March 25

1807

Britain Ends its Slave Trade

Slavery seems to be as old as human history and though its cruelties were often deplored, particularly by the religious who sought to mitigate its brutality, systematic attempts to eliminate the practice altogether did not take place until the eighteenth century. The most significant of these attempts took place in Great Britain where slavery had long been illegal on its own soil but whose empire owed much of its prosperity to slave-run economies. (The French had briefly abolished slavery during the 1790s but reinstituted it under Napoleon.)

Led by Quakers, Anglicans and evangelical Protestants, a movement to abolish the trade in human beings gained momentum in the 1780s and 1790s but faced resistance from those who believed that slavery was a natural condition and those who saw the economic benefit to Britain from its colonial sugar, cotton, rice, and tobacco plantations. William Wilberforce, M.P., had persuaded many of his fellow parliamentarians of the justice of the cause but it took him 20 years before his efforts met with the passage of the 1807 “An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”.

Just as importantly, Britain used its diplomatic muscle and Royal Navy to persuade other countries to follow suit. Their West Africa Squadron captured slave ships and freed 150,000 captives; treaties were made with African states to persuade them to cease selling their prisoners to the Atlantic slavers; and other European countries were pressured to get out of the business. It would, however, not be until 1833 that Britain abolished slavery itself in its overseas holdings.

And two cheers for us. In 1793, Upper Canada’s Act Against Slavery banned the importation of slaves and ordered that children born to female slaves would be freed upon reaching the age of 25.

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