Slave History

British Abolitionism Revisited


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.

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


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).

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Sheffield, Slavery, and its Legacies

Plantation hoes for header

In the summer of 2020, Sheffield joined much of the rest of the world in responding to the murder of George Floyd. Thousands gathered at Devonshire Green on 6 June to protest his killing and to address institutional racism in Britain. The event, along with the wider Black Lives Matter movement, reinvigorated discussion around Britain’s role in the trade and enslavement of Africans in the Atlantic world and its pernicious legacies. 

Yet, the events of 2020 also highlighted Sheffield’s complex relationship with this history. Some proposed that a fitting response was a statue of or memorial to the renowned white female anti-slavery activist Mary Ann Rawson and the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society (founded in 1825). The controversial proposal reflects the common view that Sheffield – unlike other cities in the UK – is not ‘particularly “known” for its part in the slave trade’, and instead had ‘a big part to play in the abolition of slavery’.

It is certainly the case that working-class people in Sheffield – and particularly local women such as Rawson – played a prominent role in the political campaigns to abolish the slave trade and slavery through the organisation of mass petitions and boycotts. This local history is important to highlight and remember. However, focusing on and often celebrating anti-slavery activism has obscured the wider set of connections between Sheffield and the mass enslavement of Africans.

There is a more complex, and often more troubling story of the city’s relationship with the enslavement of African peoples in the Atlantic world. Our research as part of the ‘Sheffield, slavery, and its legacies’ project demonstrates how Sheffield and its wider region had deep-rooted and long-lasting connections to the Atlantic slave economy. 

We explore four types of such connections in our research: the economic ties between Sheffield manufacturing firms and the transatlantic slave system; the careers of the traders and ‘owners’ of enslaved Africans who were either born or lived in Sheffield; how wealth generated through slavery influenced the built environment of the local area; and the history of African and African-descended peoples in the Sheffield region between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Sheffield’s relationship with transatlantic slavery began in the 1660s, only a few decades after the first English plantation colonies had been established in North America and the Caribbean. In 1662, George Sitwell – an ironmaster born in Eckington and with business operations in and around Sheffield and Chesterfield – discussed with London merchants the prospect of producing sugarcane rollers and sugar boiling stoves in his iron foundries. These metal rollers and stoves would then be shipped to the Caribbean for use in the sugar industry, where enslaved Africans were forced to use them when operating the mill and boiling sugar. This is just one of many examples of the economic connections between Sheffield manufacturers and slave societies in the Americas between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

The city’s ties to the Atlantic slave economy continued until 1888, half a century after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Manufacturers in Sheffield continued to supply      goods to societies in the Americas where slavery persisted, such as the United States, Cuba, and Brazil. 

There are examples of both traders and ‘owners’ of enslaved Africans who were either born or lived in Sheffield and its surrounding area at some point in their lives. Their wealth influenced the built environment and local economy through the construction of stately homes and investments in railway infrastructure (to give just two examples). 

However, when compared with other British cities with maritime ties to Atlantic slavery,      such as Liverpool and Glasgow, the traders in enslaved Africans and absentee owners of plantations worked by enslaved people were only a small minority of Sheffield’s population. 

The most significant link between Sheffield and slavery was therefore the close commercial relationship between the city’s metalware manufacturers and business people who were deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade and plantation production. 

A good example of the links between Sheffield manufacturers and merchants who trafficked enslaved Africans across the Atlantic is the business career of the Liverpool-based trader William Earle, who was a participant in 97 slaving voyages between 1753 and 1787. Most of the ‘Guinea knives’ that Earle used to purchase enslaved Africans were supplied by Joseph and Benjamin Broomhead, ‘manufacturers of cutlery wares’ who were based in Fargate, Sheffield. 

Sheffield was also an important centre for the manufacture of the ‘plantation hoe’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Prominent metalware manufacturers in Sheffield such as William Butcher, Joseph Smith, and Frederick Stones profited from shipping plantation tools overseas to the Americas, where they were used by enslaved Africans working long hours in the plantation economy under brutal conditions. 

