British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade was, until very recently, a subject often brushed under the carpet. The idea of thousands of African slaves passing through British ports in abject conditions remains unpalatable to most but, according to James Walvin, professor emeritus of history at the University of York, the fact remains that the Caribbean and north African slave trade of the 18th century was effectively a British creation.


Although the exact number of British ships that traded slaves for sugar and other commodities will probably never be known, some historians, such as David Richardson of the University of Hull, estimate that British vessels carried 3.4 million or more enslaved Africans to the Americas. The industry went from strength to strength, with profits from the slave trade pouring into British pockets.

Widespread opposition to the slave trade was initially scarce. Why indeed would British people object to a profitable trade that provided luxury commodities, employment and money? An ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality kept the subject of abolition from the political limelight. However, the presence of freed slaves in Britain during the early 1780s following the American War of Independence focused public and political attention on the wider issue of slavery and helped kick-start the abolition movement. Many black Americans had fought on the side of the British during the conflict, and a large number were brought back to London before being shipped out for a new life in Sierra Leone.

The case for abolition intensified in 1781 when the captain of a Liverpool slave ship threw more than 130 African slaves overboard and tried to claim insurance for them. The claim was disputed by the ship’s insurance company, and the ensuing court case brought what people already knew about the brutality of the slave trade into the open. In doing so, it turned the tide against the trade.

However, the abolition of the slave trade could not have happened without the New Baptist Methodist churches and non-conformist groups that formed the backbone of the abolition movement in Britain during the 18th century. According to Walvin: “They provided a platform for ordinary people to voice their opinions freely. The Society of Friends, or Quakers as they were later known, had campaigned against slavery as early as the 1670s, but their belief in equality for all was viewed by many as radical and dangerous and thus their arguments went largely unheard.”

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Out of this increased awareness and religious campaigning emerged the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a group that aimed to promote anti-slavery beliefs through books, pamphlets, prints and artefacts, using graphic imagery to project the horrors of slavery to the public. Mass petitioning was another popular way of getting the abolitionist message across: a total of 519 petitions were presented to the Commons on the topic – over 100 of these in the space of just three months.

The abolitionists also had support within parliament, namely in the form of MP William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian with a passion for social reform. Elsewhere, leading abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson took the message out to the people, lecturing on the evils of the trade, while others, including Granville Sharp, fought for the legal rights of black individuals in Britain.

The impact of slaves themselves on abolition has often been overlooked by historians, but men like Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave who campaigned for abolition and settled in England, must be acknowledged. So, too, should the numerous slave revolts that erupted on plantations across the Americas.

Incessant petitioning meant the campaign picked up momentum during the late 1780s, but British reactions to the French revolution and a slave uprising in modern-day Haiti in the 1790s, which saw 40,000 Britons killed, essentially put the campaign on hold until around 1804.

It was resurrected, though, through sheer tenacity. Many historians see Wilberforce as a vital cog in the abolitionist wheel, wearing down opposition in the Commons and presenting bills to end the trade. Abolitionists began insisting that those standing for parliament commit themselves to the cause, and by the beginning of the 19th century, ministers in favour of abolition predominated. In 1805 a bill providing for the abolition of the slave trade to conquered territories passed both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and the following year this was superseded by a stronger measure that outlawed the British Atlantic slave trade altogether, becoming law the following year.

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 was a momentous achievement for the abolitionists, making it illegal for British ships to carry enslaved peoples between Africa, the West Indies and America. In addition, ship owners were unable to purchase insurance on vessels carrying slave cargo.

“However,” concludes Walvin, “although slaves could no longer be transported in British ships, slavery in British colonies survived until 1838 and full emancipation was only possible through a British compensation scheme of £20m, which was paid by parliament to slave owners. The former slaves got nothing. It is thought that more than 2.7 million Africans crossed the Atlantic in slave ships after 1807 before the trade finally died out in the 1860s.”

9 places in Britain connected to the abolition of the slave trade

1) Houses of Parliament, London

Where the British slave trade began and ended

The Houses of Parliament have played host to a number of landmark events throughout history, not least the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which finally became law in March 1807.

For William Wilberforce, the passing of the act was the culmination of 26 years of campaigning against the slave trade and he was awarded a standing ovation by the House of Commons upon its passing.

Academic opinion differs as to the importance of Wilberforce in the passing of the 1807 act. His contemporaries were in no doubt that it could not have become law without him, but others feel that his role was as more of a figurehead for abolitionists. “Wilberforce had a durability,” says Walvin, “and ‘stuck with it’ when other men would have fallen by the wayside. The act would have eventually passed without him, but Wilberforce’s consistency and loyalty to the cause was significant.”

