Why and when did Britain abolish slavery?

Britain and the transatlantic slave trade

Millions of enslaved Africans worked in British plantations that were mostly in the Caribbean in places like modern-day Jamaica.

The British might have been among some of the last Europeans to join in the transatlantic slave trade, but in less that 150 years, it had completely dominated the industry. But the act of slavery and the slave trade over the years was regarded as inhumane and unethical to some interest groups.

In 1807, a group called the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade successful rallied for the passage of the Slave Trade Abolition Act. Twenty-six years later, the abolitionists would further campaign for the complete abolishment of slavery in Britain’s colonies through the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

But how did Britain get into the business of the slave trade in the first place? And what compelled its government to put an end to a system that brought them immense wealth?

Learn more about the long history of Britain’s very lucrative trading in enslaved Africans between Europe and the Americas. It focuses specifically on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as it relates to Britain. But first, here is a quick summary of the origins of slavery.

The origins of Slavery: from ancient times to modern times

Slavery has long been in existence starting right from the birth and rise of ancient civilizations. In those times, as towns and cities developed, so did the need for labor. More preferably, cheap labor. The slaves were mostly captives from wars, criminals or even children sold into slavery by their poor families. They often provided cheap labor in these burgeoning cities in exchange for accommodation and money.

In ancient Babylon, for example, the Code of Hammurabi – a set of laws passed by King Hammurabi that governed Babylon around the 18th century BC – recognized slaves as the lowest class of citizens. The Babylonians viewed slaves as their property and counted them as part of their belongings similar to how they counted their livestock. They also used slaves to conduct trades.

Perhaps the most recorded account of slavery in ancient times could be from 7th century BC Greece. During that era, Greece was divided into several city-states. Its two most popular states were Sparta and Athens, with both relying heavily on slavery to develop. In Sparta, for example, the concept of slavery manifested a little bit different. Serfdom was common practice and it involved people working on their own lands to generate income for their masters. On the other hand, slaves in Athens typically worked in domestic settings usually as childminders, concubines, and house managers. There was a more hierarchical structure in Athens with the lowest slaves being miners and the most prestigious being slaves who were sent to fight on behalf of the city-state.

The rise of Rome from the 2nd century BC and beyond also saw the increase in the demand for slaves. Much like ancient Greece, there were various levels of slaves. At the highest, slaves worked in various administrative capacities and worked as secretaries to the emperor. However, before Rome rose to become a powerful empire, slaves were treated more harshly. They worked in mines and fields, where they were subjected to daily beatings and other forms of unimaginable punishments.

In some cases, slaves in ancient Rome were also forced to become gladiators, sometimes fighting to death for the entertainment of the Romans. At some point, the treatment of slaves was so horrific that it led to a number of rebellions, with most famous slave uprising being the one led by the Thracian gladiator called Spartacus.

Following the decline and eventual fall of the Roman Empire, the practice of slavery persisted, especially in the Mediterranean region. With time, several other kingdoms and empires also expanded. For example, the Germanic people captured and enslaved quite a number of Slavs as they expanded into Eastern Europe.

As the world’s population grew, so did the demand for more labor, and soon, slavery became big business with the Arabs having the biggest share for many centuries. They captured slaves from Western, Eastern, and Central Africa and sent them to destinations like Arabia and Eastern Europe. Many of these slaves were made to walk over long distances across the scorching Sahara Desert. When the Europeans finally joined the business, the Arab slave traders served primarily as the middlemen.

RELATED: Everything that you need to know about the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

The rise of the European superpowers between the 15th and 17th century saw a shift in who dominated the slave trade business. The Portuguese were the first to figure out that they could have direct access to slaves by cutting out the middlemen. Plus, they had the right transportation system to make travel faster and less perilous. They used ships to explore more of the African coast, especially the western and southern coasts.

And by the mid-1400s, they had established thriving markets along the coastal areas of Africa, where they exchanged with the locals European goods for slaves and other natural resources like gold and ivory. Many of the captives were then sent to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. And for a while, the Portuguese were the big players in the slave trade. That is, until the arrival of the British, French, Dutch, and the Spanish.

An advertisement of a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1769.

