Learn about the abolition of British involvement in the slave trade.
This web resource forms part of the "Inhuman Traffic" project by Gloucestershire Archives and partners to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. It is based on documents held at Gloucestershire Archives, especially the papers of the early anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp (1735-1813). It covers:
- the background to the transatlantic slave trade
- the early abolitionist Granville Sharp and his family
- the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
- the black contribution to the abolition movement
- the Gloucestershire dimension
- modern day slavery
It supports the "Inhuman Traffic" virtual exhibition and covers in more depth the themes of the exhibition. The virtual exhibition itself is available to download in PDF format to the right. Individual pages can be accessed using the links below.
Each page has a link to some key documents from the archives. Click on the image to learn more about them. Each document's reference number is given, and some pages have downloadable lists of other relevant documents held at Gloucestershire Archives.
If you are unable to access the audio, video and PDF downloads, please contact us and we will send you a copy on CD.
Material used in this resource is copyright Gloucestershire Archives, Antislavery InternationalOpens new window, the National Portrait GalleryOpens new window and the National Maritime MuseumOpens new window
Copyright (c) 2007, all rights reserved.
"Inhuman Traffic" is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and MLA South West and is part of the "Set All Free" initiative in Gloucestershire.
The background to slavery
Slavery was a feature of many ancient and traditional societies. However, the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in the 18th century was carried out on a previously unknown scale.
A slave is a person:
- Forced to work - through physical or mental threat
- Owned or controlled - by an "employer"
- De-humanised and treated as a commodity to be bought and sold
- Physically constrained - or who has restrictions placed on their freedom of movement
The transatlantic slave trade was the enforced removal of men, women and children from their African homelands to the Americas (both north and south and the West Indies), a journey of thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean. The trade developed because of the need to provide labour to work on plantations of tobacco, coffee, cotton and, above all, sugar.
All the major European sea-faring powers were involved in the trade which was based on ancient trading routes. England did not start the trade and played little part in its development, but by the 18th century had come to dominate it. The slave trade brought great prosperity to Britain and other European countries but at an enormous cost - the human suffering of an estimated 12 million Africans.
There were three strands to the trade, often thought of as a triangle:
- English ships sailed to the coast of West Africa carrying goods such as cloth, iron and trinkets. These were exchanged for enslaved Africans who had been captured inland and taken to the coast where they were held in readiness for the ships
- in the notorious "middle passage" of the trade, the slaves were then taken across the Atlantic ocean to the Americas where they were sold to plantation owners
- the ships then returned to England with luxury produce from the plantations such as tobacco and sugar.
Mickleton churchwardens' accounts
Gloucestershire parish records contain several references to local people being taken as slaves during the 17th century.
The churchwardens of Mickleton record payments of money made to help John Mansden, "his father and brother being in slavery under the Turcke", 1651 [P216 CW 2/1]. For many centuries, both Christian and Muslim societies believed that slavery was justified, provided the enslaved person was not of their faith.
Slave ship 'The Brookes'
It has been estimated that a total of 1.5 million Africans died on board slave ships. Conditions were appalling. A former ship's surgeon who later gave evidence against the trade described them as "slaughterhouses". Men, women and children were chained and stowed below deck like cargo during a voyage which could take up to 4 months. Disease and illness were widespread and it was said that a slave ship could be smelt two days before it docked.
A diagram of the slave ship the "Brookes" was sent to the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade by an anti-slavery group in Plymouth. It was a graphic illustration of the inhumane way in which slaves were packed into slave ships to maximise profit.
The image had huge propaganda value and was re-worked by Thomas Clarkson and other members of the Society to show the ship carrying 482 slaves (this was erring on the side of caution since the ship had been known to carry over 600 slaves). In 1789, the Society printed 700 posters of the diagram which became one of the most shocking and enduring images associated with the trade [D3549 13/3/29].
Song of slaves in Barbados
This song was written down in the mid 18th century by anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp "from the information of Dr William Dickson who lived several years in the West Indies and was secretary to a Governor of Barbados". Explanations of some of the words and notes on how the song would be sung are given. [D3549/13/3/27]
Download a recording of the song being performed by the choir of Christ Faith Tabernacle, Gloucester. This file may take a few moments to download.
Another recording of the slave song by Barbadian-born singer, Roger Gibbs.
Advertisement of slaves for sale
When slaves first arrived in the Americas, they underwent a "seasoning process" which lasted several months. They were then sold at auction - a slave cost less than an ox. The majority of slaves were destined for field work, especially on sugar plantations which were very labour intensive. Family and friendship groups were deliberately split and slaves were given new names by their owners to remove their old identity. Slaves could be sold on many times during their lifetime. One third of all slaves died within three years of reaching the Americas.
The majority of slaves in Virginia, North America, worked on tobacco plantations. North America was an English colony until the War of Independence, 1775-1783. A newscutting from the Virginia Gazette contains details of an auction of slaves, 1773 [D3549 13/3/20].
