of great European rivalry and strategic positioning.

The initial ad hoc ventures gave way to licensed companies, chartered and monitored from London.

A string of major trading posts were developed on the West African coast. The major forts and castles were designed more to protect gold and local officials, rather than to house enslaved Africans waiting for the slave ships.

Most captured Africans were herded on board ships from beaches, from barracoons on the shore, from river stations, or were rowed out to the waiting vessels.

The Africa trade quickly emerged as a massive and lucrative form of international trade. By 1720 its most important branch was the dispatch of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. But even that simple assertion does an injustice to its complexity.

The outbound slave ships to Africa were packed with British goods, such as metal goods, firearms, textiles and wines for exchange for human cargo. Vessels returning from the colonies heading to their home port were filled with plantation produce.

Here was a trading network on an integrated international scale, lubricated by slavery, and all approved, regulated and monitored by Parliament.

Dozens of Acts were passed specifically to encourage, regulate and monitor the trade in Africans.

Legislation relating to the more personal and private aspects of the slave trade, brought its consequences directly into the Parliamentary arena.

Parliament and commerce
In the years after the Restoration in 1660, the wider economic importance of the English sugar trade became more obvious. There were also international economic pressures.

On 8 April 1671, West Indian planters presented their arguments to the House of Lords for a stronger defence against their commercial and political rivals.

The City of London’s Corporation, the Bank of England, Lloyd’s insurance – and a host of banking facilities – all thrived on the Atlantic trades. So, too, did the industries which provided goods for exchange in Africa, equipped the slave plantations of the Americas, and processed and sold the imported slave grown produce.

Consumption rose and the number of shops increased, and exotic goods formed an important element in the growth of England’s finances. Duties and taxes raised by Parliament became critical sources of income. As a result, complex rules came to govern trade between England, Europe and the wider world.

Major ports and docks flourished in London, Bristol and Liverpool but the different levels of customs duties encouraged illicit imports which developed into a remarkable smuggling industry. To prevent such fiscal abuses, the state developed powers of scrutiny and punishment. Shopkeepers and tradesmen complained about such powers in petitions.

liverpool_slave_tradeSugar, tea and coffee

During the 17th and 18th centuries tobacco, but above all sugar, transformed British life. Britons developed their famous sweet tooth because their drinks – tea, coffee and chocolate, all naturally bitter – needed to be sweetened with sugar. They were also celebrated for the profusion of their puddings and desserts.

At the heart of this was slave-grown sugar. This led to a massive proliferation of shops across Britain, whose main source of income was goods from the West Indies

Parliament regulates the Africa trade
The growing trade with Africa soon came under the gaze of Parliament.

The Royal Africa Company’s monopoly in particular angered other merchants who wanted a share of the trade. The 1698 Trade with Africa Bill – which proposed that the company’s monopoly be broken – became an Act in the same year.

Many traders and merchants did not want regulation and duties applied to the Africa trade. They expressed themselves through pamphlets and petitions to Parliament. As the latter became involved in the regulation of the trade, it discovered a lot more about it.

Leading members of London’s black community

By the late 18th century the black population in London was in the thousands. Among them were Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano

Ignatius Sancho Oil painting by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768, National Gallery of Canada

Ignatius Sancho
Born on a slave ship, Ignatius Sancho (1729-80) was brought to England as a baby. He was educated in London and established himself in Westminster, buying a shop on Charles Street.

Sancho was an accepted and respected member of London’s intellectual and artistic society, and his life illustrated that Africans were equal in every way to the Europeans who enslaved them.

Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano (1745-97) was an active opponent of the slave trade. He lived and worked in London for several periods of his life. He was employed by the British government to work on the Sierra Leone settlement scheme, which was established to repatriate former enslaved Africans living in London.

Equiano was a leading member of the black community, working with Granville Sharp on legal cases involving Africans fighting to establish their rights to freedom in Britain. His autobiography was published in 1789.

