An exhibition to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade
held at Rhodes House: 23 April - 4 May 2007
Introduction from the original site
2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire, with the bill passing Parliament on 25 March, and coming into force on 1 May. Hailed by Lecky, the great nineteenth century historian, as 'among the three of four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations', the Act was the culmination of a long campaign by the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and had been fiercely resisted by those, primarily the West Indian merchants and planters, who had a vested interest in the trade.
The trade in slaves from Africa to the Americas had begun in the mid-sixteenth century, and it has been estimated that approximately fifteen million Africans were transported across the Atlantic between 1540 and 1850. Ships of many European nations were engaged in the trade, but by the mid-eighteenth century English ships predominated, with Liverpool and Bristol the major ports involved. Conditions on board the ships were appalling, with mortality rates of around 20% amongst both slaves and crew members common in the 1750s. Both the British and French governments passed legislation to reduce the number of slaves carried on each vessel, and captains were paid a bounty if mortality rates fell below 3%. Paradoxically, this measure, whilst certainly reducing the level of mortality amongst the slaves (although not amongst the crews, where it remained at about 16-18%), also led to higher profits for the slave traders as a higher proportion of the slaves arrived in the West Indies in a healthy condition. The captains too profited from the bounty paid by the government as well as by their share in the sale of the slaves themselves.
Until the mid-eighteenth century the idea of slavery went largely unchallenged. However, in the second half of the century enlightenment ideas on natural rights and political liberty were beginning to cause a change in moral consciousness. Despite some earlier efforts, systematic campaigning on humanitarian grounds against the slave trade is generally regarded as having begun in the 1780s. The first petition to Parliament calling for abolition was organised by the Quakers in 1783. It was also the Quakers who set up a committee to obtain and publish information 'as may tend to the abolition of the slave trade', and this work was carried on by the more broadly based Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was established in 1787. With Thomas Clarkson travelling the country to gather information and to stir up the local committees of the Society this was able to attract the support of a considerably wider segment of the population, and in 1788 over one hundred petitions were presented to Parliament. A further wave of petitions followed in 1792. On this occasion no fewer than 519 were presented, the largest number ever presented during a single session of Parliament, and it has been estimated that around 400,000 people, roughly 13% of the adult male population of the time, had put their names to them.
The anti-slave trade campaign was in many ways the prototype for all the mass political and humanitarian campaigns which have followed it, up to and including the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the campaign to Make Poverty History in our own day. The leaders of the campaign, men such as Wilberforce and Clarkson, saw their role as mobilising public opinion to such an extent that Parliament would be forced to act. This would be achieved through public meetings, the publication and distribution of books, pamphlets and circular letters, the drawing up of petitions and using the burgeoning newspaper press to highlight the issue. The sheer number of petitions presented to Parliament in 1788 and 1792 shows how successful these tactics had been in raiding awareness of the issue.
The anti-slave trade campaign was also one of the first to adopt an easily recognisable emblem or logo. Josiah Wedgwood's design, depicting a kneeling slave, with the famous motto Am I not a man and a brother? was reproduced on pottery and medallions, which were widely distributed and became the most easily recognisable image of the campaign. Later, recognising the important role played by women in the campaign, cameo brooches with the inscription Am I not a woman and a sister? were also produced
Almost equally recognisable was the depiction of the Liverpool slaver Brookes, which Clarkson realised was a powerful piece of propaganda for the abolitionist cause. First published in 1789, this was widely reproduced in pamphlets and broadsides of the time and has appeared in many books about the slave trade since. It appears on the cover of the Library's new publication, The Slave Trade debate (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2007; ISBN 1-85124-316-X), which reproduces the texts of a representative sample of contemporary pamphlets encompassing the arguments put forward by each side.
It was the abolitionists who set the tone of the debate, but the defenders of the trade responded in kind, and throughout the 1780s and 1790s each side issued a flood of pamphlets in an attempt to influence public opinion. The debate touched on many issues, including humanitarianism and the Rights of Man, the economic well-being of Britain's West Indian colonies, the state of the British mercantile marine and the Royal Navy (seen as crucial at a time of war with France), the condition of the poor in England, and, not least, the economic and moral condition of the African slaves themselves.
The Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House possesses a substantial number of the pamphlets published by each side in the debate, and this exhibition brings together a selection from both sides of the argument. The exhibition has been augmented by a number of related artefacts from the collection of Franklin Smith, to whom the Library is most grateful for their loan.
With a considerable weight of public opinion behind it, as evidenced by the petitions of 1788 and 1792, it may seem surprising that abolition did not happen for a further fifteen years, being finally achieved in 1807. The reason lies almost entirely with the war against revolutionary France, which broke out in 1793. In reaction to events across the English Channel, the government became increasingly suspicious of the radicalism represented by mass petitioning, a feeling strengthened by the news of the slave revolts in the French West Indies. At the same time, those in favour of the trade successfully presented themselves as the patriotic party, and were able to argue both that the trade itself was an imprtant nursery for British seamen, and that its abolition would lead to the loss of the British West Indian islands to the French or the Americans.
In the long run, however, the course of the war may have helped the abolitionist cause. After Napoleon had had himself crowned Emperor, he re-instituted slavery in the French West Indies, and France under the Empire, although still Britain's foe, was clearly no longer tainted by the Jacobinism of the earlier revolutionary regimes. Moreover, by 1805 many of the French and Dutch possessions in the West Indies had fallen into British hands, thus removing the fear of competition which had dominated much of the thinking of the West Indian traders and planters. In 1805 a Bill abolishing the slave trade to the newly conquered islands passed Parliament, and from this it was an easy step to move to outright abolition of the trade altogether.
The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade was in many ways only the beginning rather than the end of the story. The abolitionists never made any secret of the fact that their ultimate aim was total emancipation throughout the British Empire, but it was to take another quarter of a century's campaigning before this was achieved in 1833. Emancipation was not achieved in the United States until 1865 or in Brazil until 1888. Missionaries such as David Livingstone campaigned against the slave trade between east and central Africa and Arabia, and the Royal Navy devoted considerable efforts to intercepting slave trading ships throughout the nineteenth century.
As the focus of the anti-slavery movement changed, so the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was succeeded in 1823 by the grandly-named Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Empire, and then in 1839 by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, whose papers are also held by the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House. The new society's early leaders included Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, as well as Thomas Clarkson. Today Anti-Slavery International remains the world's oldest human rights organisation, and is still actively campaigning against all forms of slavery world-wide. In 2003, following Anti-Slavery's conducting of the first national survey of slavery in Niger, the government of that country introduced a new law against slavery. Within the first six months of this measure coming into force over two hundred slaves were freed. The humanitarian concerns first raised by the abolitionists in the second half of the eighteenth century remain equally important in the first decade of the twenty-first