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British Abolitionism


At the same time that efforts for the abolition of slavery were underway in the fledgling United States at the end of the eighteenth century, there were analogous efforts in Britain, also led by Quakers, among others. In June 1783, Quakers submitted to Parliament the first public petition for abolishing slavery, and two years later, eleven thousand copies of Anthony Benezet's pamphlet were distributed to members of Parliament, justices of the peace, and clergy. In 1787, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, one of the most influential British abolitionist groups, was founded.

Moral concern motivated efforts to abolish slavery. Seymour Drescher highlights the key question that abolitionists in Britain were asking: "How could the world's most secure, free, religious, just, prosperous, and moral nation allow itself to remain the premier perpetrator of the world's most deadly, brutal, unjust, immoral offenses to humanity?" In response to such questions, ordinary people were mobilized on a widespread basis to call for the end of slavery. For instance, one of the first antislavery petitions to reach Parliament was from Manchester, England, with 10,600 names, including two-thirds of the eligible adult males in the working-class town.

The 1791 defeat in Parliament of an abolition bill resulted in a nationwide campaign to boycott sugar grown on plantations using slave labor. Such efforts, and petition campaigns involving nearly one-third of the country's populace, resulted in efforts in Britain to limit slavery in the early 1800's. This was unlike the United States, where abolition efforts met with limited success prior to the Civil War. Women in Britain were mobilized with arguments about slavery's terrible effect on families, and religious communities, particularly Methodists, were also active in abolitionist efforts in the early 1830s. This broad popular mobilization led to the 1833 abolition legislation that resulted in the emancipation of 800,000 enslaved people in the British Empire in 1834, only six years after Abdul Rahman's long struggle to free himself in the United States.

The Great Anti-Slavery Meeting, London, 1841


John Wesley

John Wesley (1703-1791), one of the founders of the Methodist movement (which eventually separated from the Church of England), promoted involvement in many areas of social justice -- among them, abolition of the Slave Trade. His first contact with enslaved persons came during a visit to Georgia (then a British colony) in 1736-37. This experience moved him profoundly. He was also deeply influenced by the writings of the Philadelphia Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet. In 1774, Wesley penned an anti-slavery tract entitled "Thoughts on Slavery", which received wide circulation. In 1787, he wrote to England's Abolition Committee to express his support. In 1788, he preached a provocative anti-slavery sermon in Bristol, one of England's major slave-trading ports.

John Wesley

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (1759 -1833) was a member of the British Parliament, and one of England's leading abolitionists. He was instrumental in the campaigns culminating in the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

William Wilberforce