The 1807 Abolition Act and British Public Memory
Michael Bennett | 25 March 2019
◇ British History | Black History | Modern History | Imperial History
The passage of the ‘Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ on the 25th of March 1807 (two hundred and twelve years ago today) was a significant event in the history of the Atlantic World. It criminalised the transportation of slaves in British vessels, and helped to initiate the process which concluded the forced diaspora of Africans to the Americas.
Bicentennial celebrations were held throughout Britain in 2007 to commemorate the passage of this legislation through Parliament. Major public events celebrated the ‘benevolence’ of liberal institutions for their decision to end the transatlantic slave trade. The bicentenary was used by the government as an opportunity to demonstrate to a global audience that the principle of social inclusion had been enshrined in British political institutions since the early nineteenth century. Tony Blair’s Labour administration sought to present Britain as a dynamic multicultural nation committed to alleviating racial discrimination and socioeconomic disparities.
But these forms of public history deliberately simplified the development of abolitionist campaigning to a narrative of ‘moral progress’, primarily for political purposes. The commemorations did not effectively contextualise Abolition within the wider history of the Atlantic World during the eighteenth century, when Britain was the dominant slave trading power.
The period from the late-fifteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century saw over 12 million African slaves involuntarily transported to the Americas. By the eighteenth century, northern European powers, such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands assumed naval supremacy in the Atlantic, displacing Portuguese and Spanish control over this lucrative trade. The economic dynamism of British colonies in the West Indies stimulated a high demand for labour. Enslaved Africans worked on plantations to produce tropical commodities such as sugar for consumption in European markets. Consequently, Britain became the leading slave trading nation in the eighteenth century, and shipped approximately 3 million Africans to the Caribbean during the era of Atlantic slavery. This was not highlighted sufficiently during the official British commemorations of the 1807 Abolition Act, drawing significant criticism from professional historians and activist groups as a result.
The public memory of Abolition in Britain places an excessive emphasis on the role of individuals, such as William Wilberforce, in campaigning for legislative change. This fails to acknowledge how the British Anti Slave-Trade lobby also drew power from mass campaigning, which transcended class and gender divisions, and from international links with social movements fighting for the same cause.
Anti-slavery sentiment was prevalent among working class supporters from burgeoning industrial centres such as Birmingham and Manchester, who submitted petitions to Parliament calling for an end to slave trading. The dogma of ‘separate spheres’ dictated that women were confined from exerting significant political influence at a national level. However, their superior position in the household gave women the power to boycott slave-grown produce and create informal pressure groups which highlighted the sexual exploitation of slave women by their masters. Transatlantic correspondence networks linked Quakers in North America to those in Britain, forming an important medium for the discussion of aggressive anti-slavery politics.
The 2007 commemorations also diminished the role of African agency in the Abolition process. The impact of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) on British Abolitionists, and the subsequent formation of the first black republic in the New World, should not be underestimated. Enslaved Africans put further pressure on West Indian planters and metropolitan legislators through a series of devastating rebellions across the Caribbean in 1795. Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were ex-slaves who played a prominent role in the British Abolition debate by publishing personal and emotive accounts of their experience of enslavement.
Although the British abolition of the transatlantic slave trade was a significant piece of legislation, it is important to emphasise that Atlantic slavery did not end in 1807. Britain was only one nation among many which transported Africans to the New World and utilised their labour as slaves. This meant that the exchange of slaves continued in strength to Brazil and Cuba until the 1860s, despite British efforts to use their naval supremacy to suppress this trade.
Data from the Transatlantic slave trade database (TSTD) reveals that from 1807-1866, an era after British abolition, a further 3 million African slaves were transported to the Americas, a figure larger than the trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries combined. Furthermore, the use of slave labour in the British Caribbean continued until the Abolition of Slavery in 1833, and Britain continued to purchase cheap sugar from Caribbean slave societies long after this decision. It is also important to highlight that Britain was not the first nation to abolish the transatlantic slave trade: Denmark passed legislation in 1792 outlawing the practice, which came into effect in 1803.
A formal apology for Britain’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade has yet to be given, probably because an admission of guilt opens the door for financial reparations to be made to Caribbean nations. This is resisted by most European governments, who argue that they are not legally accountable for historical crimes.
Correctly understanding and remembering historical slave trading remains important in the twenty-first century. This is because of the enduring legacies of Atlantic slavery in British society today. To give just one example, the products of African slave labour contributed to the formation of daily consumer rituals in the eighteenth century, such as tea drinking with sugar, that remain part of British cultural life. Historical memory is intensely and inherently political, especially when commemorative events are administered by government departments. A constructed narrative is often developed, which highlights what the organisers and funders want people to remember, and does not always prioritise portraying historical events accurately.
Michael Bennett is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research studies the merchants in the City of London who financed the expansion of the plantation system and African slavery on Barbados in the mid-seventeenth century.
Christopher L. Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England (CUP, 2003)
James Walvin, ‘The Slave Trade, Abolition and Public Memory’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 19 (2009), pp. 139-149.
Forum on ‘Remembering Slave Trade Abolitions: Reflections on 2007 in International Perspective’, in Slavery & Abolition, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009).
The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database (TSTD) https://www.slavevoyages.org/ (accessed 17/03/2019).