The Trans-Atlantic slave trade which began in the early 16th century, gained ground in the following three centuries and was eventually abolished in the 1800s. By the late 18th century, the British population began to find the slave trade both morally and financially disagreeable. The four main factors which contributed to the abolition of the slave trade were the campaigns of the white middle class, the mass support from the white working class, the protestations by the black slaves and the economic impracticality of the trade.
The abolition was successful mainly due to the effort of the middle class, which surged ahead in its demands for the freedom of the African slaves and was amply backed by the other three factors. _____________ One could argue that the white middle class campaigners were the prime influence in the abolition of the slave trade, as they initiated and persisted with the anti-slavery movement.
The campaigners ranged from uneducated yet enlightened people like Granville Sharp, through Methodist clerics like George Fox, to established politicians like William Wilberforce. They were appalled at the inhuman treatment meted out to the African slaves and took it upon themselves to fight for their freedom. This contributed greatly to the final abolition of the trade. George Fox, the pioneer of the movement, founded a group called the ‘Quakers’, which comprised of evangelical white campaigners who believed in the Christian values of equality in the eyes of God.
In 1783, they sent their first petition to the Parliament in which they wrote ‘that a nation professing the Christian Faith, should so far counteract the principles of humanity and justice as by a cruel treatment of this oppressed race, to fill their minds with prejudices against the mild and beneficent doctrines of the Gospel’; aiming this argument towards the religious members of Parliament. A similar petition was sent to Parliament two years later.
Their speeches, essays and letters conveyed that their ‘fellow-creatures’ who were held in ‘cruel bondage’ were ‘entitled to the natural rights of mankind’, thereby appealing to the moral passions of both the Parliament and the public. While the written word was used to persuade the Parliament to pass the bill, the spoken word was used to raise awareness and convince the masses to join the cause. Granville Sharp, a prominent abolitionist, was an apprentice to a Quaker linen draper until he quit after learning about the treatment of black slaves. He took up the case of a slave, Jonathan Strong, in 1765.
Strong ran away after being brutally beaten by his owner. Sharp was moved by Strong’s condition and took the case to court where justice was served to Strong after three years. After the case gained publicity, Sharp became more involved in the abolition of the slave trade. William Wilberforce, a member of the House of Commons and a famous abolitionist also played an important role in the campaign as he gave the blacks and the public a voice in the Parliament. He personally knew William Pitt, the prime minister, and therefore had a lot of influence in the Parliament, which helped him gain support for the campaign.
In addition to the abolitionists, white working and middle class women involved themselves in the movement. Names of Mary Birkett, Hannah More, the writer of the ‘Sorrows of Yamba’ and Mary Wollstonecraft are worthy of mention. The cause of the slaves gave women the opportunity to stand up for something they believed strongly in. They, along with the men, boycotted slave-grown products like sugar, rum and cotton. That they contributed considerably to this movement is borne out by the fact that 10% of the subscriptions
Art and literature also played an important part in the success of the white middle class campaigns. The middle class’ targeted the educated and the Parliament through art and literature. They argued that poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge also wrote about slavery in their works. The abolitionists cited poems like William Cowper’s ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ to convince the Parliament that if ‘enlightened’ romantics like Cowper and Wordsworth found the slave trade unacceptable, they ought to be taken seriously.
Josiah Wedgewood, a potter by profession, created the Wedgwood medallion. From 1787 until his death in 1795, Wedgwood actively participated in the abolition of slavery cause. His ‘slave medallion’ with the inscriptions Am I Not a Man and a Brother, showing a black man in a supplicatory pose attracted the public’s attention. It soon became an identity of the campaign and was seen everywhere, on ornaments, tobacco pipes and hair pins. The white middle class campaigners tried to appeal to as many sections of society as possible.
Their Christian teachings attracted the evangelicals; they gained mass support from the working class with their speeches and introduced the movement to the upper class and Parliament with petitions. They focused on raising awareness and their emotional arguments convinced the public to espouse the cause of the slaves. _________________ Another factor that greatly affected the abolition of the slave trade was the support of the white working class. Their support was gained through the influence of the white middle class campaigners.
