Slave trade background

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Slave trade background

The trade in slaves in England was made illegal in 1102, and the last form of enforced servitude had disappeared in Britain by the beginning of the seventeenth century. However, by the eighteenth century, black slaves began to be brought into London and Edinburgh as personal servants. They were not bought or sold, and their legal status was unclear until 1772, when the case of a runaway slave named James Somerset forced a legal decision. The owner, Charles Stuart, had attempted to abduct him and send him to Jamaica to work on the sugar plantations. While in London, Somerset had been baptised and his godparents issued a writ of habeas corpus. As a result Lord Chief Justice William Murray, Lord Mansfield, of the Court of King's Bench had to judge whether the abduction was legal or not under English Common Law as there was no legislation for slavery in England. In his judgement of 22 June 1772 he declared: "Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged." It was thus declared that the condition of slavery did not exist under English law. This judgement emancipated the 10 to 14 thousand slaves in England and also laid down that slavery contracted in other jurisdictions (such as the American colonies) could not be enforced in England.

After reading of the Somerset case, a black slave in Scotland, Joseph Knight, left his master, John Wedderburn. A similar case to Steuart's was brought by Wedderburn in 1776, with the same result: that chattel slavery did not exist under the law of Scotland (nevertheless, there were native-born Scottish serfs until 1799, when coal miners previously kept in serfdom gained emancipation).

First steps

Despite the disappearance of slavery in Great Britain, in the American and West Indian colonies of the British Empire, slavery was a way of life.

By 1783, an anti-slavery movement was beginning among the British public. That year the first English abolitionist organization was founded by a group of Quakers. The Quakers continued to be influential throughout the lifetime of the movement, in many ways leading the way for the campaign. On 17 June 1783 the issue was formally brought to government by Sir Cecil Wray (Member of Parliament for Retford), who presented the Quaker petition to parliament. Also in 1783, Dr Beilby Porteus issued a call to the Church of England to cease its involvement in the slave trade and to formulate a workable policy to draw attention to and improve the conditions of Afro-Caribbean slaves.

Black people played an important part in the movement for abolition. In Britain, Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiography went into nine editions in his lifetime, campaigned tirelessly against the slave trade.

Growth of the movement

In May 1787, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed, referring to the Atlantic slave trade, the trafficking in slaves by British merchants who took manufactured goods from ports such as Bristol and Liverpool, sold or exchanged these for slaves in West Africa where the African chieftain hierarchy was tied to slavery, shipped the slaves to British colonies and other Caribbean countries or the American colonies/USA, where they sold or exchanged them mainly to the Planters for rum and sugar, which they took back to British ports. This was the so-called Triangle trade because these mercantile merchants traded in three places each round-trip. Political influence against the inhumanity of the slave trade grew strongly in the late eighteenth century. Many people, some African, some European by descent, influenced abolition. Well known abolitionists in Britain included James Ramsay who had seen the cruelty of the trade at first hand, Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and other members of the Clapham Sect of evangelical reformers, as well as Quakers who took most of the places on the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, having been the first to present a petition against the slave trade to the British Parliament and who founded the predessor body to the Committee . As Dissenters, Quakers were not eligible to become British MPs in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, so the Anglican evangelist William Wilberforce was persuaded to become the leader of the parliamentary campaign. Clarkson became the group's most prominent researcher, gathering vast amounts of information about the slave trade, gaining first hand accounts by interviewing sailors and former slaves at British ports such as Bristol, Liverpool and London.

Mainly because of Clarkson's efforts, a network of local abolition groups was established across the country. They campaigned through public meetings and the publication of pamphlets and petitions. One of the earliest books promoted by Clarkson and the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was the autobiography of the freed slave Olaudah Equiano. The movement had support from such freed slaves, from many denominational groups such as Swedenborgians, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists and others, and reached out for support from the new industrial workers of the cities in the midlands and north of England. Even women and children, previously un-politicised groups, became involved in the campaign although at this date women often had to hold separate meetings and were ineligible to be represented in the British Parliament, as indeed were the majority of the men in Britain.

One particular project of the abolitionists was the negotiation with African chieftains for the purchase of land in West African kingdoms for the establishment of 'Freetown' - a settlement for former slaves of the British Empire and the American colonies/USA, back in west Africa. This privately negotiated settlement, later part of Sierra Leone eventually became protected under a British Act of Parliament in 1807-8, after which British influence in West Africa grew as a series of negotiations with local Chieftains were signed to stamp out trading in slaves. These included agreements to permit British navy ships to intercept Chieftains' ships to ensure their merchants were not carrying slaves.

In 1796, John Gabriel Stedman published the memoirs of his five-year voyage to Surinam as part of a military force sent out to subdue bosnegers, former slaves living in the inlands. The book is critical of the treatment of slaves and contains many images by William Blake and Francesco Bartolozzi depicting the cruel treatment of runaway slaves. It became part of a large body of abolitionist literature.

1805 – Slave Trade Bill

Wilberforce’s bill of 1804 was passed by the commons in but fell in the Lords, as many peers, including Bishops, decided to go to the opera instead of voting!