Mortgage of Rose Hill plantation in Jamaica
Slaves were treated as commodities by their owners and could be bought, sold and bequeathed. In this document, all the slaves on the plantation are listed as security for £10,000 which Charles Payne, a Bristol merchant, has lent Charles Palmer of Surrey. Although the shipping of slaves was abolished by British Parliament in 1807, this did not free those who were already slaves. Slavery itself was not abolished in British colonies until the Emancipation Act of 1833.
Mortgage of Rose Hill [sugar] plantation, slaves and stock in the island of Jamaica to secure £10,000 interest, 1824 [D1421 bdl 18]
This list of slaves begins "Parish of Clarendon, co Middlesex, Jamaica. Slaves as registered in the register of colonial slaves, along with all future issue of the females." It then goes on to list all the slaves, giving their name, age and origin.
Ancestry.co.uk has made available 100,000 entries from slave registers of former British Colonial Dependencies 1812-1840. Currently only Barbados is covered, but eventually there will be 3 million entries from the British colonies. The entries include the name of the owner, place of residence, name of slave, gender, age and nationality. Following the act of 1807 many of the British colonies began keeping registers of black slaves who had been so-called "lawfully enslaved". They were later used regarding claims of compensation.
Granville Sharp (1735-1813) was one of the first people in England to question the morality of slavery. He was born in Durham but spent his adult life in London. In 1765, he had a chance meeting with a young slave called Jonathan Strong who been brought from the West Indies by his owner but had run away after being badly beaten. This meeting, and events two years later when Jonathan was re-captured by his owner, affected Granville deeply. He took up legal studies so he could help defend other runaway slaves and challenge English law through the courts.
In 1772, after several unsuccessful cases, he obtained a landmark legal ruling with the case of James Somerset, another runaway slave. Granville continued to fight to change public opinion on slavery. He wrote the first major anti-slavery work by a British author and published many pamphlets on the subject. He corresponded tirelessly with clergymen, politicians and other influential people, both in Britain and abroad. He also gathered evidence of inhumane treatment and cruelties inflicted on slaves in British colonies.
Granville was co-founder of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, formed in 1787, and chairman of its London committee. In the mid 1780s, he was involved in the establishment of the Sierra Leone colony for freed slaves. He was 72 years old when the British slave trade was abolished on 25 March 1807 and died 20 years before slavery itself was abolished in British colonies by the 1833 Emancipation Act.
Granville Sharp's papers are held at Gloucestershire Archives [reference D3549]. The catalogue of this collection is available in our online catalogueOpens new window.
The detail of Granville Sharp is taken from a portrait of the Sharp family, on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, and is reproduced by kind permission of the owner.
Download a timeline of events leading up to the abolition of slavery.
Other websites relating to Granville Sharp:
Granville Sharp: biography and bibliography:Opens new window a short biography of Granville Sharp
Oxford DNB article: Sharp, Granville:Opens new window Granville Sharp's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
In Favorem Libertatis: The Life and Work of Granville SharpOpens new window an article about Granville Sharp which gives a full account of the various legal cases he was involved with
Key documents from the archives: See the links below
Granville Sharp and Jonathan Strong
Granville Sharp's chance meeting with young runaway slave Jonathan Strong in 1765 made him take up the cause of slaves in England and the colonies.
Jonathan had been brought from Barbados to London by his master but escaped after being badly beaten and left for dead. Granville first encountered him when he was waiting for medical treatment outside the house of Granville's brother William, a surgeon. Granville was deeply affected by Jonathan's plight and looked after him, finding him work as an errand boy.
Two years later, Jonathan appealed to Granville for help. His former owner had seen him in the street and had kidnapped him. He was now being held prisoner on board a ship bound for the West Indies having been sold to a Jamaican planter. Granville intervened on his behalf and the case developed into a complex legal battle. Although Jonathan was set free, he never fully recovered his health and died a few years later aged 25.
Extract from Granville Sharp's diary, 19 April 1773 [D3549 13/4/2 book G]
"Poor Jonathan Strong, the first negro whose freedom I had procured in 1767, died this morning"
Granville Sharp's account of his first meeting with Jonathan Strong and subsequent events [D3549 13/3/38]
Some years later, Granville wrote a long and detailed account of his fateful meeting with Jonathan Strong and subsequent events.
"Nothing can be more shocking to Human Nature than the case of a Man or Woman who is delivered into the absolute Power of Strangers to be treated according to the New Masters Will & pleasure; for they have nothing but misery to expect; and poor Jonathan Strong, who was well acquainted with West India Treatment seemed to be deeply impressed with that extreme horror which the poor victims of the inhuman Traffic generally experience."
Granville Sharp's correspondence with the clergy
Many people in the 18th century thought that the Bible justified the slavery of non-believers. Granville Sharp wrote to many clergymen, particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury, to express his horror at slavery in English colonies and to argue against it, hoping to enlist their support.