Abolition: the argument

The movement against the slave trade had deep and slowly developing roots. Was slavery legal in England? Could slaves be removed from the country against their wishes? What was to be done about the maltreatment of black people?

Legal battles
All these questions and more surfaced in legal battles from the mid-18th century onwards. The Somerset case of 1772 ruled that slavery was illegal in England, calling into question the right of slave owners to hold jurisdiction over slaves brought to England.

In the Zong case of 1781 the owners of a British slave ship sought compensation for the loss of cargo, when over a hundred enslaved Africans were thrown overboard.

Both these landmark cases had been backed by the theologian, Granville Sharp, who became a key member of the abolitionist movement.

Defeat in North America
With the British defeat in the war in North America in 1783 slavery was set in a different context. Slavery had been at the heart of that conflict, and many of the defeated British came home with former slaves.

The problem of the black poor
There was also the problem of the black poor in London in the mid-1780s and discussion about what to do about them. This resulted in the Sierra Leone Scheme, designed with government backing to relocate them to Africa. It proved disastrous and gave focus to the issue of slavery and the slave trade.

Boycotting slave-grown sugar
The boycott of slave-grown sugar became an important feature of the abolition campaign. Refusing to buy sugar for the home, and preventing its domestic use, emerged as a contribution by women to the campaign.

The birth of the formal abolition campaign

At the time of these events a small band led by William Wilberforce in Parliament and by Thomas Clarkson in the country as a whole, launched the formal campaign to abolish the slave trade.
The abolitionists

William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce, MP for Hull from 1780, took up the cause of abolition after meeting a former slave trader, John Newton. Wilberforce would become the Parliamentary mouthpiece for the campaign.

Thomas Clarkson
Born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, Clarkson was at Cambridge University preparing to become a clergyman when he entered and won the 1785 annual essay competition, the title set being ‘Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?’.
During his research he learned about, and was horrified by, the transatlantic slave trade. It was then that he decided that something should be done.

Within a year Clarkson had given up plans to enter the church and had decided to devote himself full time to the cause.

In 1787 Clarkson became one of the original 12 members of the London Committee, which also included Granville Sharp and was part of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

As the only Committee member without business commitments, Clarkson researched for evidence that could be laid before Parliament, and also promoted the cause nationwide.

He had earlier met many Quakers who were campaigning for abolition and when he travelled to all the major British ports, as well as cities and towns around Britain, Clarkson was supported by local Quaker groups.

His research was to prove crucial to William Wilberforce’s subsequent work in the House of Commons.

Petitioning Parliament

In 1788, a number of petitions in favour of the abolition of the slave trade were received by Parliament.
However, the powerful federation of planters, merchants, manufacturers and ship owners – all central to the slave trade – put up a dogged rearguard action against abolition in both the Commons and Lords.

Both sides presented petitions to both Houses of Parliament.

Those petitioning against the trade were encouraged by Thomas Clarkson. One of the purposes of Clarkson’s tours of Britain between 1788 and 1794 was to organise and encourage a new public petitioning campaign.

Both sides were using a means of communicating with Parliament that had a long history, but was now on a scale not seen before.
The petitions show that a time when the right to vote was very restricted, the petitioning movement gave many excluded from the electoral process an opportunity to communicate with Parliament

The first parliamentary debates
The MP for Hull, William Wilberforce, had met the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and, with the encouragement of William Pitt, the Prime Minister, agreed to raise their cause in Parliament.

In February 1788 the prime minister commissioned a report on the slave trade and the effects and consequences for British commerce. The report was undertaken by the Privy Council committee for trade and foreign plantations.

This was followed by a statement in the Commons by William Pitt on 5 May 1788. He said that he would raise the issue by moving a motion “That this House will, early in the next session of Parliament, proceed to take into consideration the circumstances of the Slave Trade”.

Following a debate, which revealed divided opinion, the motion was agreed. During the debate, the MP for Oxford University, Sir William Dolben, suggested that some limited regulation should take place.

