Quakers and the Abolition of the Slave Trade: The Abolition of Slavery: A Timeline

The Abolition of Slavery: A Timeline

Historically, slavery has arisen on account of three main causes. The first of these is poverty: in societies with property rights and debt obligations, some individuals always tend to be pushed into a position of dire material necessity. In the absence of an organised system of poor relief, slavery was the final resort for such individuals and frequently the only alternative to death by starvation and exposure. Ancient Hebrew law acknowledged the desperate circumstances which produced this kind of slavery and tried to ameliorate the severity of it (Lev. 25: 39-43), notably by having a cycle of jubilee years, when slaves regained their freedom.

The second cause has been organised violence, or war: in this instance, slaves are viewed as one of the prizes for the stronger party (and victor). Worse, the desire to acquire slaves has itself been an engine of violence and war.

[Photograph: “Am I not a man and a brother?”]

The Abolition movement which arose towards the end of the eighteenth century was focused on the Atlantic slave trade and was essentially concerned with the second of these causes. At the level of moral argument, the movement had to confront the claim that slaves were somehow different, and belonged to a separate, lesser category of human being. For millennia, such a claim had been the standard justification for enslaving individuals without their consent. The Abolition movement countered this idea with an emphasis on equality, as well as instigating a kind of revolution of empathy, brilliantly captured by the famous Wedgwood medallion in which the enslaved figure asked: Am I not a man and a brother?

Thirdly, slavery has often been used as a method of punishing those considered criminal. At the moment, with an estimated 10 million persons held in prison worldwide, this form of bondage continues to be a salient issue – although these days most of the individuals in question can expect to re-gain liberty in due course, and are not compelled to labour for the profit of others.

In any case, the timeline below is concerned with the first two causes of slavery, rather than the third. In our contemporary world, both of those underlying causes continue to exert an influence in many situations, as demonstrated by the work of the Non-Governmental Organisation, Anti-Slavery (https://www.antislavery.org/).


In the Ancient World of the Mediterranean and the surrounding lands, slavery was ubiquitous. In that context, free persons universally assumed that slavery was a legitimate institution, and an accepted part of the natural order. Slaves were viewed as property, to be treated as the owners saw fit. According to the historian Mary Beard, “neither Greeks nor Romans ever worked out whether slaves were things or people.”
Even in antiquity there was, of course, one group of people who typically viewed the matter differently – the slaves themselves. They often fled captivity when it was possible to do so and rebelled when the opportunity arose. Rebellions were crushed with savage brutality.

The conditions of slaves varied considerably and were probably the most atrocious in large mines. Slaves working in households were sometimes treated quite humanely and a few gained freedom (manumission), for example purchased by their savings or granted in the wills of deceased owners.


18th century BC. In Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) the Code of Hammurabi prescribed the death penalty for anyone who provided assistance to an escaped slave, and set a fixed financial reward for those who returned slaves to their owners.

7th – 6th century BC. The Jewish law, known as the Torah – the first five books of the Christian Old Testament – dealt in some detail with rules affecting the ownership and treatment of slaves. The Torah drew a distinction between Hebrew slaves – typically persons who had fallen into extreme poverty or debt – and non-Hebrew slaves. The rules governing the treatment of the latter, many of whom were prisoners of war, were harsher. Certain texts were used much later to provide a Christian justification for the slave trade, e.g. Leviticus 25.44: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” The Torah is thought to have been drawn together as a single body of law about 650 years before the birth of Christ, but it codified rules and customs that had been observed for centuries before then.

4th century BC. Aristotle’s Politics records views on slavery held by the Ancient World’s most eminent philosopher. Some persons, Aristotle opined, were natural slaves: “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection.” The influence of Aristotle’s thought on this and other matters extended well in to the Middle Ages.

134 – 71 BC. During the closing decades of the Roman Republic, the aristocracy expanded their wealth and land holdings and drove many ordinary farmers into penury, debt and then slavery. Eventually, the peninsula of Italy was shaken by a series of massive slave revolts, all of which were brutally repressed and which claimed, Matthew White has estimated, a total of one million lives. At the end of the last of these, according to the ancient Greek historian Appian, 6,000 rebellious slaves were crucified. The revolt is familiar in modern culture on account of its portrayal in the film Spartacus (1960).