Letter from Granville Sharp to his brother John about lobbying the clergy, March 1779 [D3549 13/1/S8]
"I have lately made it my business to call upon the archbishops and bishops to request their influence and assistance towards putting a stop to the slave trade, as the House of Commons have appointed a committee to enquire into the state of the African Trade, & therefore...there is an opportunity of exposing the iniquity of it which ought not to be let slip. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishops of Lichfield, St David's, St Asaph, London, Ely, Bangor & Oxford strongly express their horror against it and the bishop of Peterborough since I called on him, has exerted himself in a very extraordinary manner in calling upon a variety of people that have knowledge of the trade and reading all books that he can find upon the subject, in order that he may be enabled to answer the pleas of interested people who endeavour to promote the trade."
Letter from Granville Sharp to the Archbishop of Canterbury about helping a slave, 1 August 1786 [D3549 13/1/C3]
In this letter Granville describes his attempts to free a slave about to be sent to Barbados. He is writing in 1786, over 20 years since he first intervened to help escaped slave Jonathan Strong.
"Last Friday morning early, two poor negroes came to inform me that one of their friends was by his Master on shipboard at Gravesend to be sent as a slave to Barbados. All the judges being out of town on the circuit I could not obtain either warrant or writ of habeas corpus after the most unwearied endeavours till late on Saturday night and in the meantime I had notice that the ship was sailed from Gravesend. However I sent off by an attorney and the young man's friend in a post-chaise that same night to Deal in hopes that the ship might not yet have quitted the Channel and they happily arrived in the Downs just in time to save the poor despairing man: a delay even of a single minute more would have been fatal! However they brought the young man safe to me yesterday at noon and after proper consultation I sent him this morning with officers to catch his master but he had prudently decamped and fled to Scotland. The young man confessed that he had intended to jump into the sea as soon as it was dark in order to avoid slavery by death!"
Colony for former slaves in Sierra Leone
In the mid 1780s, Granville Sharp became involved with a project to re-settle former slaves in a new colony in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The colony was intended to deal with the increasing numbers of poor black people on the streets of London during the early 1780s. Many were former slaves who had fought for the British against America in the war of Independence, in exchange for their freedom and a promise of wages, which in most cases had never materialised. The image shows the printed notice advertising the settlement [D3549 13/3/23].
The project foundered when the intended colonists began to question whether it was in their best interests, and key black figures such as Olaudah Equiano withdrew their support. Despite these doubts, 374 mainly black colonists sailed to Sierra Leone in 1787. The colony was plagued by war and disease and by 1791 only 60 of the original colonists survived.
Granville was one of the directors of the St George's Company, which managed the settlement until it was taken over by the Crown in 1808. He published a "sketch" for the government of the colony and also produced plans suggesting how the new towns could be laid out. Although Granville's role in this unhappy episode has been seen as problematic by modern historians, it is clear from letters that he wrote to his brother John that he genuinely believed the colonists were going to a better, even an idyllic, life.
Letters from Granville Sharp to his brother John about the Sierra Leone colony [D3549 13/1/S8]
"I had the pleasure of hearing this day of the safe arrival of the African settlers at the Madeira islands and that all the jealousies and animosities between the whites and blacks had subsided...schools are established on board each ship as I had proposed and they have daily prayers."
"I have had hitherto but melancholy accounts of the unfortunate colony to Sierra Leone. But I have however discovered that most of the evils have arisen from the allowance of rum distributed on board the ships; and the landing just in the rainy season on an un-cleared woody country when they were so enervated and infatuated by the rum that there was no prevailing on them to clear the underwood as I had recommended...They have purchased 20 miles square of the finest and most beautiful country...that was ever seen. The hills are no steeper than Shooters Hill and fine streams of fresh water run down the hill on each side of the new township and in the front is a noble bay where the river is about 3 leagues wide, the woods and gorges are beautiful beyond description and the soil very fine. So that a little good management and a prohibition of rum and spirits will produce a thriving settlement."
Granville Sharp and the Sharp family
Granville Sharp was born in Durham in 1735, the youngest son of Thomas Sharp, archdeacon of Northumberland, and grandson of John Sharp, Archbishop of York. (All three have entries in the Dictionary of National Biography). He was from a large family of nine children, with four brothers and three sisters (one brother died young). At the age of 15, Granville became apprenticed to a linen draper and moved to London, where two of his brothers, William and James, were already living.
The Sharp family had a strong philanthropic streak. Both Granville's London based brothers, William and James, were actively involved with his fight against slavery. William was a surgeon who gave free medical treatment to the poor, and it was at his house, awaiting treatment, that Granville first encountered runaway slave Jonathan Strong. James accompanied Granville to the Lord Mayor of London to intervene when Jonathan was re-captured by his master. As a result of this, both brothers were later charged with £200 damages. James and William supported Granville financially from 1776 when he resigned from his job in the Ordnance office (a government department which supplied the army and navy with weapons) on a matter of conscience. This enabled him to devote himself to campaigning against slavery, and to other causes such as electoral reform.
