From the mid seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, Britain was at the centre of the global slave trade. Across three centuries, British traders transported an estimated three million African slaves to work against their will in British colonies in North and South America, as well as the Caribbean.
The barbaric trade, which saw thousands of Africans die, not only in their native countries trying to avoid capture, but also approximately a fifth of slaves dying on ships on the journey across the Atlantic and a very high death rate when they began labouring, was only criminalised in Britain in 1807 with the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. This meant that it was illegal to transport and trade slaves but, until 1833, it was still legal to keep them and force them to work if they’d already been bought or were born into slave families.
Upper-class white philanthropist William Wilberforce is the most-mentioned figurehead of the abolitionist movement, leading the parliamentary campaign for the cause until the Act finally passed through the Houses, but the focus on him excludes the contributions of ex-slaves themselves in the movement. In fact, after Wilberforce’s death, two of his sons compiled a five-volume biography which omitted the role of slave revolts and ex-slaves in emancipation, meaning that for years, the act of abolition was regarded as the work of a heroic white saviour.
In fact, a group of ex-slaves living in London played an instrumental role – the Sons of Africa. These 12 educated black men from a background of slavery came together in 1785 to work alongside white abolitionists. All the members were literate, so were able to write essays, letters and pamphlets to educate British politicians, members of the public and even the royal family about the horrors of slavery. The group travelled around Europe distributing their books and delivering lectures on the trade in order to spread the abolitionist message. They are widely regarded as Britain’s first black political organisation.
The leader of the group, Olaudah Equiano, who learned to write while working as a slave for a Royal Navy Lieutenant, went so far as to pen an autobiography – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1789 – which became immensely popular in Britain and enlightened many about why abolition was so important. It is one of the earliest books published by a black African writer, and made him wealthier than most freed slaves could have dreamed of.
Another notable member of the group was Ignatius Sancho, a Black British composer, actor and abolitionist writer who was reportedly born aboard a slave ship bound for the West Indies in 1729. When he was two, he was brought to England where he was forced to work as a slave for a British family. He became the only known black person qualified to vote in any British general election in the eighteenth century due to property ownership after he purchased his own grocer’s shop – he was the first black person to ever vote in this country. He’s also the first known person of African descent to have an obituary published in a British newspaper.
Another individual worth mentioning is Mary Prince, a West-Indian slave born in 1788 who escaped to become the first woman to present a petition to Parliament in 1829, at the height of the campaign to abolish the practice of slavery in the British Empire altogether. This feat was finally achieved with the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Her 1831 autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself became a best-seller, much like Equiano’s, helping to transform contemporary outlooks on the trade among white Britons.
But this country’s problematic relationship with slavery did not end in 1833. One of the Abolition Bill’s key stipulations was that slave owners should receive significant compensation for the cessation of the practice through the Slave Owner Compensation Loan. In 1835, the British government took out a loan of £20 million (over £2.5bn in today’s money) to compensate slave owners for loss of their trade; this constituted 40% of the Treasury’s annual budget for the year, and about 5% of the country’s entire GDP – essentially, white men were paid huge amounts as an apology for making them stop exploiting human lives.
Nowadays, slavery is often perceived as an American evil, perpetuated by white sons of Dixie with menacing southern drawls, but their plantations were only possible through the British slave trade. It’s essential that British children are taught about our role in the trade as part of the standard school curriculum, but also about the work of both black and white people in abolishing it.