Children in the UK sometimes take away from classrooms an over-simplistic narrative about how slavery was abolished in the UK. While the actions of William Wilberforce in persuading the British Parliament to abolish the “slave trade” were honourable and noteworthy, an incomplete story is unfortunately provided to posterity. Slavery involved slave ownership whereas abolishing the slave trade only meant stopping citizens of the United Kingdom from transporting black Africans as chattel from Africa to the Americas. This image of Wilberforce abolishing slavery itself within the United Kingdom might be due to the sensationalist style of film, TV and print production, but the image isn’t the full narrative of what happened.
On one hand, European and North American abolitionists such as Granville Sharpe, Hannah More, Maximilien Robespierre in France, Abbé Grégoire, George Whitefield, Harriet Beecher Stowe through her work Uncle Tom’s Cabin, John Newton, John Wesley, Lourenço da Silva de Mendouça (1620 – 1698), Montesquieu in The Spirit of Laws (1748), Denis Diderot in the Encylcopédie, Thomas Clarkson – a speaker at Robert Haydon’s Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, a professor and abolitionist as important as Wilberforce or Granville Sharpe – and others contributed to the abolition of slavery in black Africans.
William Lloyd Garrison wrote in The Liberator, his abolitionist newsletter: “the Anti-Slavery cause cannot stop to estimate where the greatest indebtedness lies, but whenever the account is made up there can be no doubt that the efforts and sacrifices of the WOMEN, who helped it, will hold a most honourable and conspicuous position.”
John Wesley, a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford university, English theologian, cleric, evangelist and Methodist supported the abolitionist movement with his lectures, mobilisation of Methodist leaders, and incorporation of anti-racism messages into his teachings. He wrote the work “Thoughts Upon Slavery”. In it, he said for instance: “Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature”
Josiah Wedgwood in 1787 designed a British abolitionist seal with the slogan “Am I not a man and a brother?” using his pottery business.
Josiah Wedgwood, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” (1787)
The salvation army in Johannesberg attempted to shock the public by putting children in boutique windows to demonstrate how the auction block for slaves worked. Behind the children was a banner with the inscriptions “Sale. 3-6 year olds. 7-10 year olds. 11-14 year olds.”
In 1839 a human rights organisation was founded called Anti-Slavery International. To raise awareness of the dehumanisation process of slavery and the slave trade, the organisation focussed on distributing pictures, sketches and schematics of the slave trade operations.
White abolitionists did not operate in a vacuum. It was a joint effort with former slaves, free black men and women, and former slave traders. Many black authors and campaigners were involved in pressuring the slave trading nations to abolish slavery.
This article covers some of the black actors that worked to secure the abolition of both slavery and the slavery, or at a minimum wrote treatise on why the racist ideas were morally wrong.
Frederick Douglass, one of the most well known African American writers, powerfully and effectively left us and his contemporaries, in his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a record of the dangers and inhumanity of slavery, charting his life as a slave, naming his former owner Thomas Auld, describing his escape from slavery along with his wife Anna Murray, a free black woman.
Henry Box Brown undertook a lecture tour and wrote a book called The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself to expose the brutalities of slavery and galvanise support for the abolitionist movement.
James Africanus Beale Horton, a West African by origin, explained the errors of racists theories about black Africans in his 1868 book West African Countries and Peoples, British and Native, and a Vindication of the African Race.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799) through his musical compositions demonstrated that musical genius was not the preserve of white Europeans. Joseph was a virtuoso violinist, composer, orchestra conductor and champion fencer. As a fifteen year-old fencing student, Bologne bested a fencing master Alexandre Picard, motivated by a racist insult uttered by Picard.
Moses Roper in a book titled “A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery” provided a powerful account of the sufferings of Africans trapped into the transatlantic slave trade system.
Olaudah Equiano wrote a slave narrative in support of the anti-racism and the abolitionist campaign through his book The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano; and gave many speeches.
Soujourner Truth (1797 – 1883) born Isabelle Baumfree gave lectures, for instance at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, and wrote speeches such as “Aint I a Woman?” to push the United States further towards the abolition of slavery.
