The subject of British Abolitionism has long been controversial, complex, and even baffling. Britain moved quickly from being the world’s leading purchaser and transporter of African slaves to the total outlawing of its slave trade in 1807. In 1823, the Nation took steps to protect and ameliorate the condition of slaves in its colonies. An act of Parliament in 1833 peacefully emancipated nearly eight hundred thousand slaves providing the then staggering sum of twenty million pounds sterling as compensation to the slaves’ owners. However, what were the most important factors explaining the abolition of slavery? This essay argues that the emancipation of the slaves happened thanks to the rise of public opinion and the moral idea that indeed slavery was wrong both from a religious and humanitarian point of view. However, it is also important to discuss the economic factors. In fact, it can be argued, based on Eric Williams’s theory, that slavery was abolished because it was no longer profitable. Thus, this essay will firstly analyse the role of public opinion aided by the rise of religious morality and Non-conformist congregation; the mobilisation of British women campaigning against slavery as well as the many slave revolts and the economic reasons leading to abolitionism.
Slavery and the slave trade did not immediately become burning moral issues. For many the slave system was an issue of moral indifference. Some people were born to be free and others were born to be slaves. During the 1770s, however, a series of largely disconnected legal decisions, pamphlets, and tracts drew attention to the many evils connected with the system. A growing moral concern over the Atlantic Slave System led in 1787 to the formation of England’s Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (SEAST). In 1823 the attention of British campaigns switched from the slave trade to slavery itself. A new national society was formed: the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery thorough the British Dominions, known as the Anti-Slavery Society. In 1792 more Britons signed petitions to parliament against the slave trade than were eligible to vote, and, in the same year, more than 300,000 people refused to buy West Indian sugar. As the historian William Palmer argues, an issue of moral indifference had been transformed for many into a moral imperative.
In 1869 the great historian W.E.H. Lecky concluded his History of European Morals with the statement: “The unwearied, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations.” However, early critics also pointed out that abolitionist propaganda was a way of diverting Britons’ attention from the much closer ravages of industrialism— from the “dark Satanic mills” where workers, including women and small children, were in effect imprisoned in factories and were far more oppressed than the slaves who worked in the open air and sunny fields in the West Indies. DavId Brion Davis believed that many of those who attacked slavery as harsh and unfree did so in order to defend industrial labour on the grounds that it was at least free labour. Davis’s strongest evidence came from Quaker capitalists who played a critical role in transforming anti slavery into a broader humanitarian movement. These Quaker elites were often owners or investors in factories, and, according to Davis, seemed to have been seeking tools by which they could instil a deeper level of workplace discipline and social control. Abolitionism suited the needs of Quaker capitalists because it pronounced the superiority of wage to slave labour and enabled the Quaker capitalists to forge alliances with other, more highly placed, political groups.
On the other hand, several of the most conspicuous intellectual movements of the time, including the Enlightenment, natural rights theories, and the emergence of Evangelical religion, had ideas antithetical to slavery. At first, historians tended to stress the religious motivation on the part of the reformers. The most prominent leaders of anti-slavery, particularly Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, were Evangelicals, who claimed to be inspired by biblical precepts. The earliest historians of English abolitionism treated Clarkson and Wilberforce as saints, selfless humanitarians who doggedly pursued the cause of abolition for over three decades. Christopher Brown on the other hand, finds much to dislike about current historical writing on the origins of British abolitionism. His principal complaint is that the usual suspects for the reform impulse, the Enlightenment, the proliferation of rights theories, and Evangelical religion, are, in Brown’s view, too diverse and contradictory to have caused such a movement. More seriously, he believes that employing them as part of an explanatory framework suggested a kind of inevitability to the emergence of the movement, which he contends was misleading. It is often hard to connect the ideas in these movements to particular individuals in the abolitionist movement.
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However, the most significant growth area in the historical research on West Indian slavery has been on slave resistance and rebellion. The historian James Walvin argues that the slave revolts were also caused by the influence of Christianity. In fact, from the late eighteenth century with the rise of non-conformist group chapels and preacher began to swarm over the slave islands. Through Christianity, slaves accepted that salvation could be theirs and thus Christian experience had profound consequences for society. Three large-scale slave uprisings in the British colonies featured prominently in the metropolitan debate over emancipation. These occurred in Barbados in 1816, Demerara in 1823, and Jamaica in 1831. Gelien Matthews argues that antislavery reactions to the Barbadian revolt were largely defensive because abolitionists were uneasy about supporting a violent uprising. This position was modified over time, however, and abolitionists presented the facts of the Jamaican rebellion as clear evidence that slavery was an unworkable system. Matthews contends that the 1833 Emancipation Bill was passed amid claimed that the fundamental inhumanity of slavery caused slaves to confront their masters and that freedom would have to be granted in order to avoid chaos in the colonies. Nonetheless, although the slave rebellions failed in their immediate objectives, they contributed to the development of the abolitionist campaign, forcing antislavery campaigners to take more radical stances against the slave- holders. Each slave revolt was suppressed with levels of violence that shocked metropolitan opinion, thus the question was asked: was slavery worth it?
