Minutes of Committee for Abolition of Slavery: Audio transcript
Slavery researcher Nigel Sadler talks about what this iconic document, along with the other anti-slavery items in the Taking Liberties exhibition, says about the campaign to outlaw the vile trade in human beings – and what it doesn't say
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I'm Nigel Sadler. I'm a researcher on slave history. I'll be discussing today the Fair Minutes of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which is opened on the page of 22 May 1787.
Beginnings of the slave trade
From 1562, when John Hawkins became the first British slave trader to carry Africans to the Caribbean, Britons started to take part in the lucrative slave trade. Britain was to become the most prolific slave trading nation, carrying over three million Africans to the New World. The traders generally only saw the Africans as a commodity, to be purchased, sold and abused, and by this process they were dehumanised. Gradually, the horrors of slavery became known to more people and it wasn't long before there were demands for greater rights for the enslaved, or total emancipation.
In 1787, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade was established, and it is the minutes of their first meeting on 22 May which dominates this display. This document starts off by stating that "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".
There were two very important resolutions passed at this first meeting. The first was the appointment of a "committee for procuring such information and evidence, and distributes Clarkson's essays and such other publications, as may tend to the abolition of the slave trade".
Who was on the committee
The original 12 committee members whose names are listed were mostly Quakers, but there were also the Anglicans Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson. It is these last two names that indicate the importance of this meeting. Granville Sharpe was a staunch anti-slavery campaigner and had already been involved in several landmark legal cases. In 1772 he prevented James Somerset, who had run away from his owner whilst in London, from being deported back to a life of slavery in the Americas.
In 1781 Sharpe tried to prosecute the captain of the Zong slave ship for murder. He had thrown 133 Africans to their death during the Atlantic crossing when water supplies had run low. The prosecution failed as the cargo was seen as chattel, rather than human beings, but Sharpe succeeded in bringing the incident to the public's attention.
Clarkson was the workhorse of the society and there is an interesting side-comment next to the minutes stating he was not present as he was probably out collecting information. Clarkson gathered data about the horrors of slavery, recording the tales of the sailors who were either involved in the slave trade or witnesses to the hell that Africans endured before being loaded onto slave ships, or working conditions on the plantations. It was through Clarkson that the most iconic image of the anti-slavery campaign was drawn up: the plan of the decks of the slave ship Brookes, when laden with its human cargo.
This committee were later joined by William Wilberforce, who was their parliamentary spokesman, and Olaudah Equiano, whose presence tells the anti-slavery movement from another side: from that of the enslaved.
Support from the public
The second important resolution in these minutes was that one hundred copies of these resolutions were to be published. This can be claimed to be the formal start of the systematic anti-slavery campaign in Britain, calling for the end of the slave trade. This is the start of the first mass human rights movement in Britain. The anti-slave trade sentiments stretched across the country. The working classes sympathised with the plight of the Africans, and many refused to produce items that were to be traded in Africa for the enslaved. However, the most visible sign was the West Indian sugar boycott, which started in 1792, and which at its height saw over 300,000 people give up sugar, reducing sales by half in Britain, and creating a real economic impact on slave owners.
In 1806 Lord Grenville formed a new government. Following the anti slave trade campaign he argued that the trade was 'contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy', and in 1807 the act abolishing the slave trade was passed.
The abolition of the slave trade was not the end of the process, just the beginning. One of the biggest changes was the desire to enforce compliance of other European nations. This was achieved through treaties, but more importantly the British navy started to police the Atlantic Ocean and capture slave ships. The ships were condemned and the Africans were freed, either to Sierra Leone in Africa, or in the Caribbean where they became a new source of cheap labour. Over 1,600 ships were captured and 150,000 Africans freed by the British Navy between 1808 and 1888.
It was believed that once the trade had been stopped then slavery would gradually end. Slave owners would need to treat their enslaved labour better as the resource was no longer renewable from Africa. Also it was believed that owning enslaved labour would become more expensive and no longer economically viable.
However, as slavery was not coming to a gradual and natural end, many of those involved in the anti-slave trade movement took up the cause again, and in 1824 formed the Anti-slavery Society. Their campaign led to the Abolition Act in 1833 that outlawed slavery in British territories from 1 August 1834.
No quick solution
It is a mistake to believe that this act gave the enslaved their freedom. There were a further four years of apprenticeship during which the former enslaved workers were to be taught how to be free, but in reality this was a period of transition to help the plantation owners adapt. After their so-called freedom, their rights were still very limited. The real power lay in land ownership, which in most countries was beyond the reach of many of the former enslaved.
At the same time the rights of Africans in Africa were being undermined. Since the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Britain had used claims of protecting Africans from slavery as a means to create treaties with African kings and expeditions of discovery into the African hinterland, which led to Britain's colonial expansion into Africa. This also means that the 1787 minutes are not only seen as an important first step in the process of ending slavery and the perceived freedom of so many, but also equally as an indirect step into the colonial powers removing the rights of many Africans especially with the division of Africa into almost 50 European colonies at the Berlin Conference in the 1880s.
What the book doesn't say but does tell us
Returning back to the minute book, this document is important not only for what it says, but what it doesn't say. It is interesting that next to the display 'Am I not a man or brother', in which the minute book appears, is a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft and her publication 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' published in 1792. One of the legacies of the anti-slavery movement was the politicisation of women and their fight for equal rights. This list of committee members is a great indicator of the politics of that time. There are no women on the board, even though they made up 10% of the membership.
Wilberforce was totally against a more active female presence, and wrote: "For ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture". This inequality was to become more marked as the anti-slavery campaigns continued and with the founding of the Anti Slavery Society in 1824, women were again excluded from the committee. This led to the formation of over 70 anti-slavery women's organisations, and many of the leaders of these societies would later become well known women's rights campaigners.
This document, like many parts of history, is biased. It recognises the work of white men and stands as a testament to the political movement. However, it does not go into the real power behind the anti-slavery campaign. Accompanying the minute book are two items that exemplify the diverse opinions. On one hand was the racial arrogance of the Europeans who saw the enslaved begging for their freedom to be granted at the whim of the European masters.
This is best exemplified by the image created by Josiah Wedgwood, as seen on the token in this display. It implies that the only solution was for Britain to give the enslaved workers their freedom.
This was not the case, as had been proven by the revolt in the 1790s in modern-day Haiti, where enslaved workers had set up the first free state in the Caribbean. Throughout the Caribbean there had been other numerous resistances and uprisings, and even though they had failed, they showed the willingness to fight, and die, for their cause.
The other item in the display is the publication 'The Horrors of Slavery: Exemplified by the Life and History of Rev Robert Wedderburn' published in 1824. The son of a slave mother and a slave trader, he had supported violent rebellion. This is just one of numerous first-hand accounts by the enslaved which horrified the reader and spurred on the political movement.
It is true that the minute book is very important, but it needs to be put into context with other documents and objects to reveal the complexities of the anti-slavery movement and to move away from a European perspective that promotes the lobbying of a few well-to-do men for the freedom of so many.
It is good that the many exhibitions held in 2007 to commemorate the bicentenary of the end of the slave trade managed to look at the campaign and struggle from many different perspectives, as this display does with just three items.
• Nigel Sadler is a former curator of the Turks and Caicos Museum and is a consultant on the history of the slave trade.