Origins of the abolitionist movement

Focus on the slave trade

At the end of the 18th century, public opinion began to turn against the slave trade.

The video below describes the origins of the abolitionist movement.

The first group to publicly announce its opposition to slavery was the Society of Friends (a Christian group also known as the Quakers). In 1761 they decided none of their members could be involved in the slave trade.

In 1787, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was set up. William Wilberforce MP represented the Committee in Parliament. Nine of the original twelve members were Quakers.

At first they’d argued among themselves over how to tackle slavery, but in the end they decided that trying to end slavery immediately was too big a task. Why?

  • A huge part of Britain's wealth relied on the products produced by enslaved people in the West Indies.
  • A ban attacked the property rights of slave owners who had paid a lot of money for enslaved people.
  • If slave owners demanded compensation for their loss of property (they viewed enslaved people as property), abolition would be too expensive for the government to consider.

The Society decided that the best approach was to try to end the slave trade, rather than slavery itself. This would at least end the misery of the Middle Passage. It would also make currently enslaved people more valuable to plantation owners, forcing their masters to treat them better.