The high demand for cheap slave labor to tend to the vast plantations owned by European nations in the newly colonized Americas caused the price of slaves to shoot up exponentially. At some point, slaves become more valuable than gold.

Considering how long the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade lasted  (i.e. for almost 400 years), the African continent ended up being stripped off its strong and able-bodied young men. This is perhaps one of the reasons why European nations were simply able to ‘stroll’ into the continent and colonize Africa as there weren’t enough young and powerful Africans to put up a fierce resistance.

Why did King John sign the Magna Carta?

Why is Transatlantic Slave Trade called the triangle trade?

The transatlantic slave trade is generally termed as the triangle trade because of how the routes taking by the slave ships look if you plot them on a map.

The transatlantic slave trade was essentially a triangular route that linked Europe, Africa, and the Americas. A sailing expedition would typically start from Europe, making a stop along the African coast to pick up slaves and other goods, deliver the slaves to a destination in the Americas, and make its way back to Europe with the goods and products from their colonies.

The trip from Africa to the Americas was known as the Middle Passage and although sailing seemed like a better option than trekking across the vast Sahara Desert, the conditions aboard the ship were terrible. The slaves were kept in tight spaces with little to no space for movement. Many of them also died from starvation, dehydration, suicide, and other communicable diseases.

Britain’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1600s-1800s)

Britain and the transatlantic slave trade

The British were in fact late to the business of slavery. In terms of the transatlantic slave trade, Portugal, Spain, as well as some other European powers like the French and Dutch had already transported millions of Africans to work in their colonies, particularly in South America and the Caribbean.

The slaves worked on plantations, growing and harvesting staple crops such as tobacco, sugarcane, cotton, rice, and coffee. These crops, as well as their byproducts, were then sent to the markets in Europe, North America, and many other thriving destinations. The profits that they gained were used to develop their countries and give them more political power.

So, how did Britain get interested in the slave trade?

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (r.1553-1603), it’s said that the English queen frowned upon slavery, even describing it as “detestable”. The Queen believed that slavery would “call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertakers.” But she quickly changed her mind when she realized how much profit Britain had earned following its first slaving expedition.

Still, at that time, it wasn’t that lucrative, especially since Britain hadn’t expanded its empire. That all changed when British settlers arrived and established colonies in North America. Much like the ancient and other previous civilizations, as the colonies developed, so did its reliance on slaves for cheap labor increase. In 1663, the British fully joined in the slave trade, obviously with permission from the monarchy.

Read More: Frequently Asked Questions about Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen”

As the business evolved, the European powers had to find means to supply slaves in a more organized manner. Countries like England, the Netherlands and France established monopoly companies to oversee the transportation of slaves to its colonies, and gain full control of the slave market. As a result, companies like Britain’s Royal African Company were established under the permission of then-reigning monarch King Charles II.

Despite Britain’s late start, the country quickly took over the slave trade. It became the most successful country in the slave trade business, completely dominating the industry by the 1730s. According to statistics, both Britain and Portugal were responsible for the trafficking of more than 65% of African slaves to their colonies in the Americas. Between 1640-1807, Britain sent about 3.4 million African slaves to the Americas, and out of those numbers, about 450,000 of them died.

Britain and the transatlantic slave trade

Overall, an estimate of 12 million Africans were taken their homes and sent to new territories during the the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted for about 400 years. Image: Major slave trading regions of Africa, 15th–19th centuries

Fast facts

  • It’s estimated that about half of the roughly 12.5 million Africans that were enslaved during the transatlantic slave trade came from West Africa.
  • It was often the case that about 10% of all slaves shipped from the West African slave coasts to the Americas died during the arduous journey. This translates to at least 1.2 million people.
  • During the transatlantic slave trade, British slave traders alone were responsible for transporting about 3.4 million enslaved Africans to the Americas.
  • The trade caused immense underdevelopment, social disruption and population decline in those areas. As a result, by the turn of the twentieth century, Europeans became better able to venture into the interior of Africa and quickly bring the continent under colonial rule. In the “Scramble for Africa“, Britain and France ended up being the biggest winners, securing the largest territories on the African continent.

