The Distinctiveness of British Abolitionist Mobilization

  • Seymour Drescher


Having alluded to the final defeat of eighteenth-century attempts to transfer the transatlantic slave system to the metropolis in terms of law and popular opinion one may turn to the attack on the overseas system itself. Historians of Atlantic slavery disagree about many elements in the history of its abolition. Most, however, date the beginning of the political destruction process at some point in the last third of the eighteenth century. In 1770 the slave trade and slavery were sanctioned from Canada to the southernmost settlements of Spanish South America. The African slave trade was encouraged by every maritime power in the North Atlantic. By the end of the next century every new World society had abolished it and both the slave trade and slavery were rapidly declining in their Afro-Asian strongholds. In international terms the process was not uniform. Especially during the era of British abolitionism centres of the slave trade and slavery shifted from one region to another so rapidly that the quantitative decline of the Atlantic slave system, in economic and demographic terms, was drawn out for over half-a-century after British emancipation.


Eighteenth Century Slave System French Revolution Slave Trade Free Labour 
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Notes and References

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    The various French abolitionist societies between 1788 and 1848 ranged from less than 70 members for the ‘notable’ Socété Frangaise pour Vabolition de Vesclavage of the July Monarchy, to almost 150 for the Sociiti des Amis des Noirs of the first French Revolution, and slightly over 200 for the popular Club des Amis des Noirs of 1848 (Archives Nationales, hereafter AN, C 942, Enquete sur les événements de mai et juin 1848) dr. 4. On the general exclusivity of organized French abolitionism see also Daniel P. Resnick, ‘The Société des Amis des Noirs and the Abolition of Slavery’, French Historical Studies, 7, 4 (Fall, 1972), 558–69;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  22. 14.
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  23. 15.
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  24. J. Q. C. Mackrell, The Attack on ‘Feudalism’ in Eighteenth-Century France (London, 1973), 109, there were no more than 140 000 French serfs, although contemporaries often used figures up to ten times that number. At the outbreak of the Revolution there were about 675 000 slaves in the French colonies (Drescher, Econocide, 34, Table 10). The number of French galley slaves was 5400. SeeGoogle Scholar
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  26. 16.
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  28. 20.
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  29. 21.
    On electoral proclamations, see the “Le54” series in the BN. Bissette unsuccessfully attempted to make slavery an issue in Rennes, the electoral district of Martinique’s agent Thomas Jollivet (Le54 1894, 23 July 1846). Even before the Anglo-French war scare of 1840, Isambert’s political manifesto of 28 February 1838 made no mention of slavery in appeals to his electorate at Chartres (BN NA 23769, Isambert papers). Only when appealling to the Parisian working class after the Revolution of 1848 did Isambert’s election propaganda mention his abolitionist activity as evidence of his sympathy for workers. (‘Aux electeurs de la Seine’, ibid., 23,770.) Nor did any major Parliamentary figure identify emancipation as an urgent reform to his constituents in the elections of 1839. (See Chambre des Deputés. Elections 1839–1841, BN no. Le541072 to 1397.) French abolitionists felt obliged to affirm that slave emancipation was not an ‘English’ idea but one with purely French antecedants going back to Philippe Auguste. (L’Abolitioniste Francaise, 1 (1844) 104.) On the electoral strength of antiabolitionism in the French ports see Anti-Slavery Reporter (1842), 58. As late as the spring of 1848 many capitalists and Chambers of Commerce petitioned for a delay of emancipation by the Provisional Government. See AN, Section Outre-Mer Généralités, 153 (1275), communications from Montpellier, Lyons, L’Orient, La Rochelle, Rochefort, Toulon, Saint-Malo, Nantes, Dieppe, St Brieux, Dunkerque, Morlaix, and Paris.Google Scholar
  30. 24.
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  31. H. Temperley, British Anti-Slavery 1883–1870 (London, 1972), xiii–xiv.Google Scholar
  32. 26.
    The most detailed account to date is in R. Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810 (London, 1975), Parts II–IV.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 27.
    See D. B. Davis, Slavery in … Revolution (Ithaca, New York, 1984), 5. The Somerset affair seems to have aroused planters only momentarily. Contrast the serene preface of An Essay upon Plantership (London, 1765), v, citing Virgil, with the 5th edition of that work published in the aftermath of the Somerset case (1773). An aggressive new preface now declared that the slaves were happier in the islands than in Africa, and ‘at least as happy as the Labourers of Britain’. The preface was ‘necessary at this time, to put an end to the many publications upon the Freedom of the Negroes’. For the 1785 edition however, the situation again seemed stable and the Preface of 1773 was dropped.Google Scholar
  34. 28.
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  35. 29.
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  36. 30.