Granville never married and died childless in 1813. His papers passed to the family of his niece Mary, who in 1800 had married Thomas Lloyd Baker of Uley in Gloucestershire. In 1977, Granville's papers were deposited, along with other papers of the Sharp family, at Gloucestershire Archives where they are preserved for posterity and can be viewed by the public [reference D3549]. The catalogue of this collection is available in our online catalogueOpens new window.
The portrait of the Sharp family is on loan to the National Portrait Gallery and is reproduced by kind permission of the owner.
Download a timeline of events leading up to the abolition of slavery.
Portrait of the Sharp family
This portrait of the Sharp family was painted by society artist J. Zoffany from 1779 to 1781. It was commissioned by William Sharp and cost 800 guineas.
The family are pictured with their musical instruments on board a yacht which was jointly owned by William, James and Granville. Fulham parish church and Fulham House, William's retirement home, are shown in the background.
The family made many excursions on the Thames by boat, and played music on board, even entertaining King George III on one occasion.
Download a key sheet to the portrait, with members of the Sharp family identified.
Zoffany portrait on loan to the National Portrait Gallery and reproduced by kind permission of the owner
Playing card by Mary Sharp
This playing card, the ace of clubs, is one of a set designed by Mary Sharp, the niece of Granville Sharp, co-founder of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. It is clearly inspired by the Society's logo of a kneeling slave in chains with the words "Am I not a man and a brother?" [D3549 24/1/1].
Many women took up the abolitionist cause. They played a prominent part in a highly effective boycott of slave-produced sugar in 1792 and in petitioning against the slave trade.
When campaigners started to fight slavery itself in the 1820s, a number of women's anti -slavery societies were formed. They re-worked the Society's logo to show a female slave with the words "Am I not a woman and a sister?".
Download an article about women's contribution to the fight against slavery and the slave trade.
James Sharp, inventor, engineer and manufacturer of iron goods
James Sharp was an inventor, engineer and manufacturer of iron goods. He lived in Leadenhall Street in the city of London, and had an iron foundry in Tooley Street, south London. The image shows a brochure for James' foundry [D3549 12/2/1].
Letter to Granville Sharp from Mr Wilcocks, mentioning a conversation with James Sharp, 1768 [D3549 13/1/W22]
This letter to Granville Sharp mentions a conversation with his brother James about the need to invent a labour saving device which could be used on plantations instead of slaves.
"May your pamphlet come to the hands of some person, concerned in the American plantations and who may be moved by it to soften the yoke of his slaves. Even so, it may do considerable good. But it is to be feared that no strength of argument will be sufficient to prevail against the slave trade in general. Happy would it be, if it could be eradicated by other means.
"An evening or two ago some conversation passed on this subject with your worthy good brother James Sharp in which he expressed his wishes that some mechanical instrument could be invented for the culture of rice, tobacco and sugar, analogous to the plow for corn - something like the instrument for hoeing bean in Kent. What honour, what infinite happiness would the inventor of such an instrument enjoy? ... For if the invention of such an instrument was brought to perfection and introduced properly into America, the planters would soon, though gradually, fall into the use of it . As the great object of it would be to save human labour perhaps one Negro slave might by its assistance do with ease more work than ten at present can achieve in misery and toil. Consequently the expense of the purchase of slaves would proportionally cease: that is, nine parts in ten of the natives of Africa which are now annually exported to the hard work of American slavery, would remain at home; and those that were brought to America would have much lighter burdens on them than before."
The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787 by Granville Sharp (1735-1813) and Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846). Granville Sharp, a long standing opponent of slavery, was elected chairman of the London committee. Thomas Clarkson, who in 1785 had written a prize wining essay questioning the lawfulness of slavery, was elected president.
Sharp and Clarkson gathered evidence of the brutality of the trade. Clarkson also travelled the country, giving talks and liaising with the Society's regional branches.
Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), a manufacturer of high quality pottery, commissioned the design of a seal for use by the Society. The image of a kneeling slave in chains with the words "am I not a man and a brother?" became the society's logo and was used on medallions, snuff boxes and brooches.
The Society was very successful in winning and harnessing popular support for the cause. Some 300,000 people joined a boycott of slave-produced sugar. More than 500 petitions against the slave trade, each one bearing many thousands of names, were received by Parliament, more than any other issue has ever generated.
The Society's spokesman in Parliament was the young MP for Hull, William Wilberforce (1759-1833). He introduced his first bill to abolish the slave trade in 1789 and when it was defeated, introduced annual anti-slavery bills for the next decade. For a time, external events, particularly war with France and the massive slave uprising in the French colony of St Domingue, seemed to weaken the abolitionist cause. But the tide of public opinion was turning inexorably against the slave trade. At last, on 25 March 1807, MPs voted to abolish the British transatlantic slave trade.
Download an article about some of the key figures in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and a timeline of events leading up to the abolition of slavery.