Plantation work carried out using hoes was a central part of the lived experience of enslavement for African and African-descended women, men, and children in the Americas. For instance, Sara Colquitt (pictured below in a photograph taken in 1936-38), a woman who was enslaved in Alabama and interviewed late-in-life during the 1930s, described how she worked in the fields ‘every day from ‘fore daylight to almost plumb dark’. She continued: ‘I usta take my littlest baby wid me. I had two chilluns, and I’d tie hit up to a tree limb to keep off de ants and bugs whilst I hoed and worked de furrow’.      

Sara Colquitt, photographed in Alabama, USA, in 1936-8. A917, vol. 1, Federal Writers’ Project, United States Work Projects Administration, Library of Congress, USA

Overall, Sheffield provides a complex and important case study for exploring Britain’s ties to transatlantic slavery. It provides insights into how inland manufacturing centres in Britain – and not just the better-known port cities – had deep and lasting connections to the trade in enslaved people and the production of slave-grown cash crops. 

The example of Sheffield is also interesting because it demonstrates how British cities with sustained connections to the Atlantic economy (and thus slavery) could at the same time function as centres of radical anti-slavery politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

These research findings – which are explored in much greater detail in the full report of our project – will hopefully play a part in reinscribing the history of Sheffield’s links to the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery into the city’s conventional historical narrative, providing a more nuanced understanding of this history, which encompasses both abolitionist campaigning and the various material benefits Sheffield and the wider region accrued from its economic ties to the enslavement of Africans. 

One message that has come through loud and clear in undertaking the project, though, is the need for researchers to situate the topic of slavery as one part of the broader histories of African and African-descended people connected to Sheffield. For instance, we identified examples of African and African-descended individuals living in Sheffield and its wider region as early as 1695 and 1725, and also demonstrated how a number of formerly enslaved people visited Sheffield as part of their campaigns to abolish slavery (including the renowned African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass). 

However, in order to establish a richer picture of African-Caribbean histories, institutional resources need to go towards amplifying stories that do not just centre on pain and suffering – or for that matter the business portfolios of white investors – but explore other aspects of lived experience, past and present. In this respect, we see Sheffield and Slavery as a beginning, rather than an end. 

Dr Michael Bennett is an honorary research fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research explores the merchants in the City of London who financed the development of the plantation system and African slavery in the British Caribbean. He is currently employed by the Bank of England and is working on a major new research project investigating the Bank’s ties to historical slavery and colonialism between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. 

‘Sheffield, Slavery, and its Legacies’ was a knowledge-exchange project that ran between February and July 2021, supported by the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) and led by Dr R. J. Knight with Dr Andrew Heath, Department of History, University of Sheffield. Dr Michael Bennett worked on the project as a postdoctoral researcher, and Dr Alex Mason was the Knowledge Exchange Project Manager.

Cover image: Plantation hoes sold by Joseph Smith of Sheffield. Joseph Smith, Explanation or Key, to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield, with Engravings of Each Article (1816). 672 SSTQ, Sheffield Local Studies Library. 

Further reading:

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From Merrie England To The Civilized World: History At Sheffield, 1963-1988, Part 2 – Brave New World


The core of compulsory papers in English history in the Department was defended by the Professor of Modern History, Ken Haley, who retired in 1982, chiefly on the grounds that it gave the degree course a clear identity and the students a common culture and a framework for a coherent view of the past. Most of his colleagues agreed on those objectives, but they held that the traditional curriculum no longer served them, if it ever had.

Accordingly, the single honours syllabus which came into operation in 1985 was also based on three common elements: “World Civilizations, 600 – 1900”, taught throughout the second year, “Modern Historical Thought”, begun in the second year and completed in the third, and a dissertation in the third.

There was, of course, nothing new about the dissertation, advocated by syllabus reformers throughout the twentieth century, and famously the culmination and emblem of Tout’s Manchester School, but of 25 English and Welsh curricula surveyed in 1966 only Manchester and four others required one, while four more (nine by 1975) offered it as an alternative to an examination paper.

