Decline in the economic importance of slavery

In economic terms the slave trade had become less important. There was no longer a need for large numbers of slaves to be imported to the British colonies. There was a world over-supply of sugar and British merchants had difficulties re-exporting it. Sugar could be sourced at a lower cost and without the use of slavery from Britain’s other colonies eg India.

The Industrial Revolution and advances and improvements in agriculture were benefiting the British economy.

Medal commemorating the Abolition of Slavery in the UK
Medal commemorating the Abolition of Slavery in the UK

Since profits were the main cause of starting a trade, it has been suggested, a decline of profits must have brought about abolition because:

  • The slave trade ceased to be profitable
  • Plantations ceased to be profitable
  • The slave trade was overtaken by a more profitable use of ships
  • Wage labour became more profitable than slave labour

At various times plantations that provided the market for slave ships struggled to make profits. Prices and costs went up and down as war interrupted trade.

However evidence of temporary problems with profits is not enough to draw any strong conclusions. Planters struggled to profit throughout the period of the Atlantic slave trade. Historians have not made a convincing link between the abolition act of 1807 and trends in profits.

Evidence that economic considerations were not a direct factor to prompt abolition includes:

  • The Atlantic slave trade continued for many years after 1807
  • Slave plantations continued profitably for many years after 1807
  • The use of slave labour continued until it became illegal
  • There is no evidence that plantation owners decided that wage labour was more profitable than slave labour

In 1807 the MPs who had passed the Bill were still in essence in the same position in relation to the vested interests, as they had been throughout the 18th century. The majority did not have direct interests – they did not rely on the profits made from slavery. But their political motivation was still based in property.

The early 1800s were a precursor to a period of significant democratic change. By the early 19th century they were more inclined to listen to the anti-slavery voices than the pro-slavery voices. The arguments had been put effectively and unrelentingly.