Slave Trade Act 1807

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by the British Parliament on 25 March 1807. The act imposed a fine of £100 for every slave found aboard a British ship. The intention was to entirely outlaw the slave trade within the British Empire, but the trade continued and captains in danger of being caught by the Royal Navy would often throw slaves into the sea to reduce the fine. In 1827, Britain declared that participation in the slave trade was piracy and punishable by death.

Slavery Abolition Act 1833

After the 1807 act, slaves were still held, though not sold, within the British Empire. In the 1820s, the abolitionist movement again became active, this time campaigning against the institution of slavery itself. The Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1827. Many of the campaigners were those who had previously campaigned against the slave trade.

On 23 August 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act outlawed slavery in the British colonies. On 1 August 1834, all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, but still indentured to their former owners in an apprenticeship system which was finally abolished in 1838. £20 million was paid in compensation to plantation owners in the Caribbean.

Campaigning after the act

From 1839, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society worked to outlaw slavery in other countries and to pressure the government to help enforce the suppression of the slave trade by declaring slave traders pirates and pursuing them. This organization continues today as Anti-Slavery International.

Key dates

  • 1562 First English slaving expedition by Sir John Hawkins

  • 1619 First record of Africans landing in Virginia

  • 1625 First English settlement on Barbados

  • 1626 First boatload of African slaves to St Kitts

  • 1631 Charles I granted monopoly on Guinea trade to a group of London merchants

  • 1672 Royal Africa company granted charter to carry Africans to the Americas

  • 1772 The Somerset case held that no slave could be forcibly removed from Britain; the case led to the widespread belief that slavery itself was illegal in England, Wales and Ireland

  • 1778 Slavery declared illegal in Scotland

  • 1781 133 African slaves thrown overboard from the slave ship, 'Zong'

  • 1783 Committee on the Slave Trade established by Quakers’ Meeting for Sufferings

  • 1787 Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade founded: Granville Sharp as president of a mostly Quaker committee

  • 1791 23 August – St Domingue (Haiti) slave revolt

  • 1792 Resolution for gradual abolition of the slave trade defeated in the House of Lords

  • 1805 Bill for Abolition passed in Commons, rejected in House of Lords

  • 1807 25 March – Slave Trade Abolition Bill passed in the British Parliament

  • 1807 British West Africa Squadron (Royal Navy) established to suppress slave trading; by 1865, nearly 150,000 people freed by anti-slavery operations

  • 1815 End of Napoleonic Wars - at the Congress of Vienna, Britain puts pressure on France, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain to abolish slave trade

  • 1838 1 August – enslaved men, women and children in the Caribbean finally become free after a period of forced apprenticeship, following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833

  • 1842 Britain and United States signed Webster-Ashburton Treaty, banning slave trade on high seas

  • 1848 Emancipation by the French of their slaves

  • 1865 Slavery finally abolished in the United States territories

  • 1888 Slavery abolished in Brazil

Records of slaves in Britain

Slave graves can be found everywhere. A headstone at St Mary's church, Culworth, Northamptonshire, is in memory of Charles Bacchus, who died in 1762. He was an African servant to a local family. In the churchyard of St Martin's in Werrington, Cornwall, we find the final resting place of 'an African', Philip Scipio, who worked for Sir William Morice.

Scipio died in 1700. A well-tended gravestone at Sunderland Point, Lancaster, commemorates the short life of a child called Samboo, and reminds us of the young African children who worked as domestic slaves throughout Britain.

In stark contrast to these overlooked and often overgrown stones and inscriptions, monuments and memorials to the families of slave traders, planters and West India merchants are in great abundance in the most prominent places of worship. St Mary Redcliffe (appropriately found on Colston Parade, Bristol) and Bath Abbey are probably the most significant sites in this regard.

Church and Slavery
John Newton – wrote ‘Amazing Grace’ – was a slave owner.
Society for Propogation of the Gospel owned slaves in 18th and 19th C on Codrington plantation in West Indies. Slaves there were noted for their short life span – in 1746 one third lived less than 3 years. Codrington inspired the Bishop Porteous of Chester to speak up for abolition.
Bishop of Exeter - The Bishop's Palace at Exeter was restored under the direction of Henry Phillpotts (Bishop of Exeter from 1830 to 1869). The project was partly financed by the compensation that was paid to the bishop and his colleagues for the 665 slaves they were obliged to relinquish on Barbados when slavery was abolished in 1838.
Between 1776 and 1807 – 1m slaves passed through Britain.

Abolitionist Bishops
Rt Rev Beilby Porteus, DD, Bishop of Chester and London (May 8, 1731 – May 13, 1809) was an Anglican reformer and leading abolitionist. He was the first Anglican in a position of authority to seriously challenge the Church's position on slavery.

Beilby Porteus was the son of Robert Porteus, a native of Virginia in British America, who had returned to England in 1720. Educated at York and Ripon, he was a classics scholar at Christ's College, Cambridge, becoming a fellow in 1752. In 1759 he won the Seatonian Prize for his poem Death: A Poetical Essay, a work for which he is still remembered. He was ordained as a priest in 1757, and by 1762 had been appointed domestic chaplain to Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury and, from 1769, chaplain to King George III.