Parliament, however, was also responsible for creating laws that encouraged the slave trade and many MPs made their fortune through the trading of Africans for sugar and other commodities. The House of Lords in particular was opposed to abolition, agreeing to it only when it had built up an irreversible momentum.

2) Penrhyn Castle, Bangor, Gwynedd

Where profits from the slave trade were invested in Welsh industry

Many Britons made their fortunes though the slave trade. One such was slave owner and anti-abolitionist Liverpool MP Richard Pennant, who used much of the money gained through slave plantations in Jamaica to develop what is now known as Penrhyn Castle, an enormous country house that sits between Snowdonia and the Menai Strait.

Pennant acquired the Penrhyn estate on his marriage to Anne Susannah Warburton in 1765, and was soon investing in it heavily, using money generated by the sugar and rum from his Jamaican plantations. He also employed these profits to develop the north Wales slate industry, and to build road and rail links between the quarry and Port Penrhyn, the harbour he had established to export huge quantities of slate abroad.

Pennant used his position in the Commons, and as chairman of the West India Committee – an organisation of merchants and plantation owners set up in 1788 to oppose abolition – to champion the slave trade, arguing that the banning of the traffic of Africans would be an economic disaster

Pennant himself was a fierce supporter of the slave trade and, according to sources, believed that the passage from Africa to the West Indies was “one of the happiest periods of a Negro’s life”, a belief echoed by the paintings of idyllic plantations that once hung in Penrhyn Castle.

Wales itself produced much of the metal work that, for many, form the images that define slavery: the manacles, chains and guns used to keep slaves under control. Bars of metal from Wales were also exchanged for slaves on the coast of Africa.

Penrhyn Castle is owned by the National Trust. The present building was created between 1820 and 1840 by descendents of Richard Pennant.

3) Docksides, Liverpool, Merseyside

From where Britain shipped more than 1.5 million slaves

The city of Liverpool swiftly overtook London and Bristol to become the major British slave port of the 18th century. It’s thought that around three-quarters of all European slaving ships left from Liverpool in the two decades leading up to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and that overall, Liverpool ships transported half of all Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers.

“Liverpool’s economic hinterland and geographical location made it ideally placed to dominate the British slave trade”, says Walvin. “The industrial areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire, together with a growing canal and river network, provided Liverpool with the metalwork and textiles needed to trade for African slaves, while the city itself was free from the guilds and restrictions that often hindered trade in Bristol and London.”

Ships from Liverpool were also able to avoid the upheaval to trade in the English Channel caused by conflicts such as the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) by sailing around northern Ireland and out into the Atlantic.

Today, the city still shows evidence of its slave past: the frieze around the town hall, built between 1740 and 1754, boasts illustrations of the city’s trading routes, such as lions, crocodiles and African faces. The buildings at the Pier Head on Liverpool’s waterfront stand on the site of George’s Dock, opened in 1771, which once berthed ships trading to west Africa, north America and the West Indies four-deep along the quays. The city’s International Slavery Museum is located in Liverpool’s Albert Dock, just yards from the dry docks where 18th-century slave trading ships were repaired and fitted out.

4) Clarkson Memorial, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

Where a leading abolitionist argued an alternative to the slave trade

Wisbech is home to a towering Victorian monument dedicated to the life and achievements of Thomas Clarkson, a leading campaigner against the slave trade and one of the founders of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1767. Clarkson ensured that the anti-slavery message was delivered to the people, giving lectures and distributing pamphlets. It is estimated that he travelled around 35,000 miles on horseback in his dedication to spreading the anti-slavery message across Britain.

Clarkson used visual aids, such as handcuffs, shackles and branding irons, to demonstrate the cruelty of the trade, but also carried a wide range of cultural artefacts and natural products such as leather, cotton and spices to show that an alternative trade could be established in place of human beings. These items, together with the travelling chest he carried them in, are now on display at the Wisbech & Fenland Museum. The Clarkson Memorial, which stands at over 20 metres high, also features bas-reliefs of William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, as well as a slave in manacles.

5) St Andrews church, Soham, Cambridgeshire

Where the voice of the Africans wed his English sweetheart

According to his autobiography (parts of which are currently disputed), Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa as he is often known, was born in the Eboe province (now southern Nigeria) but was kidnapped at the age of 11, sold by local slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic to Barbados and then Virginia. His story is a remarkable one: Equiano eventually earned enough money through trading on the side, while working for merchant Robert King, to buy his own freedom.

Free to travel the world, Equiano arrived in London in 1786 where he became actively involved in the anti-slavery movement and a member of the Sons of Africa, a group of 12 black men who campaigned hard for abolition. To many, Equiano is seen as a spokesman for black people in London at the time and a reminder of the great impact of African voices in the campaign to abolish slavery. Equiano’s story is a stark contrast to that of the majority of African slaves of the day; he married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, in St Andrews church, Soham, and the couple had two daughters.