For more information about the Society, visit Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
The foundation of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
Nine of the twelve founder members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade were Quakers. This reflected the fact that Quakers were the first religious group to oppose slavery. The Quaker community had a long tradition of campaigning to defend their beliefs and had well organised regional networks which could be mobilised on behalf of the newly formed Society. However, their unconventional beliefs meant that many people regarded them with suspicion.
The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade wanted to appeal to a broad cross section of the community. Two respected Anglicans, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, were therefore chosen for the key roles of chairman and president.
Download an article about the Quaker involvement in the campaign against slavery.
The image shows some of the resolutions of the committee of the Society, made in 1791. One of the resolutions is to thank the Society's influential supporters, including William Wilberforce and William Pitt. [D3549 13/3/47]
Letter from Granville Sharp to his brother John about the foundation of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 19 July 1787 [D3549 13/1/S8]
"A society has lately been formed here for the purpose of opposing the slave trade. Though the members are chiefly Quakers, I thought it my duty when invited to join them in so just a measure and I wish for the honour of the Church of England that some of our dignified clergy would subscribe to it."
Granville Sharp's diary entry about a meeting with William Pitt, 21 April 1788 at 1 o'clock [D3549 13/4/2]
"Mr Pitt said his heart was with us - that he had pledged himself to Mr Wilberforce that the cause would not suffer - but believe that the best way would be to give time to collect all possible evidence and to obtain an order of the present Sessions if the rules of the House would permit...and to resume the business early in the next Sessions"
Popular support for the abolition cause
By 1790, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade had won considerable popular support for the abolition cause. This letter to Granville Sharp, written from the West Indies by a supporter of the Society, shows how anxious people with a vested interest in the slave trade were becoming.
Sir William Dolben was responsible for the Society's first successful piece of legislation. Dolben's Act, passed in 1788, tackled the appalling conditions on board slave ships. The Act limited the number of slaves which a ship could carry and insisted that all ships should carry a doctor.
Letter to Granville Sharp from John Moreton in Grenada, 10 May 1790 [D3549 13/1/M20]
"Sir I did myself the honour of writing to you in January last which I hope went to hand. The late Parliamentary proceedings respecting the slave trade have much alarmed the planters and other owners of slaves in these parts. I have frequent opportunities of hearing their testaments, many of whom have impertinently wished that they had you, Sir William Dolbin and Mr Wilberforce with all the other friends of slaves in their fields to handle hoes, and they wouldcut you up and convince you that severe toil cannot be accomplished without a constant supply of slaves; such are the malicious sentiments of these callous taskmasters. The different legislative bodies of these islands have been at their wits fabricating memorials which they have sent home to lay before parliament. They have all laboured hard to strive to persuade that encouraging and promoting wars in Africa and forcing human beings from their native places of innocence and luxuriance and ease and dooming them and their posterity to hard labour, hunger, chains and torture are not contrary to the laws of God, nor are the means of murdering 100,000 human beings yearly.
"It is true they have made some laws with a politic view to show the Parliament of England that they wish to encourage and protect slaves; yet it must clearly appear that all these laws not any part of them, have the desired effect; the Guardians for slaves are only nominal. I aver it with great sincerity, that they take little or no pains on themselves to redress the wrongs of injured slaves; it is always more pleasing to them to sit down to a good dinner and eat and drink heartily than to enquire into the causes of suffering humanity.
"I have a catalogue of cruelties which I have known to be exercised on slaves with the names of the estates, owners, slaves of the perpetrators which would shock humanity, many of which have come to the knowledge of the guardians and passed unnoticed.
"Indeed there is no one clause in any of our laws to protect the life of a poor slave; for the evidence of a slave is not admitted and there are seldom more than two or three white men on an estate so that a white man may flog, torture or murder as many as the ferocity of his nature will prompt him to do and he cannot be brought to trial for the same."
The role of black people in the abolition of slavery
Black people themselves played an important role in turning public opinion against slavery and the slave trade. In 1789, a group of former slaves, including Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, met in London to work alongside the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1793) became one of the most influential abolitionists in Britain after publishing his life story in 1789. The book started with a petition to Parliament and ended with an anti-slavery letter to the Queen which made it a very effective campaigning tool. It was re-printed many times and translated into several languages.
Ottobah Cugoano (born c.1757) was kidnapped in Africa aged 13 and enslaved for 2 years before being brought to England where he found a job as a house servant. His book against slavery, published in 1787, was so popular that it was re-printed three times that year and later translated into French.
Another former slave, Ignatius Sancho, also became established as an educated man of letters. His writings about his life and on the subject of slavery, were published in 1782 and his portrait was painted by society artist Gainsborough.
Slave rebellions in the West Indies also played an important part in raising awareness about slavery back in England. The successful slave uprising in the French colony of St Domingue which began in 1791 eventually led to the establishment of the republic of Haiti and the freeing of half a million slaves. This and other major and bloody rebellions helped convince the British public that the slave trade could no longer be tolerated or sustained.