The common papers were wholly new, and nothing like either of them had been attempted anywhere else. Historians were still notoriously distrustful of all theorising about their subject, and confident that students exposed to it would, like them, be either baffled or bored, a view sustained by such courses as were occasionally offered (though never in Sheffield) on historiography understood as superseded accounts of this topic or that, or as a cloudy “philosophy of history” without visible connection to its actual practice. Neither had much in common with the serious attack on “hard questions about why historians write what they do and why past historians did it differently” that was devised and taught by Michael Bentley.[1]

In the first century of its existence academic history had concerned itself with the world beyond Europe only in the context of European imperialism (or, as it was more politely called, expansion). The regions in which it took place and their inhabitants were assumed to be, in the words of the anthropologist Eric Wolf’s devastating indictment of 1982, without History.[2] The histories of other literate civilizations were confined with their languages and literatures to area studies: Gordon Daniels of Sheffield’s Centre of Japanese Studies had offered History students an option on the recent Far East since 1963. “World History” occasionally appeared, as in Sheffield, only as in “European and World History”, usually since 1870.

In the 1960s and ‘70s this became increasingly difficult to accept, especially for a generation growing up in a world torn by conflict in Vietnam, turmoil in the Middle East and revolution in Iran. At the same time the idea that world history was something that might be undertaken by professional historians, as opposed to cranks, prophets and social theorists, was beginning to take shape, notably through the work of W. H. McNeill in the US and Geoffrey Barraclough and John Roberts in the UK. [3]

World History came to Sheffield early in 1978, in the form of an entirely unprovoked telephone call inviting me to edit a historical atlas for students to replace Ramsey Muir’s, which had been effectively alone in the field since 1911.[4] That two departmental colleagues, Mark Greengrass and Bernard Wasserstein, were willing to join me as editors made it possible to accept, and the finished product included ten contributors from six Sheffield departments.[5] Compiling the list of maps, since the publisher had stipulated only that we should begin at the beginning and continue to the present in 80 maps, forced us to form a view of world history as a whole, then a novel experience for most historians. It was the most exciting intellectual exercise I have ever engaged in (I still think it would make a wonderful first-year module), and permanently changed my historical outlook.

Though World Civilizations was the first undergraduate course in long-term world history to be offered in the UK (or as far as I know, and as distinct from “Western Civilization”, anywhere else), therefore, it was a product of its time, and of local experience. In being taught by a combination of lectures and seminars it also reflected the collective determination of the Department to strike a new path, by accepting the argument of David Luscombe, then its Head, that if something so novel were to have so central a role everyone should take some part in it. Everyone did, and for several years readiness to do so was among the advertised requirements of every appointment.

Enthusiasm for that arrangement naturally varied among the teachers, but the course was popular with students, and produced some of the best undergraduate work I ever saw. As a medievalist I was particularly struck not once to hear the drearily familiar complaint of “irrelevance” directed at its early beginning: the wide comparative context seemed to make the long chronological perspective come naturally. But, in retrospect, it was bound to be short-lived, at least in its original form. In 1985 the ordinary preconditions of teaching did not exist. There were no textbooks, and no field of established academic discourse that corresponded to either the scope or the concerns of the course, so finding suitable reading was an acute problem.

Like Henry Adams in an earlier pioneering age, we had no alternative but “frankly to act on the rule that a teacher who knew nothing of his subject should not pretend to teach his scholars what he did not know, but should join them in trying to find the best way of learning it.”[6] The course’s essentially transitional character is betrayed by its title: Eurocentrism was not easily escaped simply by the use of a plural. By the 1990s the academy was beginning to take world history seriously, and rapid advances both in published knowledge and sophistication of approaches underlined the uncomfortably Heath Robinsonish aspect of the course, while looming modularisation, managerialism and massive student numbers made reorganisation inevitable.