Circa 33. Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. This form of execution was widely used by the Roman authorities, but was reserved for slaves, pirates and low status individuals.


The fact that the central figure in Christianity suffered the death of a slave required some explaining, and Paul openly admitted it was ‘a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.’ (1 Corinthians 1.23). The manner of Jesus’ death may well also have played a part in attracting slaves to the new faith. In any case, it is evident that early Christianity was inclusive and welcomed them. At the same time, early Christian writings contain a number of admonitions to slaves to obey their masters (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-24; 1 Tim 6:1-2; 1 Pet 2:18; Titus 2:9-10).

But one letter in the New Testament is particularly difficult to interpret in this regard: Paul’s brief missive to Philemon, which is concerned with the fate of Philemon’s escaped slave Onesimus. While the letter hints that Paul would like to see Onesimus freed, there is no indication here that Paul was opposed more generally to the notion of slavery.

Of greater significance was Paul’s theology, and his insistence that in the matter of salvation “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (Gal. 3:28). This stress on the fundamental equality of different individuals had immense implications. As time progressed Christian thought about slavery moved away both from attitudes recorded in the New Testament, and the strictures of Aristotle.


1086. According to the Domesday Book, about one tenth of the population of England were slaves in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest.

1102. The Church Council of London, convened by Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury) issued a decree: “Let no one dare hereafter to engage in the infamous business, prevalent in England, of selling men like animals.” By the end of the twelfth century slavery seems to have ceased in England and indeed was in the process of disappearing across most of north-west Europe. In the Mediterranean, however, it continued to be widely practised.

1516. In his Utopia, Thomas More said he thought slavery “a suitable station in life for any prisoner of war, for criminals and also for the hard-working and poverty-stricken drudge from another country.”


Thomas More was an eminent philosopher, lawyer and councillor to King Henry VIII, and the fact that he held these views is extremely revealing. It suggests that, in spite of the absence of slavery in England for several hundred years, views on the subject had not evolved very much from Aristotle’s time, two thousand years earlier.

In the late seventeenth century, the English political philosophers Hobbes (1588-1679) and Locke (1632-1704) in effect endorsed More’s view, and Locke used similar arguments to justify the enslavement of Africans in the Atlantic trade.


For the population of Africa, the Portuguese voyages of discovery down the continent’s west coast were an ominous development. In the 1440s the Portuguese started to procure and transport Africans to the Iberian Peninsula. And in 1461, having gained papal sanction for their enterprise, they commenced construction of a fort in the Bay of Arguin (in present-day Mauritania).

The discovery of the Americas gave this trade a further, huge economic impetus. In the New World, notably in the Caribbean islands, the cultivation of sugar proved to be hugely profitable. This activity was only viable with slave labour, and by the seventeenth century other European countries – first the Dutch, then the British, French and Danish also – cast covetous eyes on the trade hitherto monopolised by the Portuguese. Each power now began to establish chains of forts on the west coast of Africa, which functioned as ‘railway terminals’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade, where persons were incarcerated prior to transportation.

[Photograph: The interior of slave cells at St. George’s Castle, Elimina (in modern-day Ghana).]

[Photograph: The forbidding exterior of St. George’s Castle.]

Everything about the trade was prodigal of human life and productive of suffering. Slave mortality rates on the transport ships seem to have averaged between one tenth and one fifth, and to this tithe of death we must add the many lives lost when persons were captured and then held in the coastal forts. And increasingly, the trade was a British affair. In the eighteenth century, when the business was at its height, the British accounted for more of the Atlantic Slave Trade than all other nations collectively. Merchants in the ports of Bristol and Liverpool talked euphemistically of the Triangular Trade, referring to the circular flow of manufactures, persons and cash crops which dominated the commercial life of the north Atlantic.


Quakerism was born in the turbulent middle decades of the seventeenth century – a period when religious disagreements had provoked profound discord, a contributory cause of the English Civil Wars (1642-51). During the reign of Charles II, Quakers suffered serious persecution, but a measure of toleration was granted to them in 1689. Thereafter they suffered some discrimination and tended to separate themselves from the rest of society, for example by discouraging marriage with non-Quakers. Initially exuberant and at times ill-disciplined, Quaker worship gradually assumed a more contemplative form, with much silence in their meetings. Over the years, the many active and prominent women in Quakerism have testified to its egalitarian spirit.