    The reaction to the Zong case was significant precisely for its lack of immediate resonance. The case was heard on 6 March 1783, but the only news relating to slavery on the following day was an item on the West India Committee’s request for a reduction of sugar duties (Morning Chronicle, 7 March 1783). An exceptional letter on the case appeared on 18 March (ibid.). The next newspaper comment on Mansfield was the following item on 26 May 1783: ‘It is wonderful to see with what ease Lord Mansfield gets through the business of his Court’.Google Scholar
  37. He was so ‘pleasant and punctual’ that ‘it makes everyone happy who has any matter to transact before him’ (ibid.). The Morning Chronicle’s coverage of the Quaker petition to Parliament in June 1783 contained no reference whatever to the Zong case. Gentleman’s Magazine did not mention the Zong case in its monthly ‘remarkable trials’ sections in the spring of 1783. Elsewhere it mentioned Sharp’s effort to press criminal charges. See Shyllon, Black People, 228. It was Sharp’s extraordinary step, not the facts of the case which were deemed newsworthy. I have been unable to discover any British newspaper which mentioned the Zong in connection with the Quaker petition. Four years later, when a provincial abolitionist began to illustrate how insurance nullified the interest that a slave trader had in preserving the lives of all his cargo (self-interest was really only the ‘price of insurance’), the Zong case was still not cited. See Letter VIII of ‘Africanus’, dated ‘Norwich, October 8’, in the Norwich Mercury, 13 October 1787.Google Scholar
  38. 31.
    Two years after the Zong trial newspapers still echoed the traditional dichotomy between moral aversion and de facto acceptance. On 8 January 1785, The Daily Universal Register called the Negro trade shocking to humanity, cruel, wicked and diabolical, but on 1 July it reported, without comment a jury decision awarding insurance for all slaves in a mutiny who had died of wounds, bruises and salt water. The jury refused payment only for those who leaped into the sea. As Mansfield again calmly explained, the suicide of a slave from despair was not like his being thrown overboard by the captain to save the rest of the crew and cargo. Slave insurance emerged as separate legal ‘problem’ only in 1788, after the passage of the Dolben Act. See Samuel Marshall, A Treatise on the Law of Insurance, 2 vols (Boston, 1805), 77, 132–5, 385–6, 419, 616.Google Scholar
  39. 32.
    See C. Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone (Oxford, 1962);Google Scholar
  40. M. B. Norton, ‘The fate of some Black Loyalists of the American Revolution’, Journal of Negro History, 58 (1973), 402–26;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  45. 33.
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  46. 34.
    Rather than maximizing the exodus of blacks from London, special precautions were taken to prevent the emigration of any person ‘against the Rights of Parents or Masters’. (PRO TS/632/1513, meeting of 14 June 1786.) For the protective certificates granted to each settler, see ibid., 2430, 9 October 1786. Shyllon interprets this procedure as a provision for ‘owners of runaway blacks’ to ‘recover their chattels’ (Black People, 134). It is unclear on what grounds historians interpret the term ‘masters’ to mean owners of chattels.Google Scholar
  47. Ottabah Cugoano’s extensive criticisms of the management of the enterprise contained no charge of slave-catching. (See Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (London, 1787), 139–42; also quoted at length in Shyllon, Black People, 138–9,) Generalized racism may have played a greater role in preventing blacks from going to Sierra Leone a few years later than in forcibly repatriating them in 1786–7. London’s General Evening Post of 9–11 February 1792, reported that the proprietors of the Sierra Leone Company generally declined ‘giving a passage to any black person from hence, in consequence of their having observed that the habits of those blacks who had been living in London, were far from being regular and industrious’. Philip Curtin thinks that the principal sponsors of the project of 1785–7 were dominated by humanitarian motives (Image of Africa, Chapter 4). Despite his criticisms of its execution, Cugoano took the same position: Thoughts and Sentiments, 138. The subscription list for relief of the black poor included future abolitionists like the Thorntons, Sir Rowland Hill, William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, the Duke of Montagu, Samuel Hoare, Thomas Walker, Thomas Erskine and William Pitt. But it also included some future antiabolitionists like Lord Romney. See Public Advertiser, 27 January, 17 February, Morning Chronicle, 3, 13 February 1786. In some ways Sharp’s plan for a multi-racial colony clearly foreshadows agricultural Utopian projects of the nineteenth century. But it accommodated to both English and African pre-abolitionist realities, providing for slaves bought from African neighbours to work off the costs of their purchase in five years of public indentured servitude.Google Scholar
  48. G. Sharp, Short Sketch of Temporary Regulations … for the Intended Settlement … near Sierra Leone (London, 1786), 1–11, 22–32.Google Scholar
  49. 40.
    Gary B. Nash, ‘Slaves and Slaveowners in Colonial Philadephia’, William and Mary Quarterly, 30 (1973), 226–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. 41.
    Cobbett’s Parliamentary History, 23 (1782–3), 1026. The discussion in the newspapers was dominated by the economic consequences of the peace on Africa and the West Indies.Google Scholar
  51. 44.
    Ibid., 224; Anstey, Atlantic Slave Trade, 230; Leeds Mercury 3 July 1787.Google Scholar
  52. 46.
    Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser, 26 June 1783; D. Clare, ‘The Growth and Importance of the Newspaper Press in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Leeds between 1780 and 1800’, MA thesis, University of Manchester, 1960, 117.Google Scholar
  53. 47.
    Anstey, Atlantic Slave Trade, 251, citing R. I. and S. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, 5 vols (London, 1838), 1, 149. it needs not be told that the abolition of the slave trade first applied for by Quakers were treated as the chimeras of a wild imagination, which no man thought deserving of a serious discussion.’ The Case of the Sugar-Colonies (London, 1792), 19. Early in 1789 a pro-slavery correspondent to the British Journal (19 April 1789) claimed that the complete failure of legislators to respond to the Quaker petition had quite reasonably left the slave interest unprepared for the onslaught of 1788. See also Clark-son, History, 1, 296.Google Scholar
  54. 48.
    Richard Watson, DD, A Sermon Preached before the University of Cambridge on 4 February 1780 (Cambridge, 1780), 6, 9. In 1783 even sympathizers with American abolitionists openly assumed that slavery might wither away in North America, but would continue in the West Indies as long as the pecuniary interests of Europe flowed in that direction. The only hope was some alternative investment in Africa itself.Google Scholar
  55. (John Lettsom, Some Account of the Late John Fothergill, M.D. (London, 1783), lxvi. The Sermon of John Warren, Bishop of Bangor, delivered to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in February 1787, also referred to the slave trade as ‘infamous’ but contained no suggestion for considering its alteration.Google Scholar
  56. 49.
    Public Advertiser, 21 January 1785; The Times, 28 August 1787; Morning Chronicle, 23 November 1787. The quote from John Wesley is from his Works, 11, 75, quoted in Wellman J. Warner, The Wesleyan Movement and the Industrial Revolution (New York, 1930), 91. Once the popular campaign got underway late in 1787 Wesley immediately signed on.Google Scholar
  57. 50.
    Both the pamphlet literature and newspaper attention indicate that the abolitionist explosion occurred precisely at the end of 1787. Just before the American War of Independence about three antislavery tracts were published each year. Output rose to an annual average of under six in 1783–7, and then soared to over 46 per year in 1788–92. (Calculated from the Catalogue at the Anti-Slavery Society Library by Joyce Bert, 1958, plus Lowell Ragatz’s Guide for the Study of British Caribbean History, 1763–1834 (Washington, DC, 1932), andGoogle Scholar
  58. P. C. Lipscomb’s bibliography in ‘William Pitt and the Abolition of the Slave Trade’, PhD thesis, University of Texas, 1960.) The new version of The Times Index, for 1785–9, illustrates the same pattern in the newspapers. From January 1785 to September 1787 there are 19 items entered under ‘slave trade’ or about 18 items every two months. Items relating only to the abolition of the slave trade appeared once every ten months between January 1785 and September 1787. From September 1787 to December 1788, abolition-related items appeared at a rate of 90 every ten months. All told, in the 2 % years before October 1787, only four of fifteen items in The Times on the slave trade were related to abolition. The others were simply traditional trade reports. In the 15 months beginning October 1787, 136 out of 140 items were related to abolition. During the first trimester of 1788, before the subject was mentioned in Parliament, more than half of the items consisted of announcements of the various abolitionist petitions. The ‘slave trade’ items in The Times of London 1787–9 were reported as shown in the table below (items include correspondence, reports, petitions, etc.).Google Scholar
  59. 54.
    Peter Marshall, ‘The Moral Swing to the East: British Humanitarianism, India and the West Indies’ (kindly sent in manuscript by the author). Marshall notes that there was a divergence in concern over these two previously related subjects around 1790. I would contend that the ‘swing’ of humanitarian concern was rather to the West and that it occurred in 1788. Regarding the retrospective perception of the slave trade as a particularly bad one for sailors, and therefore an inherently vulnerable target for reform, one must note that for contemporaries in the summer of 1787, East India captains were the particular target of lawyers ‘trepanning sailors to prosecute their commanders and officers for supposed pretences of ill-uses’ (Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, 25 August 1787).Google Scholar
  60. 55.
    See Parker, Evidence of our Transactions in the East Indies, with an Enquiry into the General Conduct (London, 1783), vi–ix; andGoogle Scholar
  61. The Political Progress of Britain (London, 1792), 3; ‘Humanitas’ to Gore’s General Advertiser (Liverpool), 21 February 1788.Google Scholar
  62. 56.
    See John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt: The Years of Acclaim (New York, 1969), 443–51;Google Scholar
  63. P. Marshall, The Impeachment of Warren Hastings (Oxford, 1965), 188.Google Scholar
  64. 58.
    Marshall, The Impeachment, 188; L. G. Mitchell, ‘Charles James Fox and the Distintegration of the Whig Party, 1782–1794,’ D Phil, Oxford University, 1969, 148–160. Prosecutions for the illegal selling of East Indians began immediately after the first British mobilization against the African slave trade. See Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, 2, 485.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Seymour Drescher 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Seymour Drescher
    • 1
  1. 1.University of PittsburghUSA

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