For the University the 1980s was a decade of austerity and reconstruction, which it entered among those most affected by the earliest cuts of the Thatcher era. It responded by accepting that it had too many small and weak departments, rejecting the easy solution of “equal misery” and building on such strengths as it had, while avoiding compulsory redundancy. In 1982 the Academic Development Committee based its recommendations to this end principally on the criteria of research income and the quality of undergraduate admissions. By these measures Medieval and Modern History came out well, unlike Ancient History and Economic History, and its position was further strengthened when – again, unlike them – it was one of Sheffield’s embarrassingly few departments to emerge with a high rating from the first Research Assessment Exercise in 1986. Hence the merging of the three departments in 1988, which, though not without its pains, created a Department of History beyond the dreams of George Richard Potter.

If you want to find out more, click here to go to Part 1.

R. I. Moore taught History at Sheffield from 1964-1993, and is now Professor Emeritus at Newcastle University. His recent publications include ‘L’hérésie dans le jeu des pouvoirs’, Cahiers de Fanjeaux 55 (2020), Le “catharisme” en questions, pp. 157-72, and ‘Treasures in Heaven: Defining the Eurasian Old Regime?’, Medieval Worlds, 6 (2017), pp. 7-19.

Cover image: University of Sheffield in April or May, 1972. Courtesy of David Dixon©, [Accessed 14 February 2021].

[1] Michael Bentley, ed., Companion to Historiography (Routledge, London, 1977), xi ff for the critique, and for the alternative ibid. 395 – 506, separately .as Modern Historiography (1999).

[2] Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley, 1982).

[3]The term “global history” came into use later, from the social sciences, and with specific reference to the processes which produced the present globalised world. For that reason I continue to prefer “world history” as more comprehensive and, implicitly, less prescriptive.

[4] J. Ramsey Muir, Atlas of Modern History, (London, 1911), and many subsequent editions. Neither the publisher nor I knew that the far larger and lavishly funded Times Historical Atlas, ed. Geoffrey Barraclough, was in preparation: when it appeared later in 1978 our scheme was complete and production well under way.

[5] R. I. Moore, ed., The Hamlyn Historical Atlas (London, 1981), various subsequent editions, most recently as Rand McNally Atlas of World History. Wasserstein left Sheffield for Brandeis in 1979.

[6]  Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, ch xx.

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Reading Between the Lines: What Can Testimonies of Former Slaves Tell Us about their Relationships with their Former Mistresses?


The testimonies of formerly enslaved women reveal a great deal about their experiences and relationships formed with their former white mistresses (a term used for female slaveholders in antebellum America). My SURE project, supervised by Rosie Knight, sought to compare the testimonies of formerly enslaved women in Virginia and South Carolina recorded in the WPA Slave Narratives Collection. Comparing these states reveal the varying factors that influenced slave-mistress relations, and the weight they held in doing so. These two regions contrasted greatly in a number of ways, including economic circumstances, slaveholding sizes and geographical disposition, which in turn influenced the relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses.

The WPA interviews have been a hotly debated source of testimony, providing valuable insight into the experiences of formerly enslaved people from their own perspectives, but also heavily influenced by the context of the 1930s. Many participants were suffering in poverty during the Great Depression, which may have influenced more nostalgic recollections of their childhood characterised by greater economic security.

Moreover, the ruling of Jim Crow may have meant participants were intimidated by their white interviewers, and indeed expressed reluctance to say too much or ‘the worse’, as one interviewee put it. In cases such as these, their silences may be the most revealing aspect of their testimonies. From analysing these interviews, three key themes come to the fore: violence, material well-being and religion. However, the nature and extent of the influence of such factors were subject to regional variations.

The violence experienced by enslaved women was heavily dictated by regional circumstances, and greatly influenced both the relationships formed and perceptions constructed of the mistress. Slaveholdings were generally smaller in Virginia than those in South Carolina, meaning mistresses themselves would often beat and whip slaves themselves, whereas in larger slaveholdings in South Carolina, overseers usually inflicted violence upon slaves.