The working class took action by signing petitions which were sent to the Parliament. In 1788, over one hundred petitions defending African slaves were presented to the House of Commons in the span of three months. The sheer number of people who had signed these put the Parliament under pressure to comply and deliver to the masses what they wanted, for fear of revolts and rebellions. The British regime had to manage rebellions in the slave colonies of Barbados, Haiti, Cuba, America and such like and could not afford their own people revolting.
The working class used mass support a means of forcing the Parliament to agree to their proposition to abolish slavery. In Manchester in 1778, 10,000 people signed a petition to the Parliament and one year later, an additional 10 thousand people signed yet another petition. In 1792, 592 letters and proposals were sent to the Government, once again urging them to take proactive measures. _______________ Because of the vital role the African slaves played in the struggle for their freedom, it could be said that their influence was most crucial to the abolition of the slave trade.
Their discontentment and rebellions pushed the Parliament to consider abolition of this trade. They resisted capture and imprisonment and black mutinies, such as the infamous mutiny on the ship Amistad which carried black slaves, were not an uncommon occurrence. Many pregnant slaves preferred abortion to giving birth to a chattel slave. Very few people in Britain knew about the maltreatment of slaves until some slaves like Olaudah Equiano bought their freedom and spoke of their wretched lives in the colonies.
Equiano wrote an autobiography titled ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African’ in which he exposed the atrocities perpetrated on slaves, including the mass killing on the slave ship Zong. The impression he made on the British populace inspired many other black slaves to revolt and buy their freedom. Toussaint Louverture, another slave, rebelled against authorities by leading the Haitian Revolutions which put a lot of pressure on the Parliament which feared a chain reaction of similar events.
The Parliament could not, however, take action because they had not yet taken a legal stance on the trade. No laws or bills had been passed to legalise the slave trade, nor had any been proposed to abolish it. The Parliament had to make a decision, which they did in 1807, and their choice to abolish the slave trade was influenced greatly by the riots and rebellions of the African slaves. _________________ In addition to reasons cited above, the economic impracticality of continuing with the slave trade contributed to its abolition, although it was relatively less important.
With America becoming independent in 1776, it was no longer obliged to trade with British sugar colonies such as Barbados and Jamaica, and instead traded with the French and the Dutch. The import of sugar in Britain also decreased dramatically and was replaced by cotton, causing the textile industry during Industrial Revolution to flourish. The Industrial revolution which began in 1750 and picked up pace by the early 1800s relied on the growth of technology, therefore making manual labour redundant.
These economic reasons finally gave everyone a reason to abolish the slave trade and therefore, in 1807 the first bill against slavery was passed. ________________ Of the four factors that spurred the Parliament to abolish slavery, the campaigns made by the white middle class were most important. The revolution was sparked off by the campaigners’ efforts to raise awareness of the condition of the slaves. Although the slave expressed their discontentment through revolts, they did not ruffle the feathers of the Parliament.
It was not until the middle class protested against the practice that the Parliament considered abolition of the slave trade. It was the middle class’ campaigning that not only emboldened the black slaves to step up the intensity of their protests, but also swept up the support and empathy of the working class for the cause. The middle class, headed by Wilberforce, also submitted petitions to the Parliament, making them aware of the demands of the public. The middle class campaigning, however, could not have achieved what they did without the support of the masses and the persistence f the black slaves. The fact that the slave trade was not economically viable too was important and finally gave the Parliament a reason to abolish the slave trade. The Parliament had little to lose and could also support a movement that sweeping the nation and therefore, the economic factors created a big change in the Parliament’s final decision to abolish slavery, but had the white middle class campaigners not initiated the movement, slavery may have taken a considerably long time to be eridicated and this abhorrent practice may have still been alive today.
The efforts of the white middle class campaigners, the empathy of the white working class, the perseverant struggles of the African slaves and the realization by the Parliament of the economic futility of continuing with the slave trade bore fruit and the abolition act of 1833 was passed.