Abolitionist campaigners

A great many individuals, as well as groups, were involved in the campaign to abolish the slave trade. The campaigners were men and women from all walks of life, from MPs to artists and writers. Freed slaves, able to offer eye witness accounts of the suffering experienced during the ' middle passage' and in the British colonies, also took part in the campaign. Below is a short list detailing the biographies of some of the campaigners discussed in this resource.

Thomas Clarkson (1760 - 1846)


Thomas Clarkson was one of the most prominent eighteenth century anti-slavery campaigners. Described by one contemporary as a 'moral steam-engine', he was an Anglican clergyman who had had a passionate interest in the abolition of the slave trade since his time at Cambridge University. As a student he wrote a prize winning essay on slavery, which was later published and brought him into contact with other anti-slavery campaigners like Granville Sharp.

In 1787, he helped form the first Abolitionist Committee. He was a crucial person to the anti-slavery campaign because of his tireless energy, his hatred of injustice and his persuasiveness in getting witnesses on board. However, more conservative campaigners like William Wilberforce thought Clarkson was a hot head.

He travelled hundreds of miles to interview people involved in the slave trade. He talked to ships' captains and crew, doctors, ex-seamen, merchants and traders for evidence. This was sometimes at great personal risk but he was able to persuade some of them to be witnesses. He also collected equipment found on slave ships.

He wrote 'The History, Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament' in 1808 chronicling what he saw as his role in the campaign.

William Cowper (1731 - 1800)



William Cowper, the poet, wrote a number of anti-slavery poems. He was friends with the anti-slavery campaigner John Newton who asked him to write in support of the Abolitionist campaign. Cowper wrote a poem called 'The Negro's Complaint' (1788) which rapidly became very famous. He also wrote several other less well known poems on slavery in the 1780s, many of which attacked the idea that slavery was economically viable.

Olaudah Equiano (1745 - 1797)



Equiano was one of the most prominent black campaigners in the anti-slavery campaign. He was an ex-slave who, by the 1780s, lived as a free man in London. He is mostly remembered for his 1789 autobiography. It tells of his kidnap in Nigeria, his being sold into slavery, his journey to the West Indies, his life as a slave and his struggle to buy his freedom. Between 1789 and 1794, there were nine editions of the book and it was translated into many languages. Although not the first account of slavery from an African point of view, his book became the most popular and widely read.

Alexander Falconbridge (died 1792)

Alexander Falconbridge was a ship's surgeon from Bristol and a friend of John Newton. He experienced life aboard ship during four crossings of the Atlantic before quitting the slave trade on principle. The abolitionist campaigner Thomas Clarkson realised he would make an excellent witness and Falconbridge was interviewed by Richard Philips, a member of the Abolitionist Committee who used his information to publish a detailed, gritty, memorable account of conditions on board a slave ship. His book was published in 1788 and was widely read. He also gave evidence at a parliamentary hearing.

Elizabeth Heyrick (1769 - 1831)



Elizabeth Heyrick was one of the most prominent female campaigners against slavery in the 1820s and 1830s. She was a Quaker from Leicester with progressive political views, who devoted her life to social reform. She helped set up a Ladies Association in Birmingham and organised a sugar boycott in Leicester. She had very radical views, favouring the immediate emancipation of slaves while the Anti-Slavery Society preferred gradual emancipation.

Toussaint Louverture (c.1743 - 1803)



As one of the leaders of the Haitian revolution, Louverture is considered one of the fathers of the Haitian nation. Born around 1743, he was legally freed in 1777 and died in 1803. His name is also spelt Toussaint L'ouverture.

John Newton (1725 - 1807)



John Newton was a former slave trader who converted to evangelical Christianity after his miraculous escape from an Atlantic storm in 1748. He later became a clergyman and, in 1764, he was ordained as a priest. In his later years, he chose to campaign against the slave trade. He wrote a journal of his life on board a slave ship and also an anti-slavery pamphlet. He is particularly famous for the hymn 'Amazing Grace' which tells the story of his redemption through religion.

Mary Prince



Mary Prince was a slave, born in Barbados, but brought to Britain by her owners. Once in Britain, she tried unsuccessfully to gain her freedom and decided to go public with her experiences of being a slave. Her story was narrated to the author Susannah Strickland and was published in 1831. Her account particularly appealed to female anti-slavery campaigners as it highlighted the effect slavery had on domestic life.

Granville Sharp (1735 - 1813)



As chairman of the Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade, Sharp was the oldest and most experienced of the members. He had spoken out against slavery long before it was a popular cause. He worked closely with Wilberforce and Clarkson and personally lobbied the Prime Minister, William Pitt and the Leader of the Opposition, Charles Fox.

He came from a wealthy and deeply religious Yorkshire family. He was an extraordinarily active pamphleteer on slavery as well as a whole range of other topics. He also developed a reputation for taking up in court the cases of fugitive slaves who had been brought to London from the West Indies and wanted their freedom. He won a historic ruling in the James Somerset case of 1771, which forbade owners with black servants in Britain from deporting them back to slavery in the West Indies.

William Wilberforce (1759 - 1833)



William Wilberforce was the main figurehead in Parliament for the Abolitionist campaign. He was born in Kingston-upon-Hull into a wealthy family of wool merchants and represented the town as MP. He was recruited by Thomas Clarkson, who recognised that, in order to get Parliament to change the law, the anti-slavery cause needed a brilliant advocate inside Parliament itself. Wilberforce was very well suited for this role. He was a great orator, wealthy, well connected, known for his integrity and was particularly keen to improve society, especially from 1785 after his conversion to evangelical Christianity.

He made his first speech in Parliament against slavery in 1789 and made a great impression. However, a mixture of external events (including the slave rebellion in Haiti in 1791 which hardened public attitudes) and poor tactics prevented his abolition bill being passed in the House of Commons in 1791. A similar bill proposed in April 1792 was passed by MPs only after it was amended and conceded to a 'gradual' abolition of the slave trade.

During the period of 1792-1805 when England was at war with France, support for the abolitionist campaign collapsed. Wilberforce, therefore, pursued other issues of reform but retained his belief that one day slavery would be abolished. In 1807, after a long, emotional debate, the Abolition Act was finally passed.