How Britain benefited enormously from Transatlantic Slave Trade

Britain and the transatlantic slave trade

Of the 3.4 million Africans transported by British slave ships, almost 500,000 perished while crossing the Atlantic. In addition to being crammed into disease-ridden slave ships, dehydrated and malnourished, they had to endure all sorts of abuse, including beatings, torture, and force-feeding. Some of the enslaved committed suicides during the voyage or upon landing. Image: Stowage of a British slave ship, Brookes (1788)

Britain’s power and dominance rose as it gained control of the slave trade. It could do this as it was the undisputed naval power in the world at time. That said, slave trade became an extremely lucrative business, which saw the rise of industrialization across the kingdom. Here’s how Britain benefited from the transatlantic slave trade:

It was immensely profitable

During the peak of the slave trade, statistics show that there were approximately 20,000 slaves and slave ship owners across Britain, and they amassed enormous amounts of wealth. Apart from Hawkins, there were many other businessmen and high-ranking politicians involved in the slave trade, including Edward Colston, George Hibbert, Benjamin Buck Greene, and William Beckford.

The Decline of Roman Britain and the Rise of Anglo-Saxon England

Construction of Wealthy Port Cities

Because ships were the main forms of transportation during the slave trade, it led to the development of port cities in Britain and other parts of Europe. London was perhaps the busiest of all, but there were other thriving ports in cities like Liverpool and Glasgow. All of these cities gained a lot of wealth and development as a result of the slave trade.

Sparked the Industrial Revolution

Using slaves for work on plantations and factories meant that labor was extremely cheap. In addition to that, they also earned profits on the items that they exchanged for slaves in Africa. Having more labor meant more output and more demand for products. This in turn had a role in bringing forth the industrial revolution and the international trade of commodities.

No doubt that many European nations, especially Britain, are what they are today largely due to the enormous gains made from the transatlantic slave trade as well the colonization of countries that followed after slavery was abolished. This assertion in no way discounts the sheer scientific innovation that propelled many European countries to lofty heights.

The African slaving coast ran from modern-day Senegal, around South Africa to modern-day Mozambique. Majority of the enslaved people were taken from West Africa, including countries like modern-day Ghana (formerly Gold Coast), Benin, Nigeria, the Gambia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone.

The Call for the End of the Slave Trade

There were several events that took place, which all served as the foundation for the abolishment of the slave trade:

The Quakers Stance on Slave Trade

Slavery and the slave trade were already sensitive topics, especially as the ethical nature of the practice was brought into question. Slave traders and owners used many reasons to justify the sale and use of slaves, including verses from the Christian Bible.

However, the Quakers were among the very first Christian groups to speak against the atrocities of the slave trade. The Quakers were a Christian sect belonging to the Religious Society of Friends, which had been founded by George Fox around 1650. However, several Quakers themselves were slave owners and traders. In 1774, the British Quakers decided to ban members who were slave traders from the group. Back in North America, the Quakers in Pennsylvania who owned slaves decided to free them in 1776.

RELATED: Francis Daniel Pastorius – the German-born preacher and anti-slavery advocate 

Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko”

As slave traders continued to cash in big on the act, more and more people became aware of how destructive slave trade was to Africans. In 1688, a book titled “Oroonoko” was written by the English poet and playwright Aphra Behn (1640-1689).

Largely based on true events woven to promote the idea of an absolute monarchy, Behn’s work told the tale of a Coromantin slave from the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) and how slavery separated him from the love of his life. Following the publishing of the book, readers had divided opinions with some arguing that it had anti-slavery sentiments.

The Case of Somerset v. Stewart

Discussions on the abolishment of slavery came up once again in 1772 during the Somerset v. Stewart court case in Britain. A  slave owner named Charles Stewart had purchased an enslaved African man called James Somerset back in Virginia. Upon receiving a new job opportunity in England, Stewart brought his slave along with him.

While in England, Somerset’s work for his master saw him travel to many parts of England. It was during these errands that he became acquainted with other black people – two of whom made him their godson – as well as other abolitionists. In 1771, Somerset refused to work for Stewart. However, his master had him arrested and put on a ship bound for Jamaica. The former slave’s godparents filed for the matter to be resolved by the court.