Slaves brought to England by their owners sometimes managed to escape and run away. These individual acts of rebellion could also bring about important results. In 1772, the case of runaway slave James Somerset became a legal milestone in the fight against slavery.
D340a/X16: Papers relating to an insurrection of the Negroes at Tobago, with thanks from the Governor and Assembly to Captain Reynolds, Captain of H.M.S. Quebec, 1770.
Olaudah Equiano (also called Gustavus Vassa)
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African was the first autobiography to be written by a former slave.
Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped and sold into slavery aged 11. He was sold many times, and was named Gustavus Vassa after a King of Sweden by one of his owners. He managed to make enough money to buy his freedom and in 1789 published his life story.
Equiano travelled widely to promote his memoir and its anti-slavery message. His book became extremely popular and made him a wealthy man, as well as advancing the abolitionist cause. Equiano died on 31 March 1797. He had married an English woman in 1792 and had two daughters.
Exchange of letters between Granville Sharp and his niece Ann Jemima about Olaudah Equiano, 1811 [D3549 13/1/S6]
Ann Jemima to Granville Sharp:
"I have been reading very lately about Gustavus Vassa the negro man to Mrs Paxton and I saw your name mentioned a good many times, pray do you know him?"
"I was acquainted with Gustavus Vassa. Many years ago he was advised by General Oglethorpe to call on me. He was afterwards for a short time in my brother James Sharp's service. He was an honest, sober man and I went to see him when he was on his death bed and had lost his voice so he could only whisper."
Rebellions by slaves
Amazingly, slaves managed to mutiny on 10% of all slave ships, despite their weakened physical state caused by their appalling treatment.
Newspaper report of a rebellion of slaves on board the "Industry", 1773 [D3549 13/3/20]
Extract of a letter from Barbados to a merchant in Liverpool dated July 20, 1773
"The day before yesterday came in the sloop Betsy, Capt. Aird with about 90 slaves from Sierra-Leon. Capt Aird advises that the ship Industry of London (late Windsor) being on her passage from Gambia to the West Indies, the slaves killed all the white people except two, and carried her into Sierra -Leon, where they ran her ashore and made their escape; a few of them were taken but Capt Aird cannot tell what number she [i.e. the boat] left Gambia with. When the insurrection happened one Gogart had the command, Captain Windsor having died on the coast"
Download an article about rebellions by slaves.
James Somerset, a runaway slave
Slave James Somerset was brought to London from Jamaica by his owner, Charles Stewart of Boston, in 1769. In 1771, James ran away but was re-captured and put on a ship bound for Jamaica.
Granville Sharp took the case to court. After a month of consideration, judge Lord Justice Mansfield ruled that James should be set free, He called the case "odious" and said that "the claim of slavery can never be supported". This was hailed as a great victory by James and his supporters. It set an important precedent, and was widely taken to mean that when a slave sets foot on English soil, he becomes free.
Extracts from Granville Sharp's diary about the case of James Somerset, 1772 [D3549 13/4/2 book G]
- "January 13th James Somerset, a negro from Virginia, called on me this morning...to complain of Mr Charles Stewart - I gave him the best advice I could.
- "January 14th Mr Cadew called on me on favour of James Somerset
- "January 29th Gave cash £6 to retain 2 counsel on the case of Somerset
- "June 22 James Somerset came to tell me that judgement was this day given in his favour"
The Zong incident
It was black activist Olaudah Equiano who brought the shocking case of the slave ship "Zong" to the attention of abolitionist Granville Sharp. In 1783, 133 slaves were thrown into the sea, alive and chained, from the "Zong" when supplies of water ran low. The ship's captain was intending to make a false insurance claim for the slaves who had been jettisoned. After the captain was acquitted of insurance fraud, Granville Sharp tried, unsuccessfully, to bring a private prosecution for murder against him. This notorious case helped turn public opinion against the slave trade.
Letter from Granville Sharp to William Baker about the "Zong" incident, 23 May 1783 [D3549 13/1/B1]
"My time has been much taken up lately in endeavouring to obtain evidence against the master and crew of a Liverpool slave-ship who cast overboard about 123 poor negro slaves alive into the sea with their hands fettered. The owners of the ship obtained a verdict last march against the insurers for the value of the said negroes- and the insurers last week moved for a new trial which was granted; and I suppose will be appointed in the sittings this term. The contest between the owners and insurers of the ship is a mere mercenary business about the pecuniary value of the negroes; but I hope to obtain from it sufficient evidence to commence a criminal prosecution...for murder...
"They pleaded a necessity through the want of water to destroy some the cargo...in order to save the rest; but it appears that upwards of 60 had died of the gaol distemper (as they always do, at least one third are regularly destroyed by this distemper on every voyage of the slave dealers, through their detestable avarice and cruelty in cramming too great a number down the hold of the ship) even before they discovered that there was a want of water; and 54 of the poor negroes were picked from amongst the sick and cast into the sea that very day they discovered the want of water, even before they were put to short allowance; so that if there be any necessity at all in the case, it is the necessity (incumbent upon the whole nation) to put an immediate stop to the slave trade..."