In 1776 Dr Porteus was appointed Bishop of Chester, taking a keen interest in the affairs of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

As Bishop of Chester, Beilby Porteus became known as a noted abolitionist – he took a deep interest in the plight of West Indian negro slaves, preaching and campaigning actively against the slave trade and taking part in many debates in the House of Lords. Renowned as a scholar and a popular preacher, it was in 1783 that the young bishop was to first come to national attention by preaching his most famous and influential sermon.

Porteus used the opportunity afforded by the invitation to preach the 1783 Anniversary Sermon of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) to criticise the Church’s role in ignoring the plight of the 350 slaves on its Codrington Estates in Barbados, and to recommend means by which the lot of slaves there could be improved.

It was a well-reasoned and much-reprinted plea for The Civilisation, Improvement and Conversion of the Negroe Slaves in the British West-India Islands Recommended, and was preached before forty members of the society, including eleven bishops of the Church of England. When this largely fell upon deaf ears, Porteus next began work on his Plan for the Effectual Conversion of the Slaves of the Codrington Estate, which he presented to the SPG committee in 1784 and, when it was turned down, again in 1789.

These were the first challenges to the establishment in an eventual twenty-six year campaign to eradicate slavery in the British West Indian colonies. Porteus made a huge contribution and eventually turned to other means of achieving his aims, including writing, encouraging and aiding the political initiatives of Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and others, and supporting the sending of mission workers to Barbados and Bermuda.

He was active in the establishment of Sunday Schools in every parish, an early patron of the Church Missionary Society and one of the founder members of the British and Foreign Bible Society, of which he became vice-president.

In 1787 Dr Porteus was translated to the bishopric of London on the advice of William Pitt (the Younger), a position he continued to hold until his death in 1809.

In 1788 Porteus supported Sir William Dolben’s Slave Trade Bill from the bench of bishops, and over the next quarter century he became the leading advocate within the Church of England for the abolition of slavery, lending support to such men as Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, Henry Thornton and Zachary Macaulay to secure the eventual passage of the Slave Trade Bill in 1807.

In view of his passionate involvement in the anti-slavery movement and his friendship with other leading abolitionists, it was especially appropriate that, as Bishop of London, he should now find himself with official responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the British colonies overseas. He was responsible for missions to the West Indies, as well as to India, and published volumes of sermons and tracts.

During much of the following twenty years - a time of huge national and international political upheaval, Porteus was in a position to influence opinion in the influential circles of the Court, the government, the City of London and the highest echelons of Georgian society.

Leicester and slavery

Rothley Court in Leicestershire was the home of Thomas Babington, a friend of William Wilberforce. In the late 18th century William Wilberforce is thought to have drafted his 'Treaty for the Abolition of Slavery' while staying there, and it was a key meeting house for those pushing for reform.

Elizabeth Heyrick was born in Leicester in 1769. She was a Quaker, and a passionate mover in the campaign against slavery. A writer too, she locked horns with William Wilberforce as she wanted the immediate emancipation of slaves in the British colonies, and as she was a fundraiser for Wilberforce, she eventually got her way.

Susannah Watts was a friend of Elizabeth Heyrick. Another passionate supporter of the campaign against slavery, she went from door to door around Leicester urging people not to buy slave produced sugar…which must be one of the earliest fair trade campaigns! As a writer, she also wrote pamphlets against the slave trade.

Rasselas Morjan was one of the first slaves to be freed in Victorian Britain. He was originally from Abyssinia , but was buried in Wanlip after his death at the age of 19. In 2000 there was a special memorial service for him, and his story inspired a special dramatic performance.

Edward Juba was a slave when he came to Leicestershire, but became a servant in a house at Kirby Mallory. In an incredible rise through the social and political system, he actually became a freeman of the city of Leicester.

Slavery Now
BBC 19/3/07 – “Beaten, betrayed and forced to have sex with up to 20 men a day - it sounds like a horror story but this is the testimony of a sex slave in Leicester. Edita, who was 19 when she was brought into the UK illegally from Lithuania, said her life had been ruined by the experience. This is a reality for thousands of women trafficked into the UK.“
Bonded labour affects millions of people around the world. People become bonded labourers by taking or being tricked into taking a loan for as little as the cost of medicine for a sick child. To repay the debt, many are forced to work long hours, seven days a week, up to 365 days a year. They receive basic food and shelter as 'payment' for their work, but may never pay off the loan, which can be passed down for generations.

Early and forced marriage affects women and girls who are married without choice and are forced into lives of servitude often accompanied by physical violence.

Forced labour affects people who are illegally recruited by individuals, governments or political parties and forced to work -- usually under threat of violence or other penalties.

Slavery by descent is where people are either born into a slave class or are from a 'group' that society views as suited to being used as slave labour.

Trafficking involves the transport and/or trade of people -- women, children and men -- from one area to another for the purpose of forcing them into slavery conditions.

Worst forms of child labour affects an estimated 126 million** children around the world in work that is harmful to their health and welfare.

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