Handwritten minutes from an abolitionist meeting and a portrait of Olaudah Equiano, an abolitionist of African descent

Abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain

Towards the end of the 18th century, a movement emerged calling for an end to the slave trade and, later, slavery itself. Professor John Oldfield traces the road to abolition from the 1780s to the 1830s, highlighting the impacts of grass-roots organisation, leadership, Black resistance and pro-slavery interests.

Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade officially began, with royal approval, in 1663. In less than 150 years, Britain was responsible for transporting millions of enslaved Africans to colonies in the Americas, where men, women and children were forced to work on plantations and denied basic rights. This inhumane system led to the emergence of racist ideas and pseudoscience that were used to justify it.

Towards the end of the 18th century, a movement emerged calling for an end to the slave trade and, later, slavery itself. Abolitionism was one of the most successful reform movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was also one of the most protracted. It took 20 years to abolish Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and a further 26 years to abolish British colonial slavery in the Caribbean. While it is tempting to see abolition as a triumphalist story, the reality is rather different. Each stage in this struggle was bitterly fought over, pitting anti-slavery activists against powerful pro-slavery interests. The international context was also important, as were grass-roots organisation, strong leadership and what today we might call capacity building; that is, efforts to create unity and purpose, even in the face of determined opposition.

Forming Britain’s first anti-slavery society

Properly speaking, the history of large-scale British anti-slavery organising dates from the late 1780s. Of course, there were important initiatives before this date, including Lord Mansfield’s decision in the Somersett case (1772), which set a limit on the ability of masters to take African ‘servants’ out of Britain against their will. There were also Granville Sharp’s efforts, along with those of the free Africans Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, to publicise the facts of the 1781 Zong massacre, in which the owner of the Zong attempted to collect insurance money for 133 sick and dying enslaved Africans who had been thrown overboard, as the ship lay stranded in the mid-Atlantic.[1] But these stirrings did not as yet represent a coherent movement. That was to come in the years immediately following the American Revolution (1776–1783). It is no coincidence, for instance, that the first organised anti-slavery society in Britain, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (SEAST), was founded in May 1787, taking its inspiration from events on the other side of the Atlantic, where the American Revolution had witnessed the first tentative steps to abolish slavery and the slave trade, mainly in Northern colonies (now states) such as Pennsylvania and New York.[2]

Minutes of the Committee for the abolition of the slave trade

Page of handwritten minutes recording the first committee meeting for the abolition of the slave trade

‘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’: minutes from the first meeting of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (22 May 1787).

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The early British movement differed from its American counterpart in one important respect, however. As its name implied, the SEAST was organised with the declared intention of tackling slavery in the British Caribbean at its source. Namely, the highly lucrative transatlantic slave trade that British merchants and traders had done so much to perfect, being responsible for 50 per cent of all enslaved Africans – roughly 3.4 million people – shipped from Africa to the Americas between 1662 and 1807.[3] The wealth derived from this trade not only created large personal fortunes but also provided a stimulus to British industry, not least when it came to the outfitting of ships bound for the West Coast of Africa and the processing of colonial products such as sugar, tobacco and cotton. Furthermore, the rise of plantation complexes that depended on enslaved African labour underpinned Britain’s imperialistic expansion in the Americas, at the same time creating important links between economic interests and state power.

The World Described by Herman Moll, 1708‒20

18th-century European map of Africa, with coloured lines dividing the continent

This 18th-century European map of Africa shows the Western coastal region – here archaically termed ‘Negroland’ and ‘Guinea’. The coastline has been divided into zones labelled ‘Grain’, ‘Ivory’, ‘Gold’ and ‘Slave Coast’, illustrating how Europeans classified the enslaved as commodities.

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A General Chart of the West India Islands, 1796

Map published in 1796 of the Caribbean region, colour-coded to show which colonies were controlled by Britain, France and Spain

This is a map published in 1796 of the Caribbean region. It is colour-coded to show which European country controlled which colonies. The British colonies have pink around their borders, the French blue and the Spanish yellow.