The case was decided by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who ruled in favor of Somerset and granted him freedom in England. According to the court “a master could not seize a slave in England and detain him preparatory to sending him out of the realm to be sold.” Following the ruling, many people, including Somerset, saw it as a sign that dark, dark era of slavery was coming to an end. The landmark case boosted the morale of abolitionists across Europe and the Americas.

The Society for Effecting the Abolishment of the Slave Trade

The first official call for the abolition of the slave trade in England occurred on May 22, 1787 during the very first meeting of the newly-formed Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The group had been founded by twelve men who were mostly Quakers. Two other members, Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp, were Anglicans, and they served as the face of the group primarily because of their status in society and the influence they wielded.

The group believed that slave trade was a completely unethical practice, so they set out to do everything in their power to bring an end to practice. The society believed that by putting an end to slavery the lives of numerous European sailors would be spared.

Additionally, they felt that Britain could benefit from other forms of legitimate trade activities. This argument birthed the idea of colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some people disagreed with the Society, essentially of the view that they didn’t need to stop a system that was extremely profitable to them. The naysayers used the Caribbean as an example of how the plantations there had tremendously enriched the economy of Britain.

Despite the opposition, the abolitionists remained undeterred. They were able to gain public support by embarking on campaigns and educating people on what life truly was like in the British colonies in the Americas.

By 1788, they had gained over 100 signatures for the abolishment of the slave trade. Four years later, that number rose to more than 500. The campaign called for the support of all people in society, including women, who typically were excluded from such activities.

Eventually though, the works of the Society for Effecting the Abolishment of the Slave Trade yielded tremendously positive results. In March 1807, twenty years after the formation of the group, the British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.

Wedgwood anti-slavery medallion, produced in 1787 by Josiah Wedgwood

Passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807

The passage of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, while a huge feat, did not mean that slavery had ended. In fact, more work lay ahead for the abolitionists as there were several challenges, with the first being the continuous transportation of more African slaves after 1807. Secondly, the slaves that were already working in the various British colonies were still subjected to cruel and harsh treatments.

The abolitionists were aware of the situation. In William Wilberforce’s 1823 Letter of Appeal for the abolishment of slavery, he wrote, “All early abolitionists had declared that the extinction of slavery was their great and ultimate project.”

A few months after the publishing of his letter, a new group was founded called the Anti-Slavery Society, which included Wilberforce and Clarkson, as well as several other British men and women like Joseph Sturge, Elizabeth Heyrick, Anne Knight, and Mary Lloyd. The new group also had mixed-race members like Richard Hill and Louis Celeste Lecesne, who were of British and Jamaican descent.

The Anti-Slavery Society used the same methods as the previous group in garnering public support for their cause.

It is important to note that following the passage of the Act in 1807 that made slave trade illegal, the Royal Navy worked very hard to suppress the slave trade. In the five decades that followed, the Royal Navy captured about 1500 slave ships and in the process freed nearly 155,000 Africans that were destined for horrific conditions in the Americas.

Britain and the transatlantic slave trade

In spite of the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, illegal trading of enslaved Africans continued. Between 1808 and 1870, the British Royal Navy seized more than 1500 slave ships, and in the process about 155,000 Africans were freed. Image: Capture of slave ship El Almirante by the British Royal Navy in the 1800s. HMS Black Joke freed 466 slaves.

The Baptist War (1831-1832) in Jamaica

During Christmastime in 1831, slaves in Jamaica staged a rebellion against their masters. Called the Baptist War (1831-1832), the slave revolt in Jamaica was led by the enslaved Baptist minister Samuel Sharpe who had mistakenly believed that the conversations on slavery abolition back in England meant that slaves were now free. To advocate for his people’s freedom, he organized a peaceful general strike against the horrible working conditions on the plantations. It was harvest season at the time for the sugarcane crops, and workers had been working insanely long hours to ensure that the crop was harvested in record time.

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a peaceful protest turned violent. When their masters attacked, the rebels retaliated by burning down the crops. The rebellion took place over a period of ten days, gaining support from over 60,000 slaves. At the end of the uprising, more than 200 slaves had died, and Sharpe, along with the other conspirators, were sentenced to death.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833

The Baptist War played a key role in setting the pace for the abolishment of slavery. But the abolitionists had to cross a big hurdle. Before then, many of the plantation owners in the Caribbean had purchased constituencies or nomination boroughs in England. These areas often had representatives in the British Parliament and were able to influence policies in their favor. In this instance, the plantation owners bought these seats in Parliament to block any efforts to abolish slavery, which was extremely profitable to them.