The Gloucestershire dimension before 1807
The transatlantic slave trade affected many aspects of life in Gloucestershire. Slave-produced goods such as tobacco and sugar were readily available, and many people benefited from the economic prosperity which the trade brought. There were certainly black people in the county during this period. Some of them were African slaves, brought to England from the West Indies by their owners, probably to act as personal servants.
You can use Sources for BAME history in Gloucestershire to find a list of references in the archives to black people in Gloucestershire.
At first opposition to the slave trade came from a few individuals, such as the London based Granville Sharp. But by the 1790s, the issue had become a matter of national concern. Many Gloucestershire people became involved, on both sides of the argument.
Quakers in the county, as elsewhere, played an active role in the campaign to end the slave trade. In 1787, Quakers in Cirencester wrote to Earl Bathurst and their MPs about "another" petition against the slave trade which they intended to send to Parliament [D1340/C2/A2].
The views of local MPs on the slave trade issue came under increasing scrutiny from voters. In March 1806, a group of Tewkesbury electors lobbied their MP, Christopher Bethel Codrington [D1610 X16]. They wanted him to vote in Parliament against the African slave trade, which they called a "national disgrace". This had particular significance because the Codringtons, a prominent local family, were well known to have connections with the slave trade.
Coverage in local newspapers brought details of far-away events involving slaves in British Colonies home to Gloucestershire readers. In 1806, at the height of the campaign against the slave trade, the Gloucester Journal carried a long and vivid article about atrocities in the West Indies, published in two parts over a fortnight. It also carried detailed reports of the debate in Parliament in 1807 when the Act to abolish the transatlantic slave trade was finally passed.
See a list of relevant articles in the Gloucester Journal, and a timeline of events leading up to the abolition of slavery.
The Codrington family and their estates in the West Indies
The Codrington family lived at Dodington Manor in Gloucestershire (now South Gloucestershire) and were substantial property owners in the county. The family also had a long standing connection with the West Indies, starting with Sir Christopher Codrington who was governor of Antigua and the Leeward Isles in the late 17th century and owned two plantations in Barbados.
By the mid 18th century, the family owned sugar plantations in both Antigua and Barbados. The largest of these was Betty's Hope in Antigua which covered 870 acres and was worked by nearly 300 slaves.
The image shows a plan of the Betty's Hope plantation, 1755 [D1610 P18].
The Codrington family's estates in the West Indies
From the mid 18th century, the Codrington family preferred to live in Gloucestershire, using overseers to manage their West Indian estates. However, they remained well known as slave owners, even by people outside the county. In 1786, Granville Sharp, a long-standing opponent of the slave trade living and working in London, specifically mentioned them in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. [D3549 13/1/C3]
The image shows part of a weekly account of sugar and rum produced on two of the Codrington family's estates in Antigua, 1793 [D1610 A8a].
Letter to William Codrington about his estate, 1766 [D1610 C8b]
"Antigua this year has I believe made as much sugar as it ever did since it was settled and your estates have made as much or more than they ever produced, the quantities made upon your estates have been 1285 hogsheads and 4 tierces of muscovado sugar and 61 hogsheads of clayed [probably a clay pot], in all 1245 hogsheads and 4 tierces of which 1206 hogsheads have been shipped Messrs Codrington and Miller on your account and the remainder paid to the customs house in account of the 4 1/2 % duty."
The words "tierce" and "hogshead" refer to the size of casks in which the sugar crystals were transported. A hogshead of sugar weighed around 1600 pounds when it was shipped; a tierce was a somewhat smaller container.
Tewkesbury meeting against the slave trade
At a meeting at the Swan Inn in Tewkesbury in 1807, a number of voters agreed to lobby their MP, Christopher Codrington, to ask him to support the abolition of the African slave trade. The image shows the printed notice calling the meeting [D1620 X17].
Codrington responded in writing to their request beginning:
"Sirs, it must always be a matter of regret to me to differ in my opinion with any part of my constituents upon a question on which as one of their representatives I must necessarily give my vote in parliament". He went on to dismiss the idea that as a slave owner he had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and expressed the view that the proposed bill against the abolition of the slave trade would itself bring harm to slaves "I will assert that, if the inhumanity so profusely heaped upon the planters or the supposed horrors of the negroes in the West Indies can ever have existence, they will be the fruit of the bill in question."
This exchange of correspondence is mentioned in the Tewkesbury Historical Society Bulletin 2001 as part of an article about local opposition to the slave trade.
Dido 'a female negro belonging to Sir George Bolton'
Trading in slaves had been illegal in England since 1152 and the last form of enforced servitude had disappeared in Britain by the beginning of the 16th century. However, the status of black people in Gloucestershire during the 18th and 19th centuries is not clear.
