The abolition of slavery in the British colonies

The Atlantic Slave Trade began as soon as white settlers started to colonise the New World, the first being transported from Africa in 1532. Rich merchants soon realised that there were enormous profits to be made as the Western World acquired a taste for sugar, rum, tobacco and rice. The benefits of slavery were so strong as to overcome any ethical objections to the inhumanity of tearing people from their homeland and shipping them across the ocean to be sold in markets and forced to work in the homes and plantations of the wealthy. Initially these objections were few and far between since many people believed that blacks Africans were an inferior race.

For the merchants of the time the Slave Trade was the perfect money maker - ships sailed laden with British manufactured goods (and guns) to Africa, where they were exchanged for human cargo. These poor unfortunates, who had often already been slaves in Africa, were tightly packed into the decks and holds for the dreaded middle passage to the Americas and the Caribbean. Once in the New World, the slaves, or the few that were left of them (an average of 20% died on the journey), were sold and part of the enormous profit was used to fill the ships' holds with sugar, tobacco and cotton for the final leg of the triangular journey. These commodities then made even more profit when they arrived back on British shores and were sold to an eager public.

The practice of slavery is known to have been denounced as early as the 1670s by George Fox (the founder of the Quaker movement), and arguments were raised by people in both Britain and America questioning the rights of men to own men. In 1776, America had a problem fitting slavery into the ideal of a democratic society when drawing up the American Declaration of Independence. (Despite this, the rise of the cotton industry led to a huge increase in slavery in the southern states over the next 50 years).

In 1787 the anti-slavery movement in England was gaining momentum. The Society of Friends had been campaigning for abolition for many years and petitioned Parliament in 1783 and 1787. Member of Parliament and devout evangelical Christian, William Wilberforce, was a great spokesman for the cause and went against his parliamentary colleagues in trying to legislate against slavery, but his first attempt at passing an anti-slavery bill in the House of Commons (1791) was defeated by 163 votes to 88. He did not give up however, and in 1805 the House of Commons passed a bill making it illegal for any British person to transport slaves - a bill which was immediately defeated by the House of Lords.

Wilberforce and fellow sympathisers William Grenville and Charles Fox continued to campaign heavily. Lord Grenville, arguing in the House of Lords that the trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy" finally managed to persuade the Lords to vote for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 41 votes to 20. The bill was duly passed in the House of Commons carried by 114 to 15 and it become law on 25th March, 1807. The Royal Navy was ordered to uphold the law, and any ship's captain found to be carrying slaves was fined up to £100 per slave - a practice which sadly led to many captives being thrown overboard to drown rather than have a heavy fine levied against them.

Slavery did not end here. Although it was now illegal to buy or transport slaves it was not yet illegal to own them. Thomas Fowell Buxton argued that all slaves should immediately be granted their freedom - an argument William Wilberforce initially disagreed with. Wilberforce maintained that not only the masters but also the slaves would be ruined by sudden emancipation and that the slaves needed to be trained and educated before being set free. Buxton persevered with the idea of freeing slaves and formed the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1823, persuading Wilberforce to join his campaign. In 1833, 3 days before the death of William Wilberforce, a bill was passed freeing all children under 6 years old, and allowing the freedom of all the other slaves in the West Indies after a 6 year 'apprenticeship'. The practise of apprenticeship was soon found to be just as exploitative as slavery and was abolished in 1838. Compensation of £20 million was given to the planters, the slaves got nothing and many were forced to stay on at their plantations having nowhere else to go.

By the time the Atlantic Slave Trade was abolished in the 19th century there had been some 2 million European emigrants to the New World, and 10 million Africans who had been forcibly taken there. Britain, the nation which was to take the lead in the abolition of the slave trade, had also been one of the worst offenders, shipping at least 2 million slaves in the 18th century alone.
for some very interesting links about life in slavery see:

Slavery, of course, is still a problem in many parts of the world today. The Atlantic Slave Trade is the most ignominious of all due to the sheer numbers of people uprooted and subjected to humiliation and cruelty - the problems and prejudices it caused are by no means ended.

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