However, their luck turned around when the lobby group, West India Committee, bought more nomination boroughs than the plantation owners. Eventually though, the Reform Act passed in 1832, which introduced changes into the English and Welsh electoral system, ended the practice of purchasing nomination boroughs.

With that obstacle out of the way, the British Parliament was able to pass the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 on July 22, 1833. The landmark act came into effect on August 1, 1834. However, it would take another four years for all enslaved men and women to be emancipated. By 1838, an estimated 800,000 people were released in the Caribbean.

Did you know…?

  • In spite of the ban on slave trade, between 1810 and 1860, over 3.5 million slaves were transported, with 850,000 in the 1820s. What it means is that about 28% of the total volume of Atlantic slave trade occurred after Britain’s ban on slave trade in 1807.
  • The British Parliament agreed to pay plantation owners reparations worth about £20 million, which is about about £17 billion in today’s equivalent. The reparations given to those slavers amounted to about 40% of Britain’s budget at the time. The former enslaved Africans received nothing.
  • In 1998, the British Parliament repealed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and it was incorporated into The Human Rights Act of 1998 and The European Convention on Human Rights. Slavery remains illegal.

Who was William Wilberforce?

William Wilberforce (1759–1833) was a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) by Rising, John (1753-1817)
oil on canvas

William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833) was a leading member of the anti-slavery movement in England. The Yorkshire-born politician and social activist worked alongside with abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, and Charles Middleton. As a member of parliament, Wilberforce’s tireless campaigning is credited with helping with the passage of two anti-slavery acts by the English Parliament – the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (officially An Act for the Abolition of Slave Trade) and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. Relentless in his campaign for the rights of enslaved people, Wilberforce was overjoyed when the latter act criminalized slavery in most of the British Empire. He died that same year and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Why did Britain abolish slavery?

The works of the anti-slavery abolitionists played an immense role in the abolishing of the slave trade and slavery in Britain’s colonies. But there were several other factors that played into the country’s decision to abolish slavery in its territories. Below, World History Edu presents some of the key reasons why Britain ended slavery in 1833:

Failure to Convert Slaves to Christianity

The abolitionists used the British government’s failure to champion its amelioration policy, which had been designed to improve the lives of all slaves in British territories. Among the requirements of the policy, slaves were expected to convert to Christianity.

In their arguments, the abolitionists shared that those stipulations hadn’t been met, citing the lower rates of marriage and births, the continuous practice of traditional religion, and increasing rate of uprisings among slaves in the Caribbean.

Frequent Slave Rebellions in the Caribbean

Before the Baptist War of 1831, there had been two other instances of uprisings in the Caribbean. The first to occur was in 1816 in the colony of Barbados and the second took place in British Guyana in 1823. All the uprisings that sprung up were suppressed by the British colonial authorities and thousands of slaves lost their lives. The abolitionists used these uprisings to further strengthen their case, accusing the government of using violence to silence the oppressed.

Economic Struggles in the Colonies

By the time the demands for the abolishment of slavery were increasing, the British colonies were not as economically sound as they had been previously. Britain amassed most of its wealth from the Caribbean, but by the early 1800s, the supply of sugar was much higher than the demand. Therefore, it led to price reductions.

Additionally, the British also had other competitive sugar plantations to deal with. The Portuguese and Spanish also had sugarcane plantations in Brazil and Cuba respectively. All of that took away Britain’s monopoly over sugar production.

Compensation

According to some historians, the The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 wouldn’t have been passed had the British government not promised to compensate plantation owners. It was the only way they could garner support and ensure that the business owners would re-invest that money back into the British economy.

The Idea of Free Labor

The abolitionists were proponents of the Scottish economist Adam Smith’s “Free Market” concept and used it to support their anti-slavery arguments. Using the East Indies as an example, they supported the idea that free labor was a much better model than what the British used, as it yielded more results.

Politics

The introduction of the new Whig government through the Reform Act of 1832 also influenced Britain’s decision to abolish slavery.

