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Abolitionist William Wilberforce
The End of Slavery

Slavery has always had its opponents. But the movement to abolish the slave trade only took off in the late 1770's. In 1771 Granville Sharp brought the case of the escaped slave James Somerset before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield. Somerset had escaped and been recaptured in England by his American owner. Mansfield declared,

"A foreigner cannot be imprisoned here on the authority of any law existing in his own country."

Somerset was set free. But slaves continued to be sold in Britain and British slaves ships carried on operating, taking slaves to the Caribbean.

In the 1780's the Quakers under Granville Sharp began to publicly campaign against slavery. At this time slavery was not merely something that happened far away - slaves could be seen for sale in Liverpool and Bristol. West Indian planters took to coming to England with their slaves, pricking the consciences of those who might otherwise not have given slavery a second thought.

William Wilberforce became a leading abolitionist, tirelessly lobbying public opinion and parliament. Abolitionists also got involved in the Resettlement of Freed Slaves in Africa.

There were a number factors which hastened the end of slavery:

· the industrial revolution in Britain brought a new demand for efficiency, free trade and free labour; all this was out of step with slavery.

· Britain's ties with America were loosened when she lost her colonies in the American war of independence in 1776.

· Thirteen years later, the French Revolution brought ideas of universal liberty and equality which both inspired those seeking an end to slavery (for example, Toussaint L'Ouverture who led a successful slave revolt in Saint Domingue, (now Haiti), and frightened the pro-slave lobby into stubborn resistance to abolition.

The nation who had profited most from the trade was Great Britain. In 1807 the British government declared the buying, transporting and selling of slaves illegal, but it was not against the law to own slaves until 1834. In August 1834 Parliament passed a bill freeing all children under six in the West Indies. All other slaves were called apprentices and had to work for nothing for six years. Planters were given compensation totalling £20 million.

Celebrations were held on all plantations. But the apprenticeships were cruel and exploitative; they were outlawed in 1838. Many ex-slaves stayed on the plantations having no work else to do. Those that left were replaced in the West Indies by indentured Indians. Back in Britain, abolitionists turned their attention to slave ownership in America causing huge resentment.

They also campaigned against slaves in India, and East Africa, where David Livingstone thought the only way of putting a stop to slavery was to take over the territory where it was going on, thus galvanising imperial ambition in Africa. Slavery continued in South America. Slavery was finally abolished in America after the Civil War with the defeat of the southern states in 1865. But the freed slave in the south continued to suffer.

"Though no longer a slave, he is in a thralldom grievous and intolerable, compelled to work for whatever his employer is pleased to pay him, swindled out of his hard earnings by money orders redeemed in stores, compelled to pay the price of an acre of ground for its use during a single year, to pay four times more than a fair price for a pound of bacon and to be kept upon the narrowest margin between life and starvation...."
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

All the indignities of segregation remained: inequality in courts of justice and violent harassment from white Southerners, sometimes resulting in torture or murder. This continued unabated until the civil rights movement of the 1960's brought the issue of racism forcibly to the attention of legislators.

Meanwhile in Africa slavery of the old traditional variety continued in small pockets through the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th century; it was not, for example, finally outlawed in northern Nigeria until 1936. Slavery has still not disappeared. Slavery exists today behind closed doors in many parts of the world including Britain, Africa and the Middle East.