Skip to content

From Slavery to Freedom

Updated Monday, 25th July 2005

James Walvin, Professor of History at the University of York, outlines the story of the abolition of the slave trade.

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

Sam Sharpe and slaves Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

The Americas (1492- 1620s)
Slavery was a common institution in many societies in the pre-modern world. Before Columbus’s explorations in the Americas, slavery was common in Africa. And Europeans had already begun to employ Africans as slaves in Portugal and Spain and in their Atlantic islands. Though Africans were employed in a number of pioneering American settlements, they only became economically vital after the widespread development of sugar plantations in Brazil by c. 1560. Cane sugar, originally imported from the Mediterranean and Atlantic islands, transformed the taste of the western world - what could be more British than a sweet cup of tea? Yet all this was made possible by African slave labour.

The West Indies (1620-1655)
The British followed the Brazilian pattern and turned to sugar and slaves after trying other crops and labour systems in their new Caribbean colonies, led by St.Kitts (1623) and Barbados (1625) The lead was then taken by the larger and more luxuriant island of Jamaica (1655). In Virginia and Maryland, Africans were drafted into new tobacco plantations (the slaves often being trans-shipped via the Caribbean).

In North America and the Caribbean, black slaves inevitably drifted into all corners of the local economy. They made possible rice cultivation in South Carolina, later still cotton across the U.S. South. But as early as 1700 slaves could be found throughout the settled Americas in both town and country, working on ships (including the slave ships) and in most corners of the economy. But their prime task was to produce export crops for Europe.

The Slave Trade (1500-1860)
Something like 70% of all Africans shipped across the Atlantic were destined to work in the sugar fields. The numbers involved were staggering. Of the twelve millions loaded onto the slave ships, some ten and a half million survived, landing mainly in the Caribbean and Brazil. North America received less than 10% of the total. The British however did not pioneer slavery in the Americas, but they, more than any other people, perfected it. Of the approximate 27,000 slave voyages we know of, about 12,000 were British/British colonial. Of those, 6,000 sailed from Liverpool.

Prosperity flowed to most corners of the slave economy - except of course to the slaves. The British economy benefited hugely. The slave ships bound for Africa were filled with British (and Asian) goods to be exchanged for African slaves. Dozens of British ports dispatched slave ships, though the trade was dominated by London, Bristol and Liverpool. Thousands of British people worked on those ships and in servicing them; British business and finance (dominated by London of course) prospered from the expanding Atlantic trade. Similarly, slave-grown produce returning to British ports (sugar and rum, tobacco , rice and coffee) spawned their own industries in Britain. And the plantations of the Americas were able to function because of the imports from Europe, Africa and North America.

In fact profits from the slave trade were rarely exceptional, and the commercial risks were enormous. Voyages were long, dangerous, and the human cargoes both volatile and prone to devastating diseases. Nonetheless, the fact that so many traders and others persisted in slave trading is the clearest indication of the profits they hoped to reap. What emerges in the Atlantic in the years, 1560-1860 was a complex, inter-related economic system which linked three continents. But the essential lubricant of that system was the African slave.

The eighteenth century was the pinnacle of the Atlantic slave system. Some made slave-based fortunes on a lavish scale. The Pinneys of St Kitts and Bristol, the Beckfords of Jamaica, London and Fonthill, the Lascelles/Harewoods of Barbados, Jamaica and Yorkshire are among the most prominent of slave traders, planters and merchants whose slave-based wealth enabled them to return to live a lavish life-style in Britain. Like the Indian Nabobs they grew wealthy on colonial pickings. But they were also exceptional. At the other end of the spectrum were the thousands of men on the slave ships whose lives were miserable, ill-rewarded and often short. Trading and lingering on the African coast was dangerous for Europeans, and few ships failed to lose crewmen to local diseases. Slave ships aimed to leave as soon as possible, but they had to persist, trawling up and down the coast, until they had filled their holds with Africans. The condition of the Africans below decks was wretched beyond compare. The months taken to cross the Atlantic was a communal trauma of filth, death and disease which scarred the survivors and which entered slave folk memory.