Britain's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade

Thomas Clarkson was and English abolitionist and a leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire

Did you know…?

Here are a few more facts about the transatlantic slave trade:

  • When cultivation of export crops, especially sugar and coffee, in the Americas became very profitable, almost every Western European country joined in the transatlantic slave trade. As the years rolled on, Britain ended up being the biggest trader.
  • Sir John Hawkins, an English naval commander, was the first English slave trader who captured Africans and sent them to the Americas. It was following his trip that Queen Elizabeth I saw how profitable slavery was. Famed English explorer and naval officer Sir Francis Drake was a second cousin to Hawkins. Both men served in England’s famed victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588.

RELATED: 10 Most Famous Explorers of All Time

  • Despite slavery being present since the birth of civilization, the transatlantic slave trade holds the record for being the largest forced migration in the world. It’s estimated that up to 12 million enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic Ocean. Its effects completely shaped continents like Africa, Europe, and North America into what they are now.

  • London, England rose to become the main trading hub in Britain and held that position until the 1730s. It was the place of departure and arrival for many of the slaving ships and served as one of the biggest slaving markets in Europe.

  • A total of 12,103 slaving expeditions were carried out between 1699-1807 with roughly 27% of those ships departing from London.

  • Slave traders that plied the African coasts quickly realized that they had to build very strong alliances with local chiefs and leaders in order to maintain a steady supply of the slave cargo. They built and used castles along the coast to streamline the whole trade. At some point, European slave traders gave the local slave traders guns in order to facilitate their capture of people from the interior of the continent.

Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade was very pronounced. British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a statement in 2006 which condemned the role Britain played in the transatlantic slave trade, calling it a “crime against humanity” and “profoundly shameful”.

Frequently Asked Questions about Britain’s Role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Abolishing of slavery was certainly not a single event; it took many decades for the abolitionist to push public opinion against the act. It therefore happened in a gradual and painful process as the important levers of the trade were undone piece by piece.

Below, are some frequently asked questions about Britain’s involvement in the slave trade:

Who were some of the wealthy and powerful Britons involved in the slave trade?

Britain and the transatlantic slave trade

Many of the slave owners in Britain come from the upper echelons of the society; they included lawmakers, royal officials, judges, and powerful businessmen and merchants.

As stated above, the British government had to compensate slave owners for their loss of ‘property’ following the abolishing of slavery in 1834. Those already powerful and wealthy individuals and slave-based enterprises received a check of about £20 million, which is about £17 billion in today’s equivalent.

Slave owners in Britain ranged from members of the House of Commons, House of Lords to high-ranking royal officials. They included, bankers, real estate moguls, merchants, insurance agents, among others.

These wealthy people were responsible for providing credit arrangements to plantation owners in the Caribbean. Take the example of Heywoods Bank, it is said that the financial organization provided credit facilities to Liverpool merchants that had deep ties to the slave trade. The bank would later become part of Barclays Bank. Other notable players in the industry were Lloyds and even the Bank of England.

Glaswegian merchants like William Cunninghame – a tobacco baron – raked in enormous wealth from the slave trade. As a matter of fact, some of that wealth was used in the uplifting of the Cunninghame Mansion, which later became the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow.

The Lascelles, who emerged from North Yorkshire in the 1600s, invested heavily into sugar and the slave trade. They had links with many merchants and financiers in London, Bristol and Barbados.

It was also the case that when the planters could not pay back the loans, those financial institutions took over the plantation and slaves.

Even the British Museum, which opened in 1759, has benefited from the slave trade. The museum’s early core collection was made up of the artifacts collected by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Sloan was married to a very wealthy widow of a plantation owner in Jamaica. The art collector then funneled some of his newfound wealth to further advance his passion. He would bequeath over 70,000 of his collections to Britain.

Britain and the transatlantic slave trade

Sir Hans Sloane had strong ties to slave-based enterprises

Who were some of the notable black abolitionists in Britain?

There were also black abolitionists like Olaudah Equiano who went from slave to a freed man after buying his freedom in 1776. Hailing from the Kingdom of Benin (in what is today southern Nigeria), Equiano was also a writer; he published a number of works, including his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), that detail his hellish experience as a slave and later a free man.

