Abolition

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

Toussaint Breda who led a slave revolt on the Island of Saint Dominigue.
Toussaint l'Ouverture

There was resistance to the slave trade:

  • Some African rulers refused to sell slaves to the traders. Occasionally villages attacked British slave ships and set the slaves free.
  • Sometimes slaves mutinied on board ships. The most famous case was the Amistad in 1839.
  • There were many slave rebellions. The most famous slave leader was Toussaint l'Ouverture, who led a successful slave revolution in French Saint Domingue in 1791.
  • In Jamaica, runaway slaves formed 'Maroon' communities that fought against the British soldiers.
  • In Britain, slaves like James Somerset (or Somersett), frequently ran away from their masters. When he was recaptured, he and his friends contested his case in the courts.

In 1787, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was set up. William Wilberforce represented the committee in Parliament.

The role of William Wilberforce in the abolition of slavery

  • The campaigners boycotted sugar, wrote letters and presented petitions.
  • Thomas Clarkson went on a speaking tour, showing people chains and irons and a model of a slave ship.
  • Other campaigners published leaflets describing conditions on the Middle Passage and atrocities such as the Zong incident (1781). The captain of the slave ship Zong threw 133 slaves overboard so he could claim the insurance.

British Africans such as Olaudah Equiano formed the 'Sons of Africa' and campaigned against the slave trade.

There is some evidence that the slave trade was becoming less profitable – the price of buying slaves in Africa was rising, reaching £25 in 1800, but the price for selling in the Americas had not risen as quickly and was only £35 in 1800.

It is a matter of contention amongst historians as to which of these factors most contributed to the eventual abolition of the slave trade. Was resistance from the slaves themselves significant enough to stop such a lucrative business? Was it the significance of key figures at home? Or was it the fact that it was becoming less profitable and this convinced slave traders to stop trading and the government to introduce laws banning it?