As far as the broader community was concerned, Quakers were distinguished by their pacificism, their refusal to make oaths in legal contexts, and their plain style of dress.

Quakers living in Britain did not have direct contact with the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, but the many that travelled to the Caribbean or the North American colonies could not remain in ignorance. The leading early Quaker George Fox visited Barbados in 1671 and, with his companion William Edmundson, encountered slavery there. The impact of the visit on Edmundson was decisive: by 1675 he had condemned slavery outright.

In time, many other Quakers would follow Edmundson’s example, but for several decades the ownership of slaves continued to be common among Quakers in the Caribbean and in the North American colonies.


1658. The authorities in Massachusetts ordered several Friends to be sold into slavery in Barbados for refusing to pay fines. However, no sea captain was willing to transport them for this purpose.

1681. Creation of the British colony of Pennsylvania, under the leadership of the Quaker, William Penn (1644 – 1718). Penn owned and traded in slaves and did not oppose the institution. Other Quakers, however, were more outspoken on the subject.

1688. Four Quakers living close to Philadelphia issued what is thought to be the first protest against slavery in America.

1713-1784. Life of Antoine Bénézet. A French Protestant refugee, Bénézet became a Quaker at 14 and subsequently immigrated with his family to Philadelphia. He argued with other Quakers that slave ownership was incompatible with Christian doctrine.

1720-1772. Life of John Woolman, itinerant Quaker preacher in the American colonies, and diarist. By the age of 23 Woolman, like Bénézet, had become convinced that slavery was inconsistent with Christianity, a belief he continued to hold right up to his death from smallpox, during a visit to England.

1727. The Quaker’s Yearly Meeting in London summarised its deliberations as follows: “It is the sense of this meeting, that the importing of negroes from their native country and relations by Friends, is not a commendable nor allowed practice, and is therefore censured by this meeting.”

1748. During the course of a severe storm at sea, the young sailor John Newton underwent a spiritual conversion. In spite of that experience, he then entered the slave trade, and undertook three voyages as captain of a slave ship. Newton subsequently became an ordained priest in the Church of England, firstly in Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he wrote the famous hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ From 1779 Newton served at St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London where he was a mentor to William Wilberforce. Though eventually he seems to have been wracked with guilt over his past, it was only in 1788 that Newton publicly broke his silence on the subject of slavery, publishing a tract in which he described the horrific conditions in the slave ships


Throughout this time the idea of political equality was steadily gaining acceptance among thinkers and philosophers in the North Atlantic world. The idea is to be found in the writings of Hobbes and Locke although, as we have already noted, both men seem to have accepted slavery in certain situations.

However, by the mid eighteenth-century the intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment was having a growing influence, and many of its leading thinkers were willing to criticise slavery. Among this number were the figures such as the French writers Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau.

In Britain Adam Smith, the Scottish economist, praised the moral character of slaves (in comparison with that of their masters) and the English legal authority, Sir William Blackstone declared that the law of his country “abhors and will not endure the state of slavery.” During the 1740s and 1750s attitudes towards slavery changed particularly rapidly within Quakerism, partly because of the decline of Quaker Meetings in the Caribbean, in which slave-owners had been well represented.


1750s onwards. A growing number of Quakers in the American colonies opposed slavery.

1758. Pennsylvanian Quakers tightened their rules with respect to slavery, making it an act of misconduct to engage in slave trading.

1761. All Quakers, on both sides of the Atlantic, were barred from owning slaves. Any members that did not conform were disowned. The London Yearly Meeting issued a ‘strong minute’ against slave trading.

1771. James Somerset, who had been brought from Jamaica to Britain, ran away. He was recaptured and put on a ship bound for Jamaica. Granville Sharp intervened, and took the case to Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England.

1772. Somerset v Stewart. In a famous ruling, Lord Mansfield decided that the Virginia planter Charles Stewart must free James Somerset, who he claimed to own as a slave. Mansfield observed:

“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

This ruling undermined any legal basis for slavery in England.