The image shows a burial entry in the parish register for Tidenham, for "Dido, a female negro belonging to Sir George Bolton", 1805 [P333 IN 1/2].
Some black people, such as Dido, were almost certainly slaves in all but name. Efforts to find out more about Dido have unearthed a lot of information about her white owner and his family, but little about Dido herself. But our research suggests that before coming to England, she was a slave on a sugar plantation in St Vincent.
Read more about the search for Dido.
The Gloucestershire dimension 1807-1834
After the slave trade was abolished in 1807, campaigners in Gloucestershire, as elsewhere, fought to bring about an end to slavery itself.
Quakers in the county again played a leading role, fundraising and organising petitions. In 1821, the ongoing collection of money made by the Gloucester branch towards the total abolition of the African slave trade stood at the equivalent of £157 [D1340/B2/M5]. In 1830, local Quakers organised a public meeting in Nailsworth to petition Parliament for the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. The image shows the printed notice advertising the meeting [RR210.9].
The Anti-Slavery Society (which succeeded the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade) was active in the county, giving lectures in Tetbury, Dursley and Thornbury in 1832. Also in 1832, the Stroud branch of the Anti-Slavery Society pressured their local MP, W H Hyett, into giving a full statement of his views on slavery after he had prevaricated for several months on the subject.
When slavery in British colonies was finally abolished by Act of Parliament in 1833, staunch abolitionist Henry Wyatt built a commemorative arch at the entrance of his estate in Paganhill, Stroud.
Even after the 1833 Act to abolish slavery was passed, local MPs continued to come under scrutiny. In 1834, C W Codrington was publicly denounced as a prospective MP on the grounds that he was "heir to property in human flesh and blood" (a reference to the fact that his family owned slaves in the West Indies). When he was nevertheless elected, the Gloucester Journal published a letter criticising the people who voted for him and describing them as "Mr Codrington's white slaves".
You can use our Sources for BAME history in Gloucestershire to find a list of references in the archives to black people in Gloucestershire.
Download a list of relevant articles in the Gloucester Journal, a list of related documents and a timeline of events leading up to the abolition of slavery.
W H Hyett's detailed statement of his views on slavery
Statement by W H Hyett MP to his Committee about his views on the abolition of slavery, 19 September 1832 [D6 F37]
This statement forms part of a series of exchanges involving W H Hyettt and the Stroud Anti-Slavery Society. The Society had been pressing him for some time about his views on the issue. In this long and clear statement, Hyett explains why he did not give his views when he was first asked, and gives the arguments both for and against the abolition.
He describes a process of gradual emancipation, concluding "I believe that such an intermediate course as that which I have detailed is more wise as regards the Mother Country and the Colony, more just towards the Planter, and more humane towards the slave". Hyett went on to be re-elected as MP for Stroud by a large majority.
The Stroud anti-slavery arch
The Stroud anti-slavery arch survives today as a unique memorial to the Emancipation Act of 1833 which ended slavery in British Colonies.
The arch was built in 1834 as the grand entrance to Farmhill Park estate by its new owner Henry Wyatt. It is inscribed "God gave freedom, may glory be given to God". It now forms part of Archway School and features in the school logo.
The first laws to prohibit the slave trade and slavery were passed by the British Parliament in the 19th century. Slavery has also been outlawed in the 20th century by:
- 1948 Universal declaration of human rights
- 1956 United Nations convention
We think of slavery as belonging to history. Yet the reality is that slavery continues today, despite being banned in almost all countries where it is practised. In 2007, at least 12 million people are living in slavery (statistic by the United Nations International Labour Organisation) although their exploitation is not always given that name.
Modern day slavery affects men, women and children of all races. It includes:
- slavery by descent - people are made to work for others because of their caste or ethnic group
- bonded labour - a person offers work in exchange for a loan but loses control over their conditions of work and the amount they are paid; their original debt often escalates through excessive interest rates and can be passed to family members
- child labour
- people trafficking
- sex trade
- migrant workers
Individual campaigners and groups of people acting together helped bring about the abolition of the British slave trade 200 years ago. To find out more about modern day slavery and what you can do to make a difference, visit the websites listed here:
Antislavery InternationalOpens new window Anti-Slavery International, founded in 1839, is the world's oldest international human rights organisation and the only charity in the United Kingdom to work exclusively against slavery and related abuses. It works at local, national and international levels to eliminate the system of slavery around the world.
Stop the TraffikOpens new window Stop the Traffik is a global coalition of organisations working together to fight against people trafficking
Human Trafficking SearchOpens new window: information on human trafficking, child labour, forced labour and sex slavery
UCLA - The dark side of globalizationOpens new window: information on the darker side of globalisation
Curriculum resource packs are available for primary schools, and the film clips from this web resource are also available on a DVD. Contact Gloucestershire Archives for details.
Download a list of useful websites relating to the history of slavery and slavery in the modern world.
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