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The 1807 Act and its effects

First page of 1807 bill

Why the abolition of the Slave Trade and not Slavery?

The members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade decided to concentrate on a campaign to persuade Parliament to prohibit the trading in slaves, for tactical reasons. They felt they were more likely to succeed, than if they demanded the abolition of slavery itself throughout the empire.

They also believed that, if the trade was ceased, slavery would eventually wither away. 

Why did it take 20 years to abolish the trade?

In the early years of the campaign, the abolitionists had great success in raising awareness and obtaining public support. The society collected evidence, gave lectures, petitioned Parliament and distributed thousands of pamphlets. You can find out about the tactics they used in the Campaign Section

In Parliament, both Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger agreed with the committee's aims. However, some of the most powerful economic interests of the day opposed them, including the formidable West India Lobby. Fortunes had been made through the trade and those benefiting were not going to give up easily. The first bill put to parliament in 1791 was rejected by 163 votes to 88.

In 1793, Britain went to war against France. The Slave Trade was seen as the "nursery of seamen"  and to oppose it seemed unpatriotic to many. Therefore attention became diverted away from the abolition of the trade, although Wilberforce continued to propose legislation for abolition in the House of Commons.

It was not until 1807, when the evils of the trade were generally accepted, that the law was able to pass both Houses. The first breakthrough was in 1806, when James Stephen wrote a bill that was passed, banning involvement in the Slave Trade with France. Other events also played a part. The Act of Union allowed 100 Irish MPs into Parliament, most of whom supported abolition. The chances of abolition became even more favourable when William Grenville, who was extremely sympathetic to the views of the anti-slavery committee, became Prime Minister after the death of William Pitt.   

The effect of Stephen's 1806 act was to reduce the trade by two-thirds, paving the way for the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in February 1807. The Prime Minister, Lord Grenville, introduced the Slave Trade Abolition Bill in the House of Lords on the 2nd January 1807 when it received a first reading. The House of Lords, voted for the abolition of the slave trade on 5th February by 100 votes to 34; after an impassioned speech by the Prime minister, despite opposition from the West India Lobby. The bill was debated for ten hours in the House of Commons on 23rd February. At 4am the next morning the House voted in favour of the Bill by 283 votes to 16. Finally on 25 March 1807 the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act received its royal assent, abolishing the slave trade in the British colonies and making it illegal to carry enslaved people in British ships.

What were the effects of the abolition?

The act abolished the Slave Trade in the British colonies. It became illegal to carry slaves in British ships (although many ships tried to evade the ban). The ultimate aim, however, had always been the abolition of slavery itself. 

The abolitionists had assumed that ending the Slave Trade would eventually lead to the freeing of all enslaved people. When it became clear this would not happen, Clarkson joined with Thomas Fowell Buxton in 1823, to form 'the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery' (later the Anti-Slavery Society). At first the aim, as the title suggests, was for gradual abolition.

In May 1823, Thomas Fowell Buxton, the Society's representative, introduced a motion in the House of Commons, "That the state of Slavery is repugnant to the principles of the British constitution and of the Christian religion and that it ought to be gradually abolished throughout the British colonies".

However, when it became clear that the West Indian planters were not implementing the improvements to conditions and rights for enslaved people, that had been agreed in an 1823 'amelioration programme', the abolitionists hardened their stance. New campaigners, such as Elizabeth Heyrick, pressed for total abolition and the removal of the word 'gradual' from the resolution.

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the abolitionists, particuarly women's groups, organized letter-writing campaigns, petition drives and sugar boycotts. Thomas Clarkson went back on his travels, visiting every county in England, Scotland and Wales. The sons of James Stephen organised speaking tours around the country. By the late 1820s, abolitionists were demanding immediate emancipation, as well as supporting calls for political reform; this they saw as necessary, to break the control of the West India Lobby. 



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