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Creating a social movement

It is worth stressing that at this time the slave trade was not only legal but also considered by many an essential and necessary part of the British Empire, both as a source of wealth and as a ‘training ground’ for British seamen. The first task facing the SEAST, therefore, was to create a constituency for anti-slavery; in effect, to turn an idea (that the slave trade was wrong) into a social movement that would mobilise thousands of Britons. An important lead came from Thomas Clarkson, one of the founding members of the SEAST, who on his various tours of Britain worked assiduously to raise public awareness of the horrors of the slave trade. The nearest thing at this period to a full-time professional reformer, Clarkson was also the author of An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1786), one of the foundational texts of the early abolitionist movement. At the same time, the SEAST harnessed a wide range of opinion-building techniques, among them advertising, public meetings, letter writing, and the circulation of books and pamphlets. They also gave the movement an important visual identity, most memorably through Josiah Wedgwood’s image of a kneeling enslaved man, together with the motto ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother’.[4] Popular in its day, in recent decades this image has been criticised for depicting enslaved Africans as passive and deferential, while ignoring the resistance of enslaved and formerly enslaved people.

Medal produced for the abolitionist campaign

Bronze medal with the motto 'Am I not a man and a brother?' above an image of an enslaved African man, kneeling in chains

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Drawing of the slave ship 'Brookes'

Drawing of the ship 'Brookes', showing enslaved Africans crammed into the hold of a slave ship, lying in rows. Printed in the book of Thomas Clarkson.

This engraving of a slave ship was published in the 1780s by abolitionists to raise awareness about the horrors of the Middle Passage. Although it shows 454 people, the maximum allowed by British law from 1788, the Brookes carried as many as 609 at one time.

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More recently, too, there has been wider recognition that this was a diverse movement. For instance, many women across all classes subscribed to local anti-slavery committees or else made their presence felt through boycotting slave-produced goods, principally sugar. At its peak, the abstention campaign of 1791–92 is said to have involved as many as 300,000 people.[5] Many formerly enslaved Africans were also part of the movement, among them Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano. Both men were members of the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group formed by Africans in Britain and which had close connections with SEAST. In his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery, originally published in 1787, Cugoano argued for the total abolition of slavery and produced what Vincent Carretta has described as the ‘most overt and extended challenges to slavery ever made by an English-speaking person of African descent’. [6] Equiano’s Interesting Narrative (1789) was, if anything, more influential still, going through nine British editions in little more than five years. Equiano was also an effective anti-slavery lecturer. In 1791, he spent eight and a half months in Ireland. The following year, he visited Scotland and spoke to meetings in Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Cambridge and Durham.[7]

Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic

Printed title page from Ottobah Cugoano's book, Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species

This is the first British publication in which an African writer argues for an end to the slave trade and enslavement.

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The Life of Olaudah Equiano, second edition

Printed title page from the 1789 edition of The Life of Olaudah Equinao, with a facing portrait of Equiano who is in formal dress and holding a book

In his autobiography, Olaudah Equiano tells of his early life in Africa, his enslavement and how he gained his freedom.

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First edition of the Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African, 1782

Page 97, containing a letter to Lawrence Sterne, from the first edition of the Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho

On 21 July 1766, Ignatius Sancho wrote to the novelist Laurence Sterne, imploring Sterne to give more ‘attention to slavery’, suggesting that the ‘subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many’.

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Petitioning parliament and opposition to abolition

These pioneering efforts resulted into two highly successful petition campaigns that provided William Wilberforce, the movement’s chief parliamentary spokesman, with the ammunition he needed as he fought to bring the slave trade to the attention of the British House of Commons. The first of these campaigns took place in 1788, the second in 1792 when 519 petitions were presented to the Commons, ‘the largest number ever submitted to the House on a single subject or in a single session’.[8] Moreover, the tactic nearly worked. In 1792, the House of Commons voted in favour of the gradual abolition of the slave trade, a decision subsequently reversed by the House of Lords, which insisted on hearing its own evidence for and against the trade. Over the years, this would become a familiar story. Wilberforce’s opponents were well organised and hugely influential. Chief among them was the powerful London Society of West Indian Planters and Merchants, which had close links with the City of London, as well as with MPs, some of whom – like William Beckford – were themselves absentee planters. Forced on to the defensive, the abolition movement lost momentum after 1792. The French Revolution, notably the September Massacres of 1792, also took its toll, frightening off many would-be supporters of abolition, leading to accusations from pro-slavery advocates that Wilberforce and his followers were unpatriotic Jacobin sympathisers bent on the subversion of the British Constitution.[9]

Letter defending the slave trade in the Gentleman's Magazine, volume 59

Printed letter defending the slave trade

Pro-slavery groups coordinated letter-writing campaigns, lobbied MPs and published literature arguing against abolition.

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The Benevolent Planters by Thomas Bellamy

The Benevolent Planters

Thomas Bellamy’s play The Benevolent Planters was used as a propaganda tool by the pro-slavery group, the West India Lobby.

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Meanwhile, enslaved people in the Caribbean continued to resist and fight against slavery, such as by running away, deeds of non-cooperation and organised, collective rebellions. Beginning in August 1791, thousands of enslaved people in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) rose up against the profoundly brutal slave regime. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and later by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the revolutionary struggle lasted for 12 years and resulted in the abolition of slavery and Haitian independence. These events were pivotal for the wider abolitionist movement in Britain and elsewhere, and later provided the inspiration for the work of C L R James (1901–1989)[10] and others, who drew on the revolt to highlight the role of enslaved people in the Caribbean in fighting for their own freedom.

Toussaint L'Ouverture on horseback

Hand coloured etching depicting Toussaint L’Ouverture seated on a horse wearing the full dress uniform of an officer and carrying a sabre above his head

A powerful image of Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave who helped to fight colonial forces on the island of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) and was a leader of the Haitian Revolution.

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The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C L R James, 1938

First page of the preface from the first edition of C L R James's The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution

‘The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history’: C L R James introduces his subject in the preface to the first edition of The Black Jacobins.

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Passing the 1807 Slave Trade Abolition Act

It is a measure of Wilberforce’s commitment to abolition that throughout these turbulent years he went on presenting to Parliament his annual motions against the slave trade. Eventually, the tide began to turn in the abolitionists’ favour. Events in the Caribbean, particularly the Saint Domingue slave uprising (1791) and the emergence of Haiti (1804) as an independent Black republic, convinced many MPs that it might be worth sacrificing the slave trade, if by doing so that meant reducing the possibility of further rebellions and therefore preserving Britain’s own slave colonies. As war broke out again in Europe (1804–15), others, both inside and outside Parliament, also began to question the wisdom of supplying enslaved Africans to Britain’s enemies, chief among them France and Spain.

Capitalising on this shift in the geopolitical situation, abolitionists started to chip away at the legal provisions that protected the slave trade. This occurred first through the Foreign Slave Trade Act (1806), which prohibited British slave traders from operating in territories belonging to foreign powers, and then the Slave Trade Abolition Act of March 1807, which abolished Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade once and for all. It was a momentous decision and one that was also a personal triumph for Wilberforce, as well as the members of the SEAST. But it is worth emphasising that this unfolding drama was set in motion by events in the Caribbean. The final push towards 1807 was also made easier by the knowledge that the USA was about to abolish its own international slave trade, as set out under the terms of the US Constitution. In this sense, the national and the international were always in delicate balance with each other, sometimes colliding, at other times coalescing to effect meaningful political change.

The next stage: Campaigning for the (gradual) abolition of slavery

Wilberforce had hoped that abolition of the slave trade would signal the slow death of slavery, as colonial interests were forced to reform the institution from within. By the early 1820s, however, it was obvious that this policy was not working, largely because of the illegal slave trade but also because of the failure of British diplomatic efforts to internationalise abolition.[11] As a result, in 1823 Wilberforce, Clarkson and others organised the Anti-Slavery Society, or, to give it its full title, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions. The new organisation signalled a radical new departure in British anti-slavery politics. Yet it is important to note that the society did not demand the immediate overthrow of slavery, merely the adoption of measures designed to ‘mitigate’ its worst abuses, together with a plan for gradual emancipation leading ultimately (it was not said when) to complete freedom.[12] This gradualist approach initially proved popular with anti-slavery activists. The Anti-Slavery Society quickly established an impressive network of local and regional auxiliaries, including many female societies, some of them more active than their male counterparts. Estimates vary, but it seems likely that over 70 ‘ladies associations’ were active between 1825 and 1833. One of the most enterprising was the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves, which besides distributing books and pamphlets also designed and created a range of anti-slavery artefacts, including work bags, pin holders and samplers, examples of which still survive in British museums.[13]

Appeal to the hearts and consciences of British women by Elizabeth Heyrick

Printed title page from An Appeal to the Hearts and Conscience of British Women

This anti-slavery pamphlet was aimed at British women and authored by Elizabeth Heyrick, a founding member of the Birmingham Ladies' Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves, later renamed The Female Society for Birmingham.