Parts of the church date back to the 12th century and the building is open to visitors. The resting place of Equiano is unknown but a memorial plaque to his eldest daughter is located on the wall outside the church.

6) Friends House, Euston Road, London

Where a non-conformist religious movement campaigned for abolition

The Quakers were the first to take up the abolition gauntlet, using their meeting houses – such as Euston Road’s Friends House – to host lectures against the slave trade, and publishing pamphlets questioning the humanity of the trade.

George Fox, one of the founders of the movement, voiced his opposition to the trade as early as the 1670s but Quaker arguments weren’t picked up until the 18th century. Quakers are, however, seen by many as the driving force behind the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, of whose 12 founding members 9 were Quaker. One such was James Phillips, a London printer whose shop produced a flood of anti-slavery literature.

Another prominent Quaker abolitionist was social reformer Elizabeth Fry, who lobbied extensively for the emancipation of slaves. Fry was one of many Quaker women who discovered their political voice during the period to raise awareness of the cause.

7) Museum of London Docklands, London

Where the fruits of the slave trade were once stored

The trading of sugar and other commodities – and the toiling of slaves on American plantations to farm these popular products – were at the very heart of the slave trade.

Although sugar had been a luxury commodity in Europe for some time, its cost meant that it was restricted to the upper echelons of society. However, as new sites were developed for the cultivation of sugar and new supplies of labour required to sate the demand for sugar, so too grew the trading of slaves to farm and refine the product for the mass market.

The trading of sugar for humans was something that the Quaker-run anti-saccharite movement sought to abolish. Women were encouraged to boycott the use of slave-produced sugar in the home and ladies’ associations were set up across the country to promote the campaign – Queen Charlotte herself was said to have been a keen supporter of the anti-saccharite cause.

The building that now houses the Museum of London Docklands was once one of nine Georgian warehouses erected on the West India Quay in 1803 to store rum and sugar. The ground floor – which today looks much as it did 200 years ago – was designed to hold two tiers of barrels of ‘clayed’ sugar. The upper floors would have stored a single tier of the heavier barrels of muscovado sugar. The top floors once held coffee, cocoa, cotton and pimento.Seven of the nine warehouses were destroyed during the Second World War.

8) Tomb of Granville Sharp, All Saints churchyard, Fulham, London

Where a prominent abolitionist is buried

To many, Granville Sharp was the father of the abolition movement. Working as a clerk in the ordnance office at the Tower of London, his passion for the cause was founded through
a chance encounter with Jonathan Strong, a young black slave severely beaten by his master. After tending to the boy’s injuries, aided by his brother William, Sharp went on to secure Strong’s release from prison where he was being held as an escaped slave. Sharp subsequently applied himself to a detailed study of the legal status of slaves in Britain.

Sharp became a staunch supporter of the abolition movement and devoted much of his time to forcing a definitive legal ruling on the question of whether a slave could be compelled to leave Britain. A ruling in 1772, aided by Sharp, concluded that slave owners could not legally force slaves to return to the colonies once they were in Britain. The verdict is seen by many as the beginnings of the abolition of slavery in Britain.

Sharp published many papers on slavery, including one in 1769 in which he wrote: “…the comparing of a man to a beast, at any rate, is unnatural and unjust; as well as the seizing, and detaining him as such, is dangerous to the pretended proprietors”. He is seen by many as one of the most important voices of the abolition campaign. Sharp died in 1813 and is buried in All Saints churchyard – his tomb was restored in 2007 and can still be visited today.

9) University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh

Where leading thinkers penned anti-slavery tracts

As well as prosecuting their campaign through deeds – such as mass boycotts and pamphleting – the abolitionists took the fight to their opponents on an intellectual level.

In Scotland, some of the great philosophical minds gathered to find justification for the abolition of slavery, aided by the writings of the French Enlightenment, which advocated treating people as humans and equals. The Abolitionist Committee in Edinburgh, led by Francis, Lord Gardenstone, is thought to have been the most powerful in Britain after those of London and Manchester.

Many of those who fought to convince Britain that slavery was unethical worked or studied at the University of Edinburgh, a hothouse for Scottish intellectuals of the day. Adam Ferguson from Edinburgh produced strong theological and humanitarian arguments against slavery in his Essay on the History of Civil Society, while social philosopher Adam Smith voiced his opposition to the slave trade from a secular perspective.

However, as in other areas of Britain, many Scots made their fortunes through the trading of African slaves. According to some sources, in 1796, Scots owned nearly 30 per cent of the estates in Jamaica.

Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was James Walvin, professor emeritus of history at the University of York and author of The Slave Trade (Thames & Hudson, 2011).


This article was first published in the September 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine