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The Campaign to Abolish Slavery

The Brooks Diagram

Today, we only have to turn on our TVs or surf the internet to get up-to-date news. A network of journalists makes us aware of what is happening, almost instantly, across the world.

When the campaign to abolish slavery began, around 250 years ago, there were no TV bulletins showing the terrible conditions on slave ships or newspapers reporting on the cruel treatment of chattel slaves on plantations. Newspapers that did exist tended to reflect the views of the ruling classes. Most people could not read them anyway.

This meant that the majority of people who used sugar to sweeten their tea and cakes, had no idea of how it was produced or the human cost. Those that did know tended to be the very people who were profiting from the trade and wanted to ensure things stayed just as they were. These people had the money and power to influence government.

Today, everybody over the age of 18 has the right to show their disapproval of government policy, by voting in elections. 250 years ago, only an elite few could vote. Women had no say in how the country was run and governments saw little need to listen to the people.

Against this background, it is surprising that those opposed to enslavement managed to conduct such a successful campaign. The act to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807, and slavery itself throughout the British Empire in 1833, owed perhaps more to the slave rebellions and revolution in Haiti, than to the campaign in Britain. However, the campaign both raised public awareness and helped sway Parliament to do something about it. It was a long and hard fought struggle.

The abolitionists faced strong opposition from those profiting from the trade, who used political pressure and delaying tactics to maintain the status quo. However, the enthusiasm and organisational skills of the abolitionists saw the first ever campaign, in which people became angry about the treatment and rights of people they did not know and were prepared to support them in their struggle for freedom.

To successfully end slavery, the abolitionists needed to do two things: make people aware of what was going on and put pressure on those with the power to change the law. How did they do this?  Well, by introducing many of the ways of campaigning that we take for granted today. 

Picture gallery 

This Section:

Looks at the different campaign tactics used. A more detailed account of this can be found in Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild.

Quaker Meeting House (with permission of 'The Library of the Religious Society of Friends')
Organising action groups
By the late 1700's, a number of people had stated their opposition to slavery. The Quakers had put the...
List of Slaves on Montpelier Estate 31st July 1798
Investigation and research
Today, investigation and research (documenting evidence, compiling statistics and collecting eyewitness accounts) is a standard part of good journalism. This was not the case in the...
Parts of Brooks Diagram
Using a variety of media (the written word, the spoken word and images)
The anti-slavery movement was remarkable in that it got huge numbers of the British people to join in. This was because the campaigners tried to get their message across to the whole...
Anti-Slavery Medallion
Giving the Campaign an identity
Today we are used to slogans on tee-shirts or campaign badges worn to support a cause. The abolition campaign saw the start of this. In 1787, when the Society for the Abolition met...
Wealth in 18th century London was built on slavery - challenging the status quo would not be easy.
Obtaining support from the media and influential people
Strong public support helped to drive the campaign forward but the campaigners still needed to get the decision makers to act on this. It was important that the campaign was not restricted...
The House of Commons at Westminster as drawn by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson for Ackermanns Microcosm of London (1808-11).
Petitioning and lobbying Parliament
The abolitionists regularly lobbied Parliament and put forward bills to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Another tool that was first used by the abolitionists was the mass
Pottery Anti-Slavery Text
Consumer Action (boycotts of sugar and rum)
After Parliament rejected the abolition bill in 1791, abolitionists took action by sidestepping Parliament entirely and calling for a boycott on...
William Murray 1st Lord Mansfield
Legal challenges through the courts
Africans brought to Britain often tried to liberate themselves by...
Election Poster 1832
Election Campaigning and Supporting Parliamentary Reform
A major stumbling block to the abolition movement was the influence of the pro-slavery...
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