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The History of Mary Prince

Mary Prince history title page

The History of Mary Prince, published in 1831, is a key abolitionist text and a rare example of a woman's autobiography. Prince's story and account of enslavement was written down by Susanna Strickland and edited by Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society.

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A new direction: ‘immediatism’

As it turned out, the British government backed many of the Anti-Slavery Society’s proposals but – fatally – left it to colonial legislatures, dominated by slaveholders, to take the necessary action. The result was a stand-off. Try as they might to keep up pressure on government ministers, by the end of the 1820s many activists were beginning to question both their reliance on petitioning and the merits of their overall strategy. Responding to this challenge, in 1831 younger members of the Anti-Slavery Society organised the Agency Committee, which marked yet another new departure. First and foremost, the Agency Committee committed itself to ‘immediatism’, an idea that had been anticipated by Elizabeth Heyrick in 1824 in her pamphlet ‘Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition’. Immediatism could (and did) mean different things to different people, but for most grass-roots activists it implied some form of immediate parliamentary action, aimed at breaking the deadlock in the Caribbean. Vague promises were no longer considered enough. With this in mind, the members of the Agency Committee set out to take their message to the country, hiring a team of five ‘agents’ or lecturers whose job it was to appeal directly to the public conscience.[14]

Broadside about an anti-slavery speech made by an abolitionist political candidate in Hull

Anti Slavery speech made by an abolitionist political candidate in Hull, 1832

In this speech, a political candidate states 'I think it is now high time to come forward, and demand the immediate Abolition of Slavery'. It was given in 1832 to Members of the Society of Friends and the Friends of the Abolition of Slavery.

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Passing the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act: Black resistance in the Caribbean and expanding the British electorate

Between 1831 and 1833, the British campaign against slavery in the Caribbean entered its final phase. Two factors were important here. The first was Black resistance and, in particular, the Baptist War in Jamaica (1831–32). This was the latest and largest in a series of slave revolts that raised awkward questions about the long-term viability of slave societies in the British Caribbean, as well as about the brutally oppressive methods used by colonial authorities to suppress the rebellions.[15] The second factor was the Reform Bill of 1832, which not only increased the size of the British electorate but also created 67 new constituencies, among them industrial towns such as Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.[16] Here was an opportunity for anti-slavery activists to press home their advantage. Adopting many of the techniques developed by the Agency Committee, British abolitionists stepped up their pressure on prospective parliamentary candidates, publicly ‘outing’ those who represented the West India interest or who supported gradualism. Predictably, Tory newspapers complained about these attempts to ‘dictate’ to voters. Nevertheless, by harnessing techniques of this kind, anti-slavery activists helped to shape the composition of the First Reformed Parliament and, with it, the drive towards the Emancipation Act of 1833, even if at the final hurdle they were forced to accept significant concessions, chief among them the £20 million granted to slaveholders in compensation for the loss of their ‘property’.[17][18] It is also worth highlighting that no financial compensation was provided to the hundreds of thousands of people who were emancipated from slavery, a glaring omission that provides the background to contemporary calls for reparations, both in the UK and the Caribbean.

Jamaica: its past and present state

A view of 'Emancipation' from the book Jamaica: its past and present state (1843).

This illustration is titled 'Emancipation Day 1834', but in fact it probably shows the celebrations outside Government House in Jamaica in 1838 when the period of 'apprenticeship' ended.

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Abolition and emancipation: a false dawn?

After 1833, activists waged a further successful campaign, this time against the so-called ‘apprenticeship’ system that formed another integral part of the Emancipation Act.[19] By 1838, slavery in the British Caribbean had to all and intents and purposes been abolished. But, in saying this, emancipation proved something of a false dawn. Post-1833 many planters in the Caribbean shifted to rely on indentured Indian and Chinese labourers, an exploitative system that was only finally abandoned in 1920. Meanwhile, the 800,000 or more people emancipated under the 1833 Act were left to eke out an existence for themselves, while at the same time pressing for their civil and political rights, under a constitutional system that still treated them as ‘dependents’ rather than citizens. In this sense, 1833 or 1838 was no more an ‘end’ than was 1807, but the start of another protracted struggle for people of African descent, this time towards full independence.

An account of the period of so-called 'apprenticeship', the transition between slavery to freedom

Page 173 from A Twelvemonth's Residence in the West Indies, setting out the terms of 'apprenticeship'

This proclamation set out the terms of 'apprenticeship'. It explains that the former enslaved people would still have to work for their former owners. They could face punishment if they did not.

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Map of Jamaica, 1856

Jamaica from the latest surveys

This map of Jamaica was published just over twenty years after the ending of slavery and almost ten years before the Morant Bay Rebellion. Such maps were useful for government officials, colonial administrators, military commanders and landowners. They also acted as a visual reminder that the British were in charge in Jamaica and elsewhere across the empire.

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This entangled history had a significant impact on how Britain reckoned with slavery. After 1833, it became customary to view transatlantic slavery through the moral triumph of abolition, thereby substituting the horrors of slavery and the slave trade for a ‘culture of abolitionism’. Whether seen through the lens of abolitionist relics or celebrations and commemorations, what is striking about this specific ‘history’ is its silencing of African perspectives. It is only in the past 30 or 40 years – and particularly since the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 – that scholars have become more attentive to the long histories of British involvement in all aspects of slavery, to the Black presence in Britain and to the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism.

Further reading

David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (OUP, 2006)

Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (London: Macmillan, 2005)

C L R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Secker and Warburg, 1938)

David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (London: Pan Macmillan, 2016)

James Walvin, Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery (London: HarperCollins, 1992)


[1] For the Zong case, see James Walvin, The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the Fall of Slavery (Yale University Press, 2011).

[2] David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (OUP, 2006), p. 152.

[3] For these figures, see David Richardson, ‘The British Empire and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1660-1807’, in P. J. Marshall, ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. II, The Eighteenth Century (OUP, 1998), p. 441.

[4] J. R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade, 1787-1807 (Manchester University Press, 1995), pp. 42-46, 155-59.

[5] Oldfield, Popular Politics, p. 57.

[6] Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiment on the Evils of Slavery, ed. Vincent Carretta (1787; rpt. London: Penguin Books. 1999), p. i.

[7] For Equiano, see Oldfield, Popular Politics, p. 125.

[8] Seymour Drescher, Capitalism and Antislavery: British Mobilisation in Comparative Perspective (London: Macmillan, 1986), p. 80.

[9] Oldfield, Popular Politics, pp. 60-61.

[10] C L R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Secker and Warburg, 1938), Preface vii.

[11] For these diplomatic efforts, see Paul Kielstra, The Politics of Slave Trade Suppression in Britain and France, 1814-48: Diplomacy, Morality and Economics (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000).

[12] Howard Temperley, British Anti-Slavery, 1833-1870 (London: Longman, 1972), pp. 9-10.

[13] Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870 (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 202.

[14] Temperley, British Anti-Slavery, pp. 12-14.

[15] Davis, Inhuman Bondage, Chapter 11.

[16] David Cannadine, Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (London: Penguin Books, 2018), pp. 161-62.

[17] J. R. Oldfield, The Ties that Bind: Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Reform, c. 1820-1865 (Liverpool University Press, 2020), Chapter 2.

[18] This compensation money provided the starting point for the first phase of UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership work, see <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/> [accessed December 2020].

[19] Temperley, British Anti-Slavery, pp. 30-41.

Article credit: J R Oldfield, ‘Abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain’.

  • Professor John Oldfield
  • John Oldfield is Professor of Slavery and Emancipation at The University of Hull. John's passion is in producing pioneering research into historic slavery, taking lessons learned from the past so we can imagine a future that is different and tackle the growing issue of modern day slavery. John received the prestigious Queen's Anniversary Prize in 2015, in recognition of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation's world-leading research into slavery and emancipation issues. Research is used to inform public practice and policy, at local, national and international levels. Publications include The Ties that Bind: Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Reform, c. 1820-1865 (Liverpool University Press, 2020).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.