"My country is the World. My Religion is to do Good."

Abolition of the Slave Trade

Joyce Chumbley

[March 2007]

About 550 years ago some enterprising Portuguese adventurers began the cruel business of selling human beings that became known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (TST). The island of Goree, two miles off the Senegalese coast, was its center. Soon, the French, the Dutch, and the British were involved as well. At the height of the trade, Liverpool (whose streets once included a Goree Plaza) became Europe's largest slavery port.


  • 1450-1850. Over 10 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean, with another 10 million perishing in the process.
  • 1562. Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595), Elizabethan shipbuilder, explorer, lawful privateer captain, hijacked a Portuguese slave ship and traded the slaves in the Caribbean, beginning England's participation in the slave trade. He organized a syndicate of wealthy merchants to invest in the slave trade throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.
  • 17th Century. England began to acquire colonies in the Caribbean (West Indies).
  • 1672. The Royal Africa Company was formed to regulate and control the trading.
  • 18th Century. The English became leaders in the slave trade, based in the west coast ports of Bristol and Liverpool. The ships left England loaded with manufactured goods bound for the slave merchants in Africa; the goods were exchanged for slaves who were picked up and transported (the Middle Passage) to the Caribbean and the Americas; then the slaves were exchanged for the precious commodities, sugar, coffee, tea harvested by slave labor, and the ships sailed back to England (the triangular trade).
  • 1662-1807. British ships carried over three million Africans to slavery in the Americas.
  • 1678-1807. 2000 slave voyages left Bristol alone, and over 60% of the city's trade was directly related to slavery.
  • 1753. Thomas Paine attempted to board a privateer, Terrible, but was dissuaded by his father.
  • 1756. Thomas Paine served on the privateer, The King of Prussia; returned after six months.
  • 1772. The Somerset Ruling determined that no slave could be forcibly removed from Britain and sold into slavery. The slave James Somerset was the property of a Boston customs official, Charles Stewart. Somerset was brought to England while his master was sojourning there. He escaped, was recaptured, sold, and forced onto a ship bound for Jamaica. Anti-slavery campaigners learned of this incident, sought and received a writ of habeas corpus, requiring Somerset to be brought to court, where eventually he won his freedom and opened the way for other sojourner slaves. Thomas Paine was still in England during this well-known, precedent-setting trial.
  • 1774. Thomas Paine arrived in Philadelphia.
  • 1775. The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first American abolitionist organization, was formed in Philadelphia. The Society ceased to operate during the Revolution and the British occupation of Philadelphia. It was reorganized in 1784, with Benjamin Franklin as its first president and Benjamin Rush another leader. Thomas Paine is thought to have joined the Society in its early days.
  • 1775. African Slavery in America appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal. This piece, signed by "Justice and Humanity," is often attributed to Thomas Paine.
  • 1775-1783. American War of Independence
  • 1779-1780. Thomas Paine was appointed clerk to the Pennsylvania Assembly, and the next year his state was the first to achieve one of his ardent goals when it abolished slavery and emancipated 6,000 men and women. (See Preamble to Act for Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania, 1780.)
  • 1787. The British Committee for Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed. It consisted of a group of veteran anti-slavery campaigners, like Granville Sharp, and young reformers, like Thomas Clarkson. William Wilberforce, born in Hull, a young Tory (conservative) Member of Parliament from Hull (then York), an Anglican/Methodist evangelical, a deeply committed abolitionist, was asked to press the issue in Parliament.

He began his 20-year campaign to achieve abolition. (See below on Amazing Grace, a film of his life.) Wilberforce and the Clapham Group, as it was called because they all lived in the Clapham area, five miles south of the center of London, became the core, long-term activists. Many were prominent wealthy men and women, such as John and Henry Thornton, and Hannah More, the versificatrix (who wrote a tract against Rights of Man, arguing for politics to remain exclusively for the educated few). They had to persuade not only the Whigs (liberals) to work with them for abolition but also other Tories who had interests of their own in slavery. Year after year, resolutions were defeated.