Dolben introduced a Bill on 21 May to regulate the numbers of enslaved Africans carried from Africa to the West Indies.
The Bill received Pitt’s support, providing that the measure was temporary pending discussion in the next session. Dolben’s Bill was passed after a series of debates, receiving Royal Assent in July 1788.

Thomas Clarkson, a member of the London Committee of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, drew up a plan of the Brooks slave ship, graphically illustrating the 16 inches (40cm) allocated to each person.

This plan was sent to every member of the Commons and Lords by the London Committee, who were lobbying for further debate. It was also distributed around the country where it had an immediate impact.

Wilberforce makes the case
The movement to abolish the slave trade drew on a remarkably wide range of activities, including collecting signatures on petitions, female activism, and distribution of print and graphic images.

It was, however, at its heart, a parliamentary campaign, headed by William Wilberforce. A measure of his success was the fact that by 1792 abolition was an issue entrenched in Parliament. However, it faced a protracted and difficult struggle.

Wilberforce was not formally involved until he was asked by his close friend, the newly-elected Prime Minister, William Pitt, to become the parliamentary spokesman for the campaign in 1787.

The London Committee, part of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, made occasional contact with Wilberforce from October 1787, mainly to ask him to raise the issue in debates.

He formally joined the Committee in 1791 and became their spokesman in the House of Commons.

Pitt set up an enquiry into the slave trade in 1788, and laid its report before the Commons in April 1789.

The following month, Wilberforce pushed for a committee to consider the anti-slave trade petitions that had been presented to the House. He made a long speech emphasising the harsh realities of the slave trade.

Although it was eventually decided to postpone more discussion until the following parliamentary session, Wilberforce had done enough to secure the appointment of a select committee to consider the matter further.

The evidence
Perhaps the most decisive and influential blow against the slave trade was the evidence presented to various enquiries from men who knew the slave ships and plantations at first hand.

What these committee reports told of African suffering had a profound impact. They produced revulsion in those who read them and helped to win over armies of supporters to the abolitionists’ side.

The enquiry set up by Pitt produced a 900-page report and detailed the evidence of abolitionist Thomas Clarkson.

In one particular example, Thomas Clarkson’s argument that Africa had many goods worthy of trade was corroborated by fustian manufacturer John Hilton. Hilton had looked at a sample of cotton wool from Senegal, collected by Clarkson, and rated it highly.
Olaudah Equiano also expressed support for trade with Africa and wrote a letter to the Privy Council committee carrying out the enquiry.

Other evidence heard by subsequent committees was contradictory. Two witnesses gave evidence describing slave ships. Captain John Knox said that he had no knowledge of the kidnapping of slaves or obtaining slaves by fraud or oppression, whereas James Towne spoke of slaves shackled on overcrowded ships.

Drive for abolition slowed by external events

Despite the pressures for change which built up between 1788 and 1791 the abolitionist cause was not yet won.

Two events were responsible. The first was the French Revolution, which became ever more extreme. The second was the massive slave uprising in St. Domingue, a French colony in the West Indies, led by Toussaint-L’Ouverture.

A series of revolts began on the island shortly after news reached it of the start of the revolution in France in 1789. The British attempt to seize the colony proved a disaster, with the loss of more than 40,000 British lives.

All this served to halt the drive for abolition, which did not pick up momentum again until after the death of William Pitt in 1806, and the emergence of a more sympathetic government under Lord Grenville.

There had been a string of parliamentary regulations tightening the conduct of the slave trade, but the final abolition had to wait until 1807. Despite this, the 1790s saw repeated attempts by William Wilberforce to keep the issue in the public arena.
Parliament abolishes the slave trade

In 1805 an abolition bill failed in Parliament, for the eleventh time in 15 years. The London Committee decided to renew pressure, and Thomas Clarkson was sent on a tour of the committees nationwide to rally support for a second petitioning campaign.

The Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill of 1806 became a focus for these petitions. The Bill, which would prevent the import of slaves by British traders into territories belonging to foreign powers, was introduced – as a government measure – by the Attorney-General, Sir Arthur Leary Piggott.

The abolitionists inside Parliament, led by Wilberforce, seemed to pay it little attention, and it passed its early readings without much notice. However, by the third reading, the anti-abolitionists understood its broad implications and that Wilberforce and his colleagues had implemented a clever strategy to play down its wider ramifications.

The Bill was passed on 23 May 1806 and the stage was set for full abolition of the British trade. The Prime Minister, Lord Grenville, introduced the Slave Trade Abolition Bill in the House of Lords on 2 January 1807 for its first reading.

Its introduction by the head of the Government marked it as official policy, and its second reading in the Lords was agreed 100 votes to 34, despite resistance from the Duke of Clarence (the future king William IV) and other peers with West Indian interests. After consideration by committee and a third reading, the Bill arrived in the House of Commons on 10 February.

The London Committee members rented a house in Downing Street to be close to Parliament to lobby MPs. After 18 years of promoting abolition Wilberforce received a standing ovation during the key Commons debate on 23 February. The debate lasted ten hours and the House voted in favour of the Bill by 283 votes to 16 – a victory far in excess of expectations.

The remaining stages took a further month, and the Bill received Royal Assent on 25 March 1807.

What happened next

Although the British ended their slave trade in 1807, slavery itself continued in the British colonies until full emancipation in 1833. An illicit slave trade continued across the Atlantic, and more than a million Africans were landed in the Americas (mainly Cuba and Brazil) after 1807.

Historians remain puzzled by the abolition of the slave trade. Was it ended because it was no longer profitable? The economic data, and the tenacious support of the slave traders, suggest not. But is it plausible to see abolition being brought about by outraged sensibility or religious sentiment? If it was wrong or un-Christian in 1807, why not in 1707?

What exactly changed in Britain and the Atlantic world – and indeed in Parliament – in the years between 1600 and 1807? There seems to have been a shifting of the tectonic plates; a small series of movements which produced massive consequences.

Read House of Commons Historic Hansard for debates from 1803-2005


All the above should have been taught in schools from the ending of slavery thereafter!!…

Another abolitionist was William Roscoe of Liverpool 1753-1831 he campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade and was a liverpool M P
He has streets named after him in Liverpool and a bust of him can be seen also

This subject needs to be taught as a part of British economic and social history, especially about what happened in Africa. Perhaps more important today than learning about the Tudors!

‪I’m surprised that your article doesn’t mention that the British government had to pay out £20m to compensate those who owned slaves for the loss of their “property” when slavery was abolished. This is probably the biggest reason abolition was successful.

We need to highlight that slavery started LONG before Europeans were involved – at least 2500 years before. The Africans themselves were experts at trading their own people and their kingoms had many slaves. Slavery in northern Africa dates back to ancient Egypt. The New Kingdom (1558–1080 BC) brought in large numbers of slaves as prisoners of war up the Nile valley and used then for domestic and supervised labor. Europeans are FAR too often blamed for slavery which is wrong.

The subject and impact on Brtish society was taught in my secondary school circa 1970.
It’s obviously the lowering of standards of education and the need to include so much more into an overcrowded and frivolous curriculum.

This slavery has affected us all my did we have to suffer so much they need to be teach this thing in school, they cover up and lies to us. The whole world has used us and abuse us they all should pay for what they done it’s not fear and its not right

Making people more aware of the truth and not lies of our history across Planet Earth brings about unity. It brings about healing and the ability to move forward into the present, so we can work towards the future.

Being more aware of the truth about other cultural oppressive motives through history helps the oppressed to not only become more knowledgeable about the crimes, but it also helps the oppressed to take responsibility for the oppressors and by doing so gain control of their crimes. This Is the Foundation in Which Racism Is Built. If it is not controlled can be perpetuated into our future. Truth and Knowledge is the key to taking responsibility which in turn brings order into chaos.