1774. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley published his Thoughts on Slavery, in which he quoted extensively from the writings of Antoine Bénézet. Wesley eulogised Africans and castigated the traders who took them captive. He also called on the English nation to repent for the crime of the slave trade. According to the historian Hugh Thomas, the intervention by Wesley was the most serious onslaught on slavery that had yet been made.


The rise of the Abolition movement occurred at a time of social tumult, and that was certainly no co-incidence. In the closing decades of the eighteenth century both sides of the North Atlantic world were convulsed by revolution, each inspired at a deep level by the ideal of political and legal equality. The famous opening sentences of the American Declaration of Independence (1776) make that clear, but the high-flown rhetoric in that document concealed an ugly truth: as the signatories well knew, the many slaves in the American colonies were not treated as equal, and they did not have the right to liberty. The Declaration’s primary author, Thomas Jefferson, originally included in it a ringing denunciation of the slave trade; that was something his fellow revolutionaries could not stomach, and they deleted the relevant section from the final draft.

The chief protagonists of the French Revolution (1789) were likewise strident in affirming the importance of political equality, but in dealing with slavery they were simply unwilling or unable to implement a full-scale programme of emancipation. The French legislature did vote in 1794 to end slavery in the nation’s colonies, but that law was never fully applied. And when Napoleon Bonaparte gained supreme power a few years later, he restored slavery. It was not until the 1830s that France agreed to work with Britain to combat the slave trade, and slavery in the French colonies was only definitively abolished in 1848.


July 1776. Representatives agreed the American Declaration of Independence, which included the statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The full declaration was signed by 56 individuals from the thirteen states, all of them men and most of whom were slaveholders.

1781. Mass murder in the Caribbean of 133 African slaves by the master and crew of the slave ship Zong, who threw the individuals concerned into the open sea. The murders were evidently motivated by a desire to claim the insurance on the slaves. When the insurers subsequently refused to make payment a lawsuit resulted, again heard by Lord Mansfield (in 1783).

[Painting] Over the course of time, the Zong massacre came to be viewed as symbolic of the savagery of the slave trade and was later commemorated by Turner’s painting The Slave Ship (1840).

The shocking character of the case may well have influenced the decision of the Quakers, taken shortly after Mansfield’s ruling, to begin a public campaign against slavery. Recently the film Belle (2013, dir. Amma Asante) has told the story of the historical figure Dido Belle (the daughter of an enslaved woman) who was a member of Lord Mansfield’s household at the time of the Zong case.

1783. The Quakers William Dillwyn and John Lloyd wrote a pamphlet ‘The case of our fellow creatures, the oppressed Africans.’ 12,000 copies were printed and circulated. Although copies were sent to every MP, the pamphlet had little immediate impact. It did, however, occasion a letter of thanks from the former slave Olaudah Equiano – a document that is now held in the library in Friends House.


In their campaign, Quakers were hampered by the fact that, as dissenters, they could not sit in parliament and vote for legal change. They therefore began to look for allies in the Anglican establishment. Prominent and best known was William Wilberforce – a Member of Parliament and close friend of the Prime Minister William Pitt. Wilberforce had a religious conversion in 1784-86 and his subsequent work against the slave trade was part of his response to that personal experience.

Wilberforce was one of a group of prominent and wealthy evangelical Anglicans later called the Clapham Sect, on account of the link many of them had with Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common. Passionately opposed to slavery, the Sect formed a pole of leadership in the Abolition movement distinct from but co-operating with the Quakers.


[Picture] Hannah More, member of the Clapham sect, painted in 1821.

1784. James Ramsay, a retired ship’s surgeon, published An essay on the treatment and conversion of African slaves in the British sugar colonies. The essay was vital for raising public awareness about the slave trade, and detailed the cruel treatment of slaves and the lack of Christian instruction provided to them. Ramsay was subsequently the target of criticism by pro-slavery writers.

Ramsay had met Wilberforce the previous year, and this meeting seems to have been the moment when Wilberforce, then aged 24, engaged seriously with the subject of the slave trade for the first time.

1785. A student at Cambridge University, Thomas Clarkson, entered a Latin essay competition with the subject ‘Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?’ Undertaking a thorough study of the subject, Clarkson’s life was transformed by what he discovered. Later describing a stop he made near Ware, Hertfordshire, Clarkson wrote: “A thought came into my mind … that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.”