British women started to ask the same question and despite their continuing exclusion from national committees, women played a vital part in all stages, mostly notably through the anti-slavery associations. On the 8th of April 1825 the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society in Britain was formed. Ladies’ associations believed that their primary role was the diffusion of information in order to arouse public opinion. The Birmingham Women produced propaganda, which made use of middle-class women’s accomplishments. Clare Midgley argues that this use of an acceptable feminine activity for a practical and philanthropic end was an example of the way in which women linked the ‘private’ sphere of domestic work with the ‘public’ sphere of campaigning. One important aspect of anti-slavery work was the campaign for abstention from slave-grown sugar. Elizabeth Heyrick, the foremost female anti-slavery pamphleteer of the period, also prompted abstention. Heyrick had argued in 1824 that abstention was not simply a matter of conscience, rather, in the absence of any progress towards emancipation by Parliament, destroying the market for the products of slave labour was the safest and speediest way of forcing planters to change from slave to free labour. In 1824 a pamphlet was published anonymously under the title Immediate, not Gradual Abolition. While initially mistaken by some as the work of a man, its author was, in fact, the Leicester Quaker abolitionist Elizabeth Heyrick. In her pamphlet, Heyrick had a clear vision of the course to emancipation: Guide people to buy correctly; which involved appeals to the heart; with regenerated hearts, good people would pressure planters into making morally right decisions, even if the planters themselves did not experience the sympathy that could produce a conversion. Heyrick’s pamphlet and women’s influence was thus so great that the Anti-Slavery Society reorganized and renamed itself in 1830, now calling for the immediate freedom of all slaves.
Historians paid little attention to the contributions of slavery to the development of the West Indies commodities and to the formation and growth of modern capitalism. Thus, Eric Williams’ Capitalism & Slavery, published in 1944, was both acclaimed and criticised. Williams argued that British West Indian production was pivotal to the formation of capital in Britain and laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The even more revolutionary assertion was that the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of the slaves occurred less due to the role of the abolitionists and other humanitarians than to the overall decline of the British West Indian sugar economy at the end of the 18th century. With the separation of the United States at the end of the First British Empire, and the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), there emerged the enlightened belief that slave labour was inefficient, unprofitable, and an impediment to economic growth. Several highly respected scholars have supported the Williams decline thesis.
However, the historian Roger Anstey was in many ways Eric Williams’s antithesis, as he challenges most of Williams’ arguments. First, Anstey noted that there was no group in parliament self-consciously claiming to represent those with an interest in developing economic forces. Secondly, in 1796 a bill for the immediate abolition of slavery nearly passed the House of Commons at the height of the sugar boom. Perhaps Anstey’s most intriguing point was his contention that while the abolitionists were genuine humanitarians, they actually went out of their way to disguise their humanitarian motives. Instead of attacking the slave trade on humanitarian grounds, Anstey observed, that they appealed to self-interest, claiming that ending the trade would benefit everyone economically. However, the broadside attack on Capitalism & Slavery came in 1977 with the publication of Seymour Drescher’s Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition. Drescher argued that abolition of the slave trade was comparable to committing suicide for a major part of Britain’s economy. Econocide totally destroyed the belief that the British slave system had declined in value before Parliament outlawed the slave trade. Using statistics on overseas trade, Drescher showed that the value of British West Indian exports to England and of imports in the West Indies from England increased sharply from the early 1780s to the end of the eighteenth century. Drescher also demonstrated that the British West Indies’ share of the total British overseas trade rose to high peaks in the early nineteenth century and did not begin a long-range decline until well after Parliament deprived the colonies of fresh supplies of African labour. Drescher thus, contended that the British slave system was expanding, not declining, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
It can be seen, therefore, that British abolitionism was achieved thanks to a mixture of factors. Slavery became a moral issue and more people were against it. Slave resistances were crucial as they put pressure on the colonial system and led to the decision that slavery ultimately had to be abolished. All of this was aided by the rising role of religion and the role of women, who advocated for immediate abolition. Economic factors also played a role and it’s still debated if emancipation came because slavery was no longer profitable. However, the historian David Brion Davis ultimately argues that: ‘The laws of 1807, 1833, and 1838 show that, given a fortunate convergence of economic, political, and ideological circumstances, the world’s first industrial nation could transcend narrow self-interest and achieve genuine reform.’