Minutes of Committee for Abolition of Slavery
The minutes of the first meeting, on 22 May 1787, of the first great 'lobby group': it campaigned for nearly 50 years to end the vile but lucrative slave trade, not just in Britain but throughout the world
Minutes of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1787
Copyright © The British Library Board
What was Britain's history of slave trading?
William the Conqueror had banned the export of slaves from England and in 1102, at the Council of Westminster, the Church had outlawed slavery. But for 250 years from 1562, when John Hawkins conveyed African slaves to the West Indies, there thrived a lucrative slave trade based in Britain, despite growing calls for abolition on humanitarian grounds.
How did English law regard slaves?
There were various legal cases involving slaves who came to England, often with conflicting results. One proved a landmark: Somerset v Stewart in 1772. Stewart had come to England with his slave, Somerset, who escaped but was recaptured and chained onboard ship ready for return to Virginia. His plight was noted by abolitionists who applied for a writ of habeas corpus. The judge ruled that all the time a slave was in England he was subject to English law, not colonial law, and as such could not be forcibly removed. Somerset was freed.
The case had been championed by Granville Sharp. He produced many pamphlets, and joined forces with former slave Olaudah Equiano, whose memoirs proved popular. In 1783 they were involved in the case of the slave ship Zong, whose captain had thrown 133 ill slaves overboard because they were worth more under insurance than as cargo. But the judge did not see this as mass murder, because slaves were property.
How did the abolitionists start?
In 1787, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade was established. The minutes of that very first meeting on 22 May are shown above, recording the 12 original members. They met at in a printers and bookshop at 2 George Yard, London, after the workers had gone home. Most were Quakers, but it also included Sharp as chairman, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood, and the MP William Wilberforce. The minutes began: "At a Meeting held for the Purpose of taking the Slave Trade into consideration, it was resolved that the said Trade was both impolitick and unjust."
Clarkson was the most tireless worker against slavery, perhaps the first great single-issue campaigner. After a speech he gave in Manchester in 1787, his petition was signed by 11,000 people, a fifth of the city's population. Thanks to Clarkson, the petitions sent to Parliament were on an unprecedented scale. Inevitably the slave trade also lobbied Parliament to protect their interests.
The first abolition Bill introduced in 1789 failed. Wilberforce introduced Bills almost annually over the next decade with no success. By 1800, Britain had been responsible for transporting nearly 3 million slaves - over a third of the trade.
What was the turning point in the abolitionist's campaign?
In 1806, maritime lawyer James Stephen devised a new approach. He suggested a ban on dealing in slaves with France or its colonies. Britain was at war with France, so it was difficult to argue against, and the Bill was passed in May 1806, even though it restricted over half the British slave trade.
William Pitt's successor, Lord Grenville, supported abolition and could fight the cause from within the House of Lords. Clarkson encouraged another campaign and in 1807 Wilberforce introduced the Slave Trade Bill to prohibit the trade throughout the British Empire. It passed, but illegal trade continued.
Wilberforce and Clarkson continued to campaign vigorously. They founded the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society) in 1823. By 1830, the Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves was working with them.
How did the abolitionists finally succeed?
The Reform Bill of 1832 and subsequent elections changed the face of Parliament. When the Slavery Abolition Bill was presented to Parliament, under the government of Earl Grey, it was debated for three months. When passed in July 1833, only slaves under six years old were freed immediately. Others had to work for four years as unpaid apprentices - slavery by another name. Finally, on 1 August 1838, 800,000 slaves were freed with compensation of £20 million paid to slave owners.
Wilberforce learned on his deathbed that slavery was abolished after 46 years of campaigning. He died three days later.
And what about outside Britain?
Slavery was the first humanitarian rights issue that Britain pursued beyond its borders. It led Britain to patrol the seas to intercept slave ships and negotiate treaties with other countries. But even today, there is still slavery and human trafficking in some parts of the world.