Early 1787. Thomas Clarkson called upon William Wilberforce with a copy of his Essay on Slavery. This was the first meeting of the two men, and the start of collaboration between them which lasted more than fifty years. Subsequently, at a dinner on March 13 1787, Wilberforce indicated he was willing to lead the abolitionist cause in parliament.

1787. Creation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, with the main committee comprising nine Quakers and three Anglicans:
Quakers: John Barton; William Dillwyn; George Harrison; Samuel Hoare Jr; Joseph Hooper; John Lloyd; Joseph Woods Sr; James Phillips; and Richard Phillips.
Anglicans: Granville Sharp; Thomas Clarkson and Philip Sansom.
Clarkson was the main liaison between the committee and MPs in parliament – in particular Wilberforce – who opposed to the slave trade.

1789. Publication of the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano a former slave. As a child Equiano was captured (it is thought) in present-day Nigeria, and was eventually owned by a Pennsylvania-based Quaker merchant, Robert King. King allowed Equiano to purchase his freedom in 1766 and the following year Equiano travelled to England and eventually became active in the anti-slave movement. He was one of the agitators in the Zong case.

[Portrait] According to Mike Kaye: “Equiano’s book fundamentally challenged the lies promoted by the pro-slavery lobby about Africans. It was difficult for those who read the book not to associate themselves with the African hero who was courageous, resourceful, literate, cultured and Christian – all qualities that British people of that time admired and aspired to.”

1791. Within four years of the start of the abolitionist campaign, thousands of medallions had been produced by the pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, who was a friend of both Wilberforce and Clarkson. Bearing the image of a kneeling slave with the inscription ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ the medallions circulated widely and some individuals even treated them as a kind of fashion item. The success of this simple, elegant campaigning device demonstrated how anti-slavery views were taking hold among the wider population, who submitted numerous petitions to parliament on the subject.


By the end of the 1780s, a great change in attitude towards slavery was seizing hold of the British population. In Manchester, for example, no less than one fifth of the population signed a petition calling for abolition of the slave trade.

The scene was now set for a series of dramatic parliamentary debates on the issue. The first of these opened in May 1789 with a major speech by Wilberforce, in which he presented the moral case for abolition along with a mass of evidence about conditions in the slave ships. Progress was slow, however, and it was only two years later that Wilberforce was able to introduce a bill to abolish the trade – and in the event the bill was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88.

The second concerted parliamentary attack on the slave trade took place in the spring of 1792 and occasioned what is considered one of the greatest debates in the history of legislative assemblies. Wilberforce was inspired by the news that the Danes – who participated in the slave trade on a small scale – had decided to abolish the import of slaves into their Caribbean possessions. “Africa, Africa” he began, “your sufferings have been the theme that has arrested and engages my heart.” Charles Fox and the Prime Minister William Pitt also gave stirring perorations, Pitt describing the slave trade as “the greatest practical evil which has ever afflicted the human race.”

Nevertheless, in spite of the soaring rhetoric, the abolitionists were outmanoeuvred when one of the leading members of the government, Henry Dundas, successfully tabled an amendment in favour of gradual abolition. That amendment inserting a single word, and obstruction in the House of Lords, effectively meant a second parliamentary defeat for the Abolition movement.


1791 – 1804. Revolt by the slaves in the French Caribbean colony of St Domingue. The revolt was not unprecedented: Mike Kaye (source detailed below) has listed about a dozen in various Caribbean islands that occurred over the period 1675-1831. However, the St Domingue rebellion is unique in that it was the one successful large-scale revolt by slaves in human history.

French forces in St Domingue were expelled by the rebels, but the French made a concerted and very expensive effort to reclaim the island in 1802-03. Some fifty thousand French soldiers are reckoned to have perished in this unsuccessful invasion. After repulsing the French force, the island’s leaders declared their country to be the free republic of Haiti.

March 1796. A further attempt by Wilberforce in parliament was defeated by just four votes; at least a dozen abolitionist MPs having failed to vote because they were out of town or attending a comic opera.