There was also Ignatius Sancho, an enslaved man who was born on a slave ship in the Atlantic and later enslaved in the Spanish colony of New Granada. Upon reaching the age of 18, he ran away and took protection in Southeast London, where he was tutored by a British peer John Montagu.

In spite of all the horrific conditions, Sancho grew up to become a leading abolitionist and writer. He also became businessman and property owner. As a result, he had the right to vote in a general election. He is considered the first British African to vote in Britain.

British anti-slavery activists

Ignatius Sancho was a British abolitionist and writer

Was Britain the first to abolish slavery?

Due to the immense role Britain played in the whole slave trade business, some people erroneously think that Britain was the first to outlaw slave trade or the institution of slavery. For starters, France, under the National Assembly, abolished slavery in 1794. However, the ban only lasted until 1802, when France, under Napoleon Bonaparte, re-established slavery.

Another example of abolishment slavery that predates Britain was the one in the U.S. state of Vermont in 1777.

Perhaps the greatest example is Haiti, a former French colony that went by the name Saint-Domingue. Haiti was the first country in the modern world to end slavery completely. This landmark moment in human history came in 1804, after a slave revolt that began in 1791. Led by an ex-slave called Toussaint Louverture, enslaved Haitians fought a 12-year brutal war for independence against France and other European powers in order to secure their God-given rights and freedom. Ultimately, Haitians win their independence in 1804, becoming the world’s first black republic. It was also the first time in world history that enslaved people successfully pulled off a slave uprising to establish a country that is governed by them.

Why didn’t Britain and other European slave-trading nations simply set up the plantations in Africa?

Having plantations in Africa obviously sounds like the most cost efficient thing to do since the climate in Africa is almost the same as the one in the Caribbean. So the question that begs to be answered is: why didn’t Britain and other European slavers simply set up plantations on the continent? As a matter of fact, some planters did in deed try to do this; however, they quickly realized that their unfamiliarity with the interior of the continent made it difficult for them. The enslaved people knew their environment better than the planters. This meant that they could easily escape from those plantations and return to their homes. Planters would also have had a very challenging time warding off African tribes that might attempt to free the enslaved workers.

Therefore, by transporting the enslaved Africans across the Atlantic, planters and slavers wouldn’t have to worry about the above. Such journeys also cut the slaves from their roots and culture, making it difficult for them to band together and put up any sort of resistance. And say they were able to revolt, the slaves would have a near impossible chance of returning back home to Africa.

Another point worth mentioning is that early British and European slave traders weren’t powerful enough at the time to venture beyond the West African coasts. Often times, those that did either perished from tropical diseases like yellow fever and malaria. And if those diseases didn’t finish them off, a powerful African tribe was around the corner to halt them in their tracks.

Europeans would not venture into the interior of Africa and begin colonization of the continent until the slave trade ends in the mid-19th century. By then the African empires and cities had been weakened owing to the centuries of slavery that robbed them off a vital part of their resources.

Britain and the transatlantic slave trade

Britain raked in a fortune from the usage of Africans as cheap slave labor on plantations in its colonies in the Americas.

How do we know the number of people enslaved during the transatlantic slave trade?

The system of slavery, which was backed by law, at the time saw enslaved people as ‘chattel’, i.e. ‘property’ of the slavers. What this meant was that like all stock in a typical business, records had to be kept on those ‘properties’. The documentation of such a horrific business venture was completely legal, hence it made sense keeping very good records.

How were the few slaves that lived in Britain treated?

Although there weren’t any cotton plantations in Britain, a small number of enslaved Africans lived in the UK, working as domestic servants. At some point, even Queen Elizabeth I complained about the increasing number of Africans in the UK. The upper crust of the society viewed having black servants as status symbol. They often chose a young African boy, and when those domestic servants reached the age of maturity, they were shipped off to the plantations in the Caribbean.

It must also be noted that the few Africans that came to the UK on their own accord often worked as paid servants of those wealthy families.

And when enslaved people in Britain ran away from their masters, adverts were quickly put out in the newspapers for their capture in exchange for very handsome rewards. The law at time did see runaway slaves as criminals, instead their actions were seen as a civil offense.

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