Be it therefore enacted by the King’s most excellent Majesty … that from and after the first day of May One thousand eight hundred and seven, The African Slave Trade, and all manner of dealing and trading in the Purchase, Sale, Barter, or Transfer of Slaves, or of Persons intended to be sold, transferred, used, or dealt with as Slaves, practised or carried on, in, at, to or from any Part of the Coast or Countries of Africa, shall be … utterly abolished, prohibited, and declared to be unlawful.
These words were part of the Royal Assent given to the bill that abolished slavery on March 25, 1807. The then Prime Minister William Grenville described it as ‘the most glorious measure that had ever been adopted by any legislative assembly in the world.‘
It was the work of many, but perhaps supremely the work of William Wilberforce, who as a back-bench MP, had introduced an anti-slavery bill many times, only to see it defeated. In 1791 Wilberforce had said ‘Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name … [our descendants] will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to our country‘.
Church of England bishops opposed it. It was evangelicals (within and outside the Church of England) and Quakers who led the fight. Public campaigning and mobilizing popular opinion played a part. At one point, a quarter of the country was boycotting West Indian sugar — thanks to women, mostly, who did most of the sugar-handling in the UK, then as probably now.
I was re-reading this story today 1 and two things struck me again: the fact it was the evangelicals who led the fight; and the fact it didn’t matter that it was slow.