Abolition of the Slave Trade
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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 1833. Slavery was abolished in all British possessions.
(Wilberforce died three days later.)
- 1850. British ships entered Brazilian ports to search and
- 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,
- 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
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.