British Abolitionism Revisited

Tobias Gardner | 7 March 2022

Abolition / Black History / British History / Colonialism / Slave History

Robert Cruikshank cartoon
Robert Cruikshank, ‘JOHN BULL taking a Clear View of the Negro Slavery Question!!’ (London, 1826), Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

Britain’s abolition of slavery, and the slave trade before that, has been a longstanding source of pride within the public imagination. As Michael Bennett has shown recently, during recent discussions about modern racial injustice, many were swift to invoke Britain’s antislavery legacy. This popular narrative goes something like this: the abolitionists, a group of religious reformists led by enlightened individuals like William Wilberforce, fought vigilantly against the economic heavyweights of the day to secure the liberty of the slaves. 

Thankfully, since Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944), this view has been revised, at least within scholarly circles. Williams was suspicious of the ‘saint-like’ status of Wilberforce and others, arguing abolition actually relied on economic forces, rather than on moral considerations. 

Subsequent historians have also shown that British abolitionism was a complex mass-phenomenon that relied upon multiple sources in British society and beyond, particularly on the contributions of women and importantly on the resistance of the slaves themselves. The most recent studies in the field extend this critical interpretations, notably the contributions of Michael Taylor, Hannah-Rose Murray and Bronwen Everill - all published in 2020. Yet, the disparity between this evolving historiography and a pervasive self-congratulatory popular narrative calls for a revision of the public knowledge of British emancipation.    

Taylor’s swashbuckling monograph declares war on this traditional popular? narrative. Taylor critically interrogates the notion that Britain swiftly mutated from a slave-owning imperium into a purported “antislavery nation” (xvi). This linear interpretation, he argues, neglects the intense resistance to emancipation by proslavery factions within British politics. Thus, rather than celebrating abolition, Taylor exposes how it almost did not occur. 

As Taylor argues, new histories must be written on British slavery. This should not be a “national bout of self-loathing”, but rather a just and necessary corrective to years of self-congratulation (309). More importantly, shifting this narrative to stress Britain’s role in slavery will open up the possibility for potential reparations to those historically affected by slavery. In the wake of Taylor’s work, studies on Antislavery can no longer ignore how this movement was partially prevented by many in Britain. 

Murray’s work confronts this popular narrative in a different way. It explores the itinerant activism of African-American abolitionists, notably figures like Frederick Douglass, who was also active in Britain after the 1834 Abolition Act. Murray’s book thus reaffirms that British antislavery was not a national ‘success.’ Rather, it was rooted in transatlantic links to confront the truly global issue of slavery. Moreover, emancipation across the world was fundamentally driven by the “advocacy” and “testimony” of those affected by slavery. Thus, Murray punctures British nationalistic claims about high-profile white British activists ‘securing’ freedom for the slaves.  

Everill’s new book provides a more nuanced critique. For Everill, British slavery debates must not be observed purely as a discussion of morals. Rather, abolitionism was shaped by evolving ideas about commerce and economic agency (4). Antislavery activists harnessed a climate of global economic change to argue that emancipation was a form of “ethical capitalism” (22-4). So, whilst popular memory remembers abolitionists as selfless objectors, Everill re-explores connections between antislavery and self-interested capitalists.           

Taken collectively, these three new books all challenge, though differently, the classical historical narrative on British antislavery. They show that abolition’s success was not inevitable, rested on the agency of slaves, and was shaped by material forces, rather than on Britain’s supposed ‘superior’ morality. 

However, in demonstrating this, these academic texts also illuminate that public knowledge about British antislavery still requires much improvement. But how can this more honest historiographical account of British emancipation be broadcast to a wider public? It has been almost eighty years since Williams first raised suspicions over the tales of self-congratulation.

Yet the social debates since the summer of 2020 have done little to suggest many in Britain have moved beyond the mythology of national success. This is unsurprising when high-profile figures describe efforts to remove memorials to slave-traders, as ‘lying’ about history. As Michael Taylor notes, the “British ‘remember’ that Parliament abolished slavery but not that Parliament spent 200 years encouraging it” (310).

Tobias Gardner is an MA in Historical Research student at the University of Sheffield, and is writing his dissertation on the interactions between antislavery, radicalism and reform movements in nineteenth-century Sheffield.

Everill, Bronwen. Not Made by Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition. (London, 2020).

Murray, Hannah-Rose. Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles.(Cambridge, 2020).

Taylor, Michael. The Interest: How the British establishment resisted the abolition of slavery. (London, 2020).