The French Revolution, the revolt in St Domingue / Haiti, and the sequence of French-British conflicts which ensued unsettled the British ruling classes. The pro-slavery lobby took full advantage of these anxieties, pointing out that abolitionists were, in effect, in the same camp as the French revolutionaries. This was a serious setback for the Abolitionist cause in Britain but, paradoxically, the mood changed when Napoleon re-introduced slavery in the French empire in 1802. From this point on, with Britain resuming war with France soon after, abolitionists could claim that it was patriotic to oppose slavery.

The final and successful legislation to abolish the slave trade turned out to be as much a matter of low political cunning as high morals. The first step was a rather innocuous-looking bill forbidding British captains to sell slaves to foreign countries – a measure that could be presented as anti-French, and therefore a part of the war effort. (The full story is well told in William Hague’s biography of Wilberforce, pages 332-356). Another very practical argument for abolition then surfaced in the parliamentary debates: there was a sugar surplus in the West Indies, it was claimed, and the producers there were “saturated” with slaves.

Whatever the merits of these and other debating points, it was now clear that the government was committed to abolition, and in February 1807 the House of Commons decisively approved the abolition of the slave trade, which was to take effect at the beginning of May of that year. Thanks to years of patient lobbying and publicity by the abolitionists, the Rubicon had finally been crossed.


2 March 1807. An Act of Congress was passed, prohibiting the importing of slaves into the United States. The Act of was promoted by President Jefferson.

This important legislation, which slightly preceded the similar measure in the British parliament, tends to receive less attention, for several reasons: it left the internal slave trade in the country untouched, and furthermore illegal imports of slaves into the United States continued for many years afterwards.

25 March 1807. With the parliamentary approval of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, the slave trade was brought to an end in the British colonies. However, slavery continued to exist in the British Empire.

1815. At the Congress of Vienna, which concluded the Napoleonic Wars, eight signatory powers – including Britain and France – created an embryo system of international law outlawing the slave trade. The declaration laid the legal foundation for the Royal Navy’s many anti-slavery patrols during the following decades, which resulted in the liberation of more than 80,000 slaves. This particular achievement of the Congress owed much to the mass mobilization of public opinion in Britain; 800 petitions were sent to the government bearing the signatures of an estimated three quarters of a million people.


The Quakers and their allies had made the sensible strategic decision to focus on abolishing the slave trade in the first instance, but even after the achievements of the Congress of Vienna, the institution of slavery itself was still unchallenged in many parts of the world. In the early nineteenth century, for the abolitionists decades of campaigning and struggle lay ahead.

In three large regions of the Americas (Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern part of the United States), slave-owning continued to be an immensely profitable activity, on account of the cultivation of sugar, coffee and cotton. In each case, the slave-owning class (known as the planters) wielded enormous political power.

When abolition finally occurred the planters typically received substantial compensation, but the freed former slaves did not. The United States was an exception in this regard: one of the consequences of the rebellion by the planter class there was that their slaves were liberated in wartime, and their former masters received no financial recompense.


1820s. Seeking to build on the abolition of the slave trade, radical campaigners – such as Elizabeth Heyrick, a Quaker – turned their attention to the institution of slavery itself. Heyrick thought Clarkson and Wilberforce had proceeded too cautiously on this issue. With a group of other women, Heyrick sought to institute in her native Leicester a boycott of West Indian sugar.

By this point, there was a network of women’s associations in Britain engaged in the anti-slavery campaign. Heyrick and her allies in these associations were instrumental in pressing the movement to demand immediate abolition.

1824. Elizabeth Heyrick published a widely-circulated pamphlet calling for immediate and complete emancipation [https://www.inist.org/library/1824-00-00.Heyrick.Immediate%20not%20gradual%20abolition.pdf]

1810s – 1840s. Following their successful revolts against imperial rule, Spain’s former colonies in Latin America began the process of abolishing slavery at the same time as they emerged as independent nation-states. Some slaves joined the armies fighting for independence, on condition of receiving manumission.

1831. Publication of The History of Mary Prince, an account of the life of a black woman born into slavery, the first such to appear in Britain. Prince grew up in Bermuda, and was sold and separated from her mother at the age of twelve. Her biography included the following direct refutation of the claims of those defending slavery:

“I have been a slave myself – I know what slaves feel – I can tell by myself what other slaves feel, and by what they have told me. The man that says slaves be quite happy in slavery – that they don’t want to be free – that man is either ignorant or a lying person. I never heard a slave say so. I never heard a Buckra (white) man say so, till I heard tell of it in England.”