  • 1789. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African was published in London, and became a phenomenal best seller, both in Britain and America. A freed slave living in England, Equiano (c. 1745-1797), was a prominent campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade and helped to fuel the anti-slavery movement. Thomas Paine, back in England then, must have known about this publication. Did he meet Equiano? Was Equiano too much of an opportunist, despite his travails,and too closely connected by 1789 with the British political establishment for Paine's taste? (Equiano is featured in Amazing Grace.)
  • 1789. Storming of the Bastille (July)--beginning of the French Revolution - just across the Channel!
  • 1791-1804. A slave revolt in the French colony, San Domingo, was led by Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Surely, Thomas Paine knew of these revolutionaries and their impact because in 1804, writing To the Inhabitants of Louisiana, he warned that to continue to import and enslave Africans could lead to the horrors of Domingo.
  • 1792. A British resolution gradually to abolish the TST was approved as a delaying tactic.
  • 1792. Thomas Paine may have written a pamphlet in London under the name Vindex, supporting the abolition of "that horrid traffick". (John Keane, Tom Paine, A Political Life, 1995, Boston: Little, Brown & Co. pp. 342 and 596.)
  • 1797-1804. Demoralized, the Abolition Committee did not meet, but popular support grew through a campaign of meetings, pamphlets, mass petitions, badges and sugar boycott.
  • 1806. William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (as of 1801), was a friend of Wilberforce and a supporter of abolition, but he died a year and two months before the Abolition Bill came into effect. (He is a major figure in the Amazing Grace film.) Although Pitt was a parliamentary reformer, his initial reform bill was defeated in 1785, and he moved on to other matters. Then, during the French Revolution, Parliament and Pitt's government enacted repressive legislation, fearing revolutionary activity at home, especially regarding the publication of seditious material (for example, Rights of Man), the right to assemble publicly ("seditious meetings"), and the formation of societies or organizations that favored political reforms. Those measures impacted Paine especially, and he left England in September 1792, never to return.
  • March 2, 1807. The document to abolish the US slave trade was signed by President Thomas Jefferson, to take effect on January 1, 1808.
  • March 25, 1807. The bill to abolish the British slave trade (for its own flag vessels), passed by both houses of Parliament and signed by King George III, came into effect.,/li>
  • 1809. Thomas Paine died, having lived long enough to know of the momentous Acts of 1807.
  • 1815-1820. TST became prohibited by most countries: Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia, France, Netherlands, Sweden, US, and Spain. Some illegal slave trading continued for decades. Brazil and Portugal were the most recalcitrant slave-trading countries.
  • 1833. Slavery was abolished in all British possessions. (Wilberforce died three days later.)
  • 1850. British ships entered Brazilian ports to search and seize.
  • 1861-1865. US Civil War Between the States
  • 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln, came into effect.
  • December 6, 1865. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery.
  • 1948. The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 4 states: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. (Thomas Paine: "If the present generation, or any other, are disposed to be slaves, it does not lessen the right of the succeeding generation to be free." Rights of Man, I, 1791)
  • 2004. The United Nations General Assembly declared 2004 as the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and Abolition of Slavery.
  • 2007. 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the British and US Slave Trade 1807-2007-- major events in Liverpool, also "Breaking the Chains" program in Bristol, and others.

It seems that much of the UK has rallied to be part of the anniversary celebration. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has committed over 16 million pounds toward projects that will make the bicentenary relevant to people today, to reflect on the struggles from the past, the progress made, the challenges that remain. The Advisory Committee is headed by Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, the current MP from Hull, and a distinguished group of scores of people from the Commission for Racial Equality to the Notting Hill Carnival. A sampling of the exhibits, concerts, lectures, and conferences is: Victoria & Albert Museum, From Cane Fields to Tea Cup; London Parliament exhibit, The British Slave Trade; National Commemorative Service at Westminster Abbey; major events in Liverpool; The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano exhibit at Birmingham City Museum. Materials have been prepared for the schools. Of course, a major focus will be in the City of Hull. (See www.wilberforcecentral.org)

The US, too, will participate. The film, Amazing Grace, has already been released, along with a book of the same name by Eric Metaxas. A television documentary is planned for the fall, The Better Hour. William Wilberforce: A Man of Character Who Changed the World. (See www.thebetterhour.com) There will be activities at the Wilberforce School in Princeton and at Ohio's Wilberforce University, the first Black university in America.

We are admonished not to become too euphoric in our celebration of noble intentions. (See Tristram Hunt at www.guardian.co.uk). It must be recognized that slavery secured the imperial hegemony of Georgian England, and some people and institutions (the royal family, other titled bankers, merchants, numerous Oxbridge colleges, and even the Church of England) profited greatly from "that horrid traffick". Policies were determined because of commercial and political advantages, not moral or humanitarian concerns. Perhaps we should be focusing on reparations. Also, it is estimated by various human rights groups (Amnesty International and others) that over 20 million people are still in forms of servitude today: wage slavery (low wages, child labor), contract slaves (some migrant labor), and traditional slaves, who are abducted, smuggled into a foreign country, and sold into lives of forced labor or prostitution. Addressing those concerns, the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) at the University of Hull is sponsoring two conferences: "Twenty-first Century Slavery" and "The Unfinished Business of Slavery". Every life is precious and contains powerful, unknown potential that is a grievous thing to lose.

"The mind bowed down by slavery loses in silence its elastic power." Thomas Paine, Dissertation on First Principles of Government, 1795]

Because Thomas Paine was such a clear voice during his time against the scourge of slavery, I think it's fitting to remember him in the context of this celebration. Therefore, I am sending greetings and best wishes to many of the Bicentennial groups from Thomas Paine Friends.

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