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The 1807 Slave Trade Abolition Bill, passed by the British Parliament on 25 March, ended the use of British ships and the involvement of British merchants in the slave trade. Slavery continued in the British Empire until 1834, followed by a four-year period of enforced apprenticeships, described by critics as ‘slavery in all but name’. Enslaved men, women and children were finally given their full freedom on 1 August 1838.

The 1807 bill was a significant step towards total abolition and came about through a combination of factors including resistance by enslaved Africans and the campaigning of abolitionists, both black and white.

Key dates in the build-up to the passing of the bill include:

Quakers banned people engaged in the slave trade from being members of the Society of Friends. While some churches, notably the Church of England, upheld the slave trade, many non-conformist Christians, including the Quakers and Methodists, stood against it, emphasising that everyone was equal in the eyes of God.

Granville Sharp successfully defended James Somerset, a Virginian slave who had run away from his master during a visit to Britain. The landmark judgement in the British courts declared ‘no master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service’. This meant it was illegal forcibly to remove an enslaved person from Britain, although, in practice, runaway slaves continued to be recaptured and sent back to the colonies.

Enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley from Boston visited London with her owner’s sons and astonished influential people with her talent, making them question long-held beliefs about the intellectual inferiority of black people that had helped justify slavery.

Over 100 captive Africans were thrown overboard from the slave ship Zong so the owners could claim compensation from the insurers. The case came to court, drawing public attention to the evils of the trade.

The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded. Granville Sharp was its first president. The society decided it was impractical to abolish slavery itself but concentrated on banning the trade. It was felt this would bring an end to the wars in Africa that were fought for the purposes of enslaving captives, stop the horrific Middle Passage voyage across the Atlantic of the slave ships and encourage plantation owners to treat their slaves more humanely as it would be harder for them to acquire replacements. The society was later headed by William Wilberforce MP. Wilberforce was a member of the Clapham Sect, a group of Evangelical Christians closely involved in the campaign against the slave trade.

Slave Trade Regulating Bill passed, limiting the number of enslaved people that could be carried on slave ships.

Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, published his best-selling autobiography and became an important contributor to the abolitionist campaign, speaking at rallies around the country. Other notable former slaves in eighteenth-century Britain included Equiano’s friend Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Ignatius Sancho, who ran a grocery shop and wrote poetry and plays, Frances Barber, who worked as a servant for Samuel Johnson and later ran a school in Lichfield, and the musician and composer Joseph Emidy who lived in Falmouth.

Wilberforce tabled his first unsuccessful bill to abolish the slave trade.

A slave revolt on the French colony of St Domingue led by Toussaint L’Overture developed into a campaign for black independence. The French surrendered the island in 1804, which became the independent state of Haiti. There was widespread fear among British people during this period that the enslaved people of Jamaica, inspired by the success of the black independence campaign, would similarly rise up in rebellion – the island was only a hundred miles from Haiti, within easy reach of ‘undesirable influences’. Though no British colony did gain independence in this way, rioting, sabotage and resistance by slaves successfully disrupted work on the plantations and proved a major incentive for emancipation.

Resolution for the abolition of the slave trade defeated in the House of Lords.

Following the French Revolution, slavery was abolished in all French colonies. It was restored by Napoleon I in 1802.

100 Irish MPs joined the British Parliament, the majority of whom were opposed to slavery.

Bill for Abolition of the Slave Trade passed in the Commons, but defeated in the Lords.

Economic forces also played a part. By the late-eighteenth century, British merchants were already moving their investments to more profitable ventures and many Caribbean plantations had closed as a result of competition from other producers.

A year after the Abolition Bill was passed, the British West Africa Squadron, part of the Royal Navy, was formed to suppress slave trading by patrolling the African coast in pursuit of slave ships. It is estimated that by 1865 nearly 150,000 captives had been freed in the navy’s anti-slavery operations. This was not purely a humanitarian effort, but one devised partly to disrupt the trade of rival nations still using slave labour.

Of the other main colonial powers, the French and Danes freed their Caribbean slaves in 1848, followed by the Dutch in 1863, the Spanish between 1870 and 1886 and the Portuguese in 1888. Slavery was abolished in the US with the Thirteenth Amendment, passed on 1 January 1865.

‘The leaving of sugar’.

‘The leaving of sugar’.

Slavery in Brazil.

Slavery in Brazil.

  The Blandford frigate.

The Blandford frigate.

The Brookes diagram.

The Brookes diagram.

William Wilberforce.

William Wilberforce.

Olaudah Equiano.

Olaudah Equiano.