William Wells Brown an former slave became an energetic speaker, embarking on anti-slavery lecture tours, and wrote various works. William escaped slavery to Ohio at the age of 20 in 1834. To raise awareness of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the second-hand market for slaves in the Unites States he wrote various pieces:
Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself, Boston: The Anti-slavery office, 1847.
Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself, London: C. Gilpin, 1849.
Three Years in Europe: Or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met. London: Charles Gilpin, 1852.
Brown, William Wells (1815-1884). Three Years in Europe, or Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met. with a Memoir of the author. 1852.
William Wells Brown, CLOTEL; or the President’s Daughter (1853), An Electronic Scholarly Edition, edited by Professor Christopher Mulvey
The American Fugitive in Europe. Sketches of Places and People Abroad. Boston: John P. Jewett, 1855.
The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. New York: Thomas Hamilton; Boston: R.F. Wallcut, 1863.
The Rising Son, or The Antecedents and Advancements of the Colored Race. Boston: A. G. Brown & Co., 1873.
My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People, Boston: A. G. Brown & Co., Publishers, 1880.
The Negro in the American Rebellion; His Heroism and His Fidelity …
These writers related to the public, or somehow those in denial about the system of chattel slavery in black lives, accounts to dessiminate the brutality of slavery, its cruelties, its effects on the spirit of the slaves, the damage to black family units, and the wanton acts of rape committed against black women which explains the presence of over 600, 000 mulattos in the Unites States at end of the American Civil War, excluding Mulattos in the Caribbean and South America.
Slavery was not abolished purely by former slaves and abolitionists writing books, or abolitionist politicians like Wilberforce giving persuasive arguments in the British Parliament, some Black Africans either captured or born into slavery contributed to the abolition of slavery through slave revolts, attempted suicide and birth control.
Most famously there was the famous Haitian Revolution – one of the few successful slave revolts to occur in the history of mankind. This revolt was led by a flawed military tactician called François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, Toussaint Louverture for short. It is not usually remembered that this revolt involved a black military force having to take on four of the world super powers of the time including Spain, Britain, France and the United States. The rebel slaves defeated Spain and Britain but eventually lost to France, due to financial settlement Haiti had to sign to agree future terms of peace. The United States on the other hand took steps to oppose the Haitian Revolution by creating a century long blockade of Haiti, boycotting Haiti products to ensure the political project in Haiti set up by a free black population would fail.
Other slaves gained their independence either by joining Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian regiment or Abraham Lincoln’s Yankee army, which involved rebelling against their masters.
A painting of Louverture in a military uniform holding a document
There were no fewer than 400 separate slave or anti-racism revolts during the period from 1500 to 1900. These included the Stono Rebellion of 1839, the New York City Conspiracy of 1741, the Gabriel’s Conspiracy of 1800, the Monrant Bay massacre, the German Coast uprising of 1811, Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 and Amistad Ship Revolt. These slave revolts exacerbated the American and European white paranoia about propensity of black people for wanton violence, as guilt and fear of revenge by white Americans and Europeans left them in a state of perpetual anxiety, always scared of suffering the kind of violence and cruelties they inflicted habitually on African slaves in the Americas.
The first slave revolt in North America occurred in 1663 Virginia and was a joint revolt by white indentured servants and black slaves. This probably happened because the conditions of white indentured servants in the early years of Europe settling the Americas was close to slavery. To avoid this ever happening again, the white bottom social class were given better privileges than black slaves, roles in policing, and plantation supervision which ensured that the white poor would always feel that receiving comfort, better wages than black denizens and safe working conditions was mutually exclusive to black inhabitants of America getting basic human rights.
Overall, various people of different national origins, skin tones and with different talents each in their own way contributed towards the eventual abolition of slave trade and also the abolition of slavery. In abolishing slavery, various countries these steps into law independently and at different dates. The abolition of slavery initially reformed slavery rebadging into convict leasing, or apprenticeships in combination with passing new kinds of vagrancy laws.
We can learn therefore that when slavery was abolished the campaign process was not over-simplistic, did not involve any one single man but was a disjointed pressure movement composed of various campaigners and supporters of anti-slavery and anti-racism.
Most slaves never got reparations when slavery was abolished. Perversely it was the slave owners that got compensated. The United Kingdom finished paying the 46, 000 slave owning families affected by the 1834 Slave Abolition Act no earlier than 2010.