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27 November 2014

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You are in: North Yorkshire > Abolition > Abolitionists in York

Abolitionists in York

You'd be forgiven for imagining that North Yorkshire wasn't really touched by the slave trade, after all it's a long way from the caribbean plantations. But this county saw financial benefits of the 'institution', and the abolitionists were here too.

The abolitionists of the 18th century came from different social classes, with diverse backgrounds and interests.  But across the country, their goal was the same – to end an abominable trade in humans.

The 'Institution’, as slavery was known, was legal. It was upheld by various Royal Charters since 1631 and Acts of Parliament from 1688.  It was considered the pillar and support of the British economy.

And in North Yorkshire there were many fine families who were involved in this trade and who made their fortunes from the plantation system.

The Duke of Clarence, son of King George III, estimated that British capital in the West Indies stood at £100,000,000 in 1799.

So who would want to put a stop to something generating so much wealth for the country?

There were a great many men and women, both black and white, who gave their lives to end a system that saw Africans transported across the Atlantic and forced to labour under brutal conditions in America and the West Indies. And our region saw its fair share of abolitionists.

John Woolman, a Quaker, was moved by his faith to visit York and help spread the anti-slavery message.  Initially he was concerned about the inhumane treatment of Native American Indians and later turned to campaigning against the brutality of the slave trade. Woolman died in York in 1772 and is buried in Bishophill.

Granville Sharp, grandson of a former Archbishop of York was at the forefront of the abolition movement as Chairman of the Society. 

As a lawyer, Sharp used his legal skills to bring about a major change in the law when he helped to free over 14,000 slaves living in Britain during the 18th century.  He chose James Somerset, an enslaved African brought to England, as a test case which he brought before Lord Mansfield.  

This was a very shrewd move because Sharp knew Lord Mansfield’s decision, that slavery was illegal in England, would be enshrined in the law of the land.

Sharp worked with other dedicated abolitionists such as Rev Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, John Newton, Elizabeth Heyrick, Hannah More and others of the Clapham Community. 

But it was the MP for Hull (1780), William Wilberforce whose debating skill and perseverance over 30 years set the tone for what was to come.

The son of a Hull merchant, William attended Pocklington School, near York, and later went on to St John’s Cambridge where he met Thomas Clarkson and the future Prime Minister, William Pitt.

Wilberforce wasn't a physically imposing man; a fact highlighted by a Yorkshire newspaper: "A diminutive figure mounted a wooden table in the Castle Yard at York to deliver an eloquent election address.  His magnificent voice carried easily to the furthest corner of the crowd. "

James Boswell, lawyer and writer, said of the young politician "I saw a little fellow on a table speaking, a perfect shrimp. But presently the shrimp swelled into a whale."

And he took on a whale of a task - to defeat the pro-slavery lobby as Bill after Bill was defeated in Parliament.  But, together with his very close-knit group of supporters whose Christian faith underpinned their struggle, William Wilberforce finally succeeded. 

He believed that God had set him two tasks: the reformation of English society and the suppression of the slave trade.

On 22 February 1807, the House of Commons voted by an overwhelming majority of 283 votes, with only 16 against, for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  The Bill finally passed into law on 25 March 1807.  It took a further 26 years to end slavery in British colonies.

It's widely believed that there is little any individual can do to influence society.  However the struggle of the 18th century abolitionists against slavery shows that it is possible to ally faith and conscience with political conviction to make a real difference. 

Linda Ali

last updated: 21/06/07

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