1833. Over the years 1828-1830 the British parliament received more than 5,000 petitions calling for the abolition of slavery. After the defeat of the more reactionary politicians (such as the Duke of Wellington) and the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832, the suffrage was increased, and parliament became more responsive to public opinion. This created the circumstances that led to passage of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833), which eliminated the institution from the British Empire, in certain cases with a delay of a few years.

[Painting] The World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, held in large part because of the initiative of the Quaker Joseph Sturge. Mainly attended by British and US delegates, the Convention committed itself to the extinction of slavery. Women were excluded from the formal proceedings.

1820s – 1850s. The Atlantic Slave Trade persisted, in spite of the efforts of the British Royal Naval patrols around the coast of Africa. Somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 slaves annually were illegally transported to the Caribbean (mainly Cuba) and Brazil. The British placed pressure on the Spanish, Portuguese and Brazilian governments, as they sought to suppress this trade.

Early 1800s – 1860s. As many as 1,000 slaves each year escaped bondage in the south of the United States via a network of helpers known as the Underground Railway. Blacks, particularly the African American branch of the Methodist Church, were prominently involved in assisting escapees, as were certain Quakers. Their actions were, strictly speaking, illegal.

1861. The abolition of serfdom in Russia, sanctioned by Tsar Alexander II, demonstrated the increasing importance of the idea of political and legal equality. As a result of this act, 23 million serfs gained their freedom – about six times as many persons as were emancipated in the United States during the Civil War.

Serfs had very prescribed rights, however their status was different from that of slaves – serfs were tied to the land but were not the property of another human being.

1861 – 1865. The US Civil War resulted in the destruction of slavery as an institution in the world’s most prosperous and advanced economy. African Americans in the United States, to an important degree, emancipated themselves: by the end of the Civil War one tenth of the soldiers in the Unionist army were former slaves.

September 1862. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves living in the rebellious Confederate states of the south. The proclamation was entrenched by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, which permanently prohibited slavery in the United States. The Amendment is the only reference to slavery contained in the US Constitution.

1876. Closure of the slave market on the African island of Zanzibar, which had been a prominent centre of the East African slave trade. Zanzibar finally abolished slavery in 1897.

1880-1886. Abolition of slavery in Cuba, which at that time was still a Spanish colony.

1888. Abolition of slavery in Brazil.


The terrible and tragic history of slavery did not end with the triumph of the abolitionists at the end of the 19th century. The institution re-surfaced on a large scale in the following century, under the totalitarian regimes that emerged in the 1930s. Although that has now passed, certain forms of slavery persist – their prevalence however is hard to estimate: for example, debt bondage, notably in South Asia; and people trafficking.

The history of slavery raises critical moral questions that are still pertinent now and in a more general way: how can we prevent abuse and violence in situations where there is an imbalance of power? how can we design our institutions and practices to better embrace the ideal of social, legal and political equality?


Early 1930s – mid 1950s. The regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union made extensive use of slave or forced labour – in each case in the order of 20 million persons were affected. The Nazi system collapsed when the regime was defeated in 1945. In the Soviet Union, most inmates in the prison / work camps regained some measure of liberty during the political thaw following the death of Stalin (1953).

1954-1968 (approx.). The Civil Rights movement in the United States protested issues such as racial segregation in public places and in educational institutions, and voter registration rules which until then had effectively excluded most blacks from the electorate in the south of the country.

Mid-1980s. Anti-Slavery International (ASI) was formed as a modern campaigning non-government organisation (NGO). It has received steady support from Quaker bodies.

[Picture of a US postal stamp] Transparently a confrontation with the practice of racial discrimination, the Civil Rights movement was also arguably a struggle to deal with the malign long-term legacy of slavery. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., the movement adhered strictly to non-violent principles. Left: stamp produced by the US Postal Service in 1999, commemorating the desegregation of US public schools.

2013. The Australian campaign body Walk Free estimated that there were still 30 million slaves. Many of this number are reckoned to be in South Asia, and are enslaved on account of caste or debt bondage.


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