Sam Sharpe and slaves Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Abolition (1750-1807)
European slave traders rarely doubted or questioned their work. They generally gave thanks to the Lord for a quick/safe/profitable passage, praying for good winds and good trade. They gave thankful prayers when safe from storms and slave rebellion. Rarely however did they imagine that their work was a godless, unchristian exercise. The Africans below decks were mere items of trade, numbered and documented in the slave logs like beasts and other items of trade: numbered but never named. The Atlantic slave system had reduced the African to an object. This was achieved not simply by the impersonal rise of an economic system, but through conscious policy: by Acts of Parliament, by colonial laws (approved in London), by common law decisions, and by the vigorous activities of British (and other European) merchants, traders, planters and working people, at all points of this notorious `triangular trade.’ (In fact it was much more geometrically complex than a mere triangle suggests). The basic point remains: few people - except the slaves – resisted the development of the Atlantic slave system, for the simple reason that it seemed to offer material well-being to all concerned (except the slaves). Few worried about the morality of slavery.

That began to change in the mid-18th century. There had been critical objections from churchmen in the pioneering days of Iberian slavery, but in time they had been silenced by the clamour of profitable trade. Quakers raised the first effective objections in the late 17th century, and American Quakers based in Philadelphia, became more persistently critical from the mid-18th century onwards. Their religious objections were joined by an expanding chorus of moral and practical criticisms which flowed from Enlightenment writers in France and Scotland at much the same time.

In England, the complex legal issues raised by holding slaves in England itself, and the campaign led by Granville Sharp against slavery in England, coincided with the rise of a new sensibility in the late 18th century. This feeling focused on the obvious human outrages of slavery and, above all, of the slave trade. Arguments about American Independence (and the role of slavery in North America) in 1776-1783 also drew political attention to the issue of slavery.

In 1787 a small London group (Quaker dominated) and lobbied by Africans in London, met to campaign against the slave trade. Thereafter the abolition movement was led in Parliament by William Wilberforce and in the country at large by Thomas Clarkson, under the banner 'Am I not a man and a brother?' They proved amazingly successful, throughout the country and among all social groups. Abolitionist pamphlets and petitions gave public voice to universal abolitionist sentiment. Abolition was also reinforced by the ideas of 1789 (the Rights of Man). But the slave revolt in Haiti, and the fear it provoked, delayed the cause. After a number of close calls, Parliaments finally abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 (the Americans did so the year after.)

William of Somerly with slaves Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Emancipation (1807-1860)
Despite the efforts of the American and British navies, almost 3 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic, mainly to Brazil (coffee) and Cuba (tobacco) between 1807-1860. Slavery continued to be important, notably in coffee and tobacco plantations in Brazil and Cuba. Slavery - as opposed to the slave trade – also continued in the West Indies (and in the U.S. South - now booming on slave-grown cotton.) Abolitionist hopes that the ending of the slave trade would lead to a natural decline of slavery itself did not materialize. Moreover, major slave revolts (Barbados 1816, Demerara 1822 and Jamaica 1831-1832) were grim reminders that, whatever outsiders said, the slaves themselves were determined not to tolerate slavery. In the mid-1820s British abolition was revived with the aim of ending slavery completely. The cause was carried forward by the wider demands of reform (notably the reform of Parliament.)

When Parliament was finally reformed in 1832, slavery was doomed. The composition of Parliament was changed and its new members disliked slavery. The once powerful West India lobby had lost its political strength. Demands for black freedom became universal, driven forward not merely by the formal abolition campaign (in which women played a key part) but by Evangelicals in the Church of England and by the coalition of new non-conformist churches (which had also converted tens of thousands of slaves to Christianity in the West Indies.) Black and white, on both sides of the Atlantic, united to demand an end to slavery.

Nineteenth century slavery (1834-1838)
Parliament agreed to free slaves partially in 1834, completely in 1838. Even then, Parliament compensated the slave owners (to the tune of twenty million pounds) - but not the slaves. At a stroke, three quarters of a million slaves became free people in the Caribbean. Slavery in the U.S. South however continued to thrive until destroyed by the Civil War and the 13th Amendment in 1865. Cuban slavery was ended in 1886, Brazilian in 1888.

Why was slavery ended?
Was the drive against slavery inspired by religious/moral outrage, or was it determined by a change in economic interests? Perhaps the British no longer needed slavery and slave-based goods, and perhaps they could prosper from new systems of free trade and free labour? Even so, the new Lancashire cotton industry depended on slave grown cotton (imported from the U.S. South) in its early days. Historians continue to argue about the precise reasons for the ending of slavery. But no one, now, doubts the critical role played by African slavery in the evolution of the western world in the long span between European settlement of the Americas and the rise of modern industry in the mid-nineteenth century.





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?