Who resisted and campaigned for abolition?

Racism and rights for Africans

by Marika Sherwood

Dehumanisation of African people

By deeming enslaved Africans and then Africans generally as non-human, anything could be done to them without feeling guilty. If you were a Christian (as almost all Europeans claimed they were), you did not have to pray for forgiveness. An enslaved person could be beaten to death with impunity. Male plantation owners, seamen and other European men freely raped enslaved women: this was not a sin or misdemeanour, as these women were not deemed human.

Of course, there were always instances that broke the racist categories and rules. For example, some 300 black men, clad in 'Imbroyder'd Caps lin'd with White Fur and Plumes of White Feathers' were included in the military entourage of William of Orange in 1688, although while these men were clearly bestowed with some level of status and responsibility greater than would be expected, we still do not fully know exactly how they were treated here.

Activists and abolitionists

Then there was the former enslaved African Olaudah Equiano, who defied the racial status hierarchy by writing a classic autobiography 'The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African'  in the late 1700s which became a major anti-slavery book that was reprinted 17 times in his lifetime (and is still in print). Other variations in European relations with Africans included some more humane treatment towards African traders, chiefs and princes, among others, and of course these were in stark contrast to the ways the majority of African people were increasingly viewed and treated.

In the 1800s some African people also participated in local political struggles. Examples include William Cuffay who was a leader of the Chartist struggle, the first mass popular political movement for the rights of working people in Britain, and William Davidson, a Spencean believer in equality who was part of an attempt to overthrow the government after the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester. ('Spencean' means a follower of the pro-equality and anti-government radical Thomas Spence).

At the same time there were British people such as Granville Sharp who fought valiantly for the rights of blacks in Britain in the 1700s and 1800s, and Thomas Clarkson who gathered the evidence on the inhumanity of transatlantic slavery for presentation to parliament for the debates on abolishing the trade in enslaved Africans.

Further relevant writings by Marika Sherwood include:

'After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade since 1807'I.B. Tauris, 2007
‘Manchester, Liverpool and Slavery’, North West Labour History, 32,16-22 2007-08
'Perfidious Albion: Britain, the USA and slavery in the 1840s and 1860s', Contributions to Black Studies, 13-14 1995-6