The slave trade - a historical background

In 1807, the British government passed an Act of Parliament abolishing the slave trade throughout the British Empire. Slavery itself would persist in the British colonies until its final abolition in 1838. However, abolitionists would continue campaigning against the international trade of slaves after this date.

The slave trade refers to the transatlantic trading patterns which were established as early as the mid-17th century. Trading ships would set sail from Europe with a cargo of manufactured goods to the west coast of Africa. There, these goods would be traded, over weeks and months, for captured people provided by African traders. European traders found it easier to do business with African intermediaries who raided settlements far away from the African coast and brought those young and healthy enough to the coast to be sold into slavery.

Once full, the European trader's ship would depart for the Americas or the Caribbean on the notorious 'Middle Passage'. During this voyage, the slaves would be kept in the ship's hold, crammed close together with little or no space to move. Conditions were squalid and many people did not survive the voyage. On the final leg of the transatlantic route, European ships returned home with cargoes of sugar, rum, tobacco and other 'luxury' items. It has been estimated that, by the 1790s, 480,000 people were enslaved in the British Colonies.

The majority of those sold into slavery were destined to work on plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas, where huge areas of the American continent had been colonized by European countries. These plantations produced products such as sugar or tobacco, meant for consumption back in Europe.

Those who supported the slave trade argued that it made important contributions to the country's economy and to the rise of consumerism in Britain. Despite this, towards the end of the eighteenth century, people began to campaign against slavery. However, since trading was so profitable for those involved, the 'Abolitionists' (those who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade) were fiercely opposed by a pro-slavery West Indian lobby. Those who still supported slavery used persuasive arguments, or 'propaganda', to indicate the necessity of the slave trade though the abolitionists also used propaganda to further their cause.

The role of many slaves themselves in bringing slavery to an end is often overlooked. Resistance among slaves in the Caribbean was not uncommon. Indeed, slaves in the French colony of St Domingue seized control of the island and it was eventually declared to be the republic of Haiti. Figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, by adding their eye witness accounts to abolitionist literature, also made a major contribution to the abolition campaign.