Who resisted and campaigned for abolition?

William Wilberforce and abolition

Political agitator for abolition

The Society of Friends (or Quakers) campaigned against the transatlantic slave trade for many years. In 1783 they presented the first petition to parliament and in 1787, along with Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp, helped found the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

The committee needed someone to represent their views in parliament. In spite of some initial reluctance, William Wilberforce, MP for Hull, took up the campaign, and he made his first anti-slavery speech on 12 May 1789. Wilberforce became identified, along with Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp, as one of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement.

Wilberforce presented his first bill to abolish the transatlantic slave trade in 1791 but it was easily defeated, by 163 votes to 88. Most conservative members of parliament had investments in the slave trade and did not want to see it end.

In 1805 the House of Commons passed a bill to outlaw the transport of slaves by British subjects. The bill was then blocked by the House of Lords.

Finally, the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill was passed in the House of Lords by 41 votes to 20. In the House of Commons it was carried by 114 to 15 and it become law on 25 March 1807.

Ongoing slave trading

British captains caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every enslaved African found on board. This did not stop the illegal British slave trade. If slaving ships were in danger of being captured by the British navy, captains often reduced the fines they had to pay by throwing enslaved Africans into the sea.

Some people involved in the anti-slavery campaign argued the only way to end the suffering was to make slavery itself illegal. However, Wilberforce disagreed, and argued that enslaved people were not ready to be granted their freedom. He pointed out in a pamphlet in 1807 that:

'It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom'.

The Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery was formed in 1823. Wilberforce joined but as he had retired from the House of Commons, he did not play an important part in persuading parliament to bring an end to slavery.

He died on 29 July 1833, one month before parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave all enslaved people in the British Empire their freedom.