I just heard today from a historian on BBC Radio4’s ‘Start the Week’ that only a few years after his Bill, Wilberforce supported a war to RESTORE slavery which lasted 5 years.
Unfortunately, this came at the end of the show when there was no time for more details.
I have tried a general search, but most engines are not cooperative..
Can we have some more information on that?

Black History should not just be for October, it should be taught in ALL schools as part of national curriculum in history lessons and not just skimmed over. The truth hurts but needs to be discussed. I believe knowledge is the key.

Slavery is appalling and British involvement is now rightly condemed however the article above should make clear that the English/British were buying Africans from Africans who had captured and enslaved them. Also Olaudah Equiano having himself been a slave, worked on a Slave ship as a freeman before becomming an activist. This article also makes no mention of the Barbary Pirates from North Africa and the slaving raids that dogged European and US coasts for 150 years. The story of the whole sordid trade including Indenture which effectively replaced slavery and was not stopped by the British until 1912 should be taught as we all need education.

I´m Spanish and I think that slavery is not a past problem but is actual problem because in the modern society we have capitalist slavery that promoves tha a lot of people around the world lives in deficient conditions. This is slavery too

It is just wrong to capture anyone, in the world, and force them to be used as free labor. Even in a capitalist culture/society, too many people are forced to work for less than a livable wage. This attitude too is wrong. So, where do we go from here?

There was an internal Abolitionists movements to end enslavement by African Muslim Clerics at least 100 years before Wilberforce who was a great man. See scholar Sylviane A. Diouf Fighting the Slave Trade and scholar Rudolph T. Ware III books. Also when the Portuguese and Spanish Conquistadors first came down enslaving Black Africans in the 1420s after the Crusades and Inquisition made legal by the Pope and Prince Henry the Navigator, the Mali Empire Black kings and their Islamic legal scholars made slavery illegal. As well as the King of the Kongo once he saw how evil it was, but it was too late as powerful outside interest. It also amazes me as we continue to blame the victims and make excuses. We know slavery POW after war was around the world, but it was not Chattel intergenerational Slavery that developed after the 1600s. It was Europeans and Middle East people who developed these fake race categories that we have today starting with the Crusades and now you have the Tiger by the tail you all created. No one Blamed ALL Whites for Killing over 100 million of each other during World War I and II. We just helped you rebuild Europe twice we Black Americans and African gold and Diamonds from your colonies…You created Race and now you don’t like it Sad.

If black people hate us so much why are so many eager to come and live in Europe but especially England. Rather than live in Africa ruled by their own governments/ dictatorship’s ? Yes, I think slavery should be taught in schools. Not just selected parts but the whole sordid history dating back even before Roman times. Also have to include and name the African tribes who were complicit in capturing slaves and without their help slavery could not have happened on such a large scale. I am not sure why we had to compensate the slave owners. It may have been the only way to get the abolition of slavery act through Parliament..

Many people think of the Slave Trade as the white British enslaving black Africans but as it is Black History Month let us talk and teach about black involvement in the slave trade. Africans made slaves of other free Africans and traded them as far back in time as Ancient Egypt. Islam forbids making a slave of another Muslim so when Islam spread across the middle east in the 7th century, the slave trade from black Africa markedly increased. When Europeans started trading African slaves in the 15th century, they traded black slaves already enslaved by other black people. When Britain banned its slave trade in 1807, the black nations continued to capture and trade slaves with ships from other nations. Using diplomacy, bribery and imperial muscle, Britain forced other European nations to give up their slave trade and sent its navy to enforce the ban, but the Black African nations continued to capture and trade black Africans with anyone who would buy. This would go on until the beginning of the 20th century. Slavery had always been acceptable in Africa and even Olaudah Equiano, who had been a slave, when freed bought and supervised slaves in a plantation. What William Wilberforce and other abolitionists vanquished, was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental and could hardly be seen from where we stand today: they vanquished the very mindset that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. So yes, let us teach children about slavery but teach it all.

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