The personal dimension of such violence played a key role in shaping how mistresses were remembered by slaves later in life. For example, Henrietta King (VA) recalled the brutal violence she experienced at the hands of her mistress for stealing a peppermint candy when she was a child, explaining: “See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, aint it? … Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way.” She went on to describe her former mistress as “a common dog.”[1]

In contrast, recollections of former slaves in South Carolina tend to recall their former mistresses as justified in their violence toward them, and appear less resentful, perhaps influenced by the relatively good material conditions and religious teachings they were provided. Victoria Adams, for example, recalled: “De massa and missus was good to me but sometime I was so bad they had to whip me.”[2]

The booming slave economy of South Carolina meant enslaved people often experienced better material conditions, and the larger size of slaveholdings meant enslaved people had greater opportunities to form stable family units and networks of kinship than in Virginia, where familial separation was common due to interstate slave-trading and the tendency for smaller slaveholdings. The better conditions in South Carolina may have led to less direct resistance, and thus less violence from their mistresses. Economic decline in Virginia meant slaves often lived in abhorrent living conditions and were provided little, if anything, to eat, which led to attempts to escape or steal food.

Such conditions shaped perceptions of former mistresses, as expressed by Henrietta King:  “In de house ole Missus was so stingymean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller.”[3] Such a testimony illustrates the ways in which the material conditions of slaves influenced their perceptions of their mistresses, both during their enslavement and retrospectively. Moreover, located further north, Virginia slaves were more likely to reach the free states, and so may have more readily engaged in direct resistance and efforts to escape.

In South Carolina, where conditions were better, interviewees tended to remember their former mistresses as domestic and motherly women. For example, Granny Cain described her mistress as “the best white woman I know of — just like a mother to me, wish I was with her now.”[4]

Viewing nostalgic recollections of slaves within the context of the Great Depression allows us to understand how interviewees may have recalled their experiences in slavery in survival terms, as a time in which they may have had greater economic security. Fear of bad-mouthing former slaveholders, again, may have also played a role in such recollections. Moreover, many interviewees were children during slavery, and so may have had greater experiences and less responsibilities than their mothers or older siblings would have experienced.

Religion also proved to be a significant survival strategy in the experiences of enslaved women, both providing comfort and, in some cases, strengthening connections with their slaveholders. In Virginia, enslaved people appear to have received religious instruction mainly via the church and with little input from their mistress, while in South Carolina, religion and its instruction played a key role in slave-mistress relations. This led to enslaved people associating their mistress with what she taught — as pious, good and even a saviour in some cases. Josephine Stewart, for example, described one of her former mistresses as “a perfect angel, if dere ever was one on dis red earth.”[5]

The relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses can therefore be seen as greatly influenced by regional and economic variations across slaveholdings. The most important influences included: the violence enslaved people were subjected to, especially if this was at the hands of the mistress; the material well-being of slaves; and religious instruction. The variation of testimonies across the South points to the value of a comparative framework, signifying how experiences of enslaved women were not the same across the region and cannot be generalised. Understanding the influence regional variations had upon the experiences of enslaved people and the relationships they formed with their mistresses not only enables us to place these testimonies and their experiences in historical context, but also helps us avoid making generalisations about a topic so sensitive and complex.

Lydia Thomas is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationships formed between enslaved women and their white female slaveholders. She focused on antebellum Virginia and South Carolina to explore how variations in regional circumstances, such as economy and slaveholding size, influenced the relationships formed and testimonies of formerly enslaved women.

Cover image: A close up of an old map of the USA, featuring Virginia and South Carolina. [Accessed 24 March 2020].

[1] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Bardon and Robert K. Phillips (eds), Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), p. 190

[2] Victoria Adams, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, pp. 10-11

[3] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, et al., Weevils in the Wheat, p. 190

[4] Granny Cain, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, p. 166

[5] Josephine Stewart, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.4, p. 152. It is important to reiterate the influence of the context on such testimonies — positive recollection may have been utilised as a means of avoiding conflict with interviewers; Mistresses also often utilised religious instruction as a form of manipulation and control, especially within the large slave-holdings of the low country, presenting themselves in a position of authority and as an agent in the salvation of the slaves

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The 1807 Abolition Act and British Public Memory


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.

Further Reading:

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) (accessed 17/03/2019).


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