Slave Trade Act of 1807

For the American statute passed in the same year, see Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.
Slave Trade Act 1807
Long title An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
Status: Repealed



The Slave Trade Act (citation 47 Geo III Sess. 1 c. 36) was an Act of Parliament made in the United Kingdom passed on 25 March 1807, with the long title "An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade". The original act is in the Parliamentary Archives. The act abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, but not slavery itself. Many of the Bill's supporters thought the Act would lead to the death of slavery. It was not until 26 years later that slavery itself was actually abolished.[1] Slavery on English soil was unsupported in English law and that position was confirmed in Somersett's Case in 1772, but it remained legal in most of the British Empire until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.

Background

The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed in 1787 was formed by a group of Evangelical English Protestants allied with Quakers to unite in their shared opposition to slavery and the slave trade. The Quakers had long viewed slavery as immoral, a blight upon humanity. By 1807 the abolitionist groups had a very sizable faction of like-minded members in the British Parliament. At their height they controlled 35–40 seats. Known as the "Saints", the alliance was led by the best known of the anti-slave trade campaigners, William Wilberforce, who had taken on the cause of abolition in 1787 after having read the evidence that Thomas Clarkson had amassed against the trade.[2] These dedicated Parliamentarians had access to the legal draughtsmanship of James Stephen, Wilberforce's brother-in-law. They often saw their personal battle against slavery as a divinely ordained crusade. On Sunday 28 October 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his diary: "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners."[3]

Their numbers were magnified by the precarious position of the government under Lord Grenville, whose short term as Prime Minister was known as the Ministry of All the Talents. Grenville himself led the fight to pass the Bill in the House of Lords, while in the Commons the Bill was led by the Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox, who died before it was finally signed into law. Other events also played a part. The Act of Union allowed 100 Irish MPs into Parliament, most of whom supported abolition.[4] The Bill was first introduced to Parliament in January 1807. It went to the House of Commons on 10 February 1807. On 23 February 1807, twenty years after he first began his crusade, Wilberforce and his team were rewarded with victory. By an overwhelming 283 votes for to 16 against, the motion to abolish the Atlantic slave trade was carried in the House of Commons.[2] The debate lasted ten hours and the House voted in favour of the Bill. The Bill received Royal Assent on 25 March 1807.[5]

The success of this law can also be seen against the background of Napoleonic Wars, going on at the time. The French Revolution had originally outlawed slavery, an act which won the admiration of progressive people worldwide - but in 1802 Napoleon reestablished slavery in Haiti and Guadeloupe, sending troops to both islands to fight the freed slaves and force the chains back on them. Thus, the 1807 British law - though outlawing only the slave trade, not slavery itself - won for Britain something of a moral high ground vis-a-vis its French foe[6][7]

Other nations

Britain used its international strength to put pressure on other nations to end their own slave trade. The United States acted to abolish its Atlantic slave trade the same month on 2 March (but not its internal slave trade). In 1805 a British Order-in-Council had restricted the importation of slaves into colonies that had been captured from France and the Netherlands.[8] Britain continued to press other nations to end their trade with a series of treaties: the 1810 Anglo-Portuguese treaty whereby Portugal agreed to restrict its trade into its colonies; the 1813 Anglo-Swedish treaty whereby Sweden outlawed its slave trade; the 1814 Treaty of Paris 1814 whereby France agreed with Britain that the slave trade was "repugnant to the principles of natural justice" and agreed to abolish the slave trade in five years; the 1814 Anglo-Dutch treaty whereby the Netherlands outlawed its slave trade; and the 1817 Anglo-Spanish treaty that Spain agreed to suppress its trade by 1820.[8]

Enforcement

The Laws created fines for captains that continued with the trade. These fines could be up to £100 per slave found on a ship. Captains would sometimes dump slaves overboard when they saw Navy ships coming in order to avoid these fines.[9]

The Royal Navy, which then controlled the world's seas, established the West Africa Squadron in 1808 to patrol the coast of West Africa, and between 1808 and 1860 they seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard.[10] The Royal Navy declared that ships transporting slaves were the same as pirates. Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example against "the usurping King of Lagos", deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers.[11]

In the 1860s, David Livingstone's reports of atrocities within the Arab slave trade in Africa stirred up the interest of the British public, reviving the flagging abolitionist movement. The Royal Navy throughout the 1870s attempted to suppress "this abominable Eastern trade", at Zanzibar in particular. In 1890 Britain handed control of the strategically important island of Heligoland in the North Sea to Germany in return for control of Zanzibar, in part to help enforce the ban on slave trading.[12][13]

See also

References

External links

  • Text of Act
  • Parliament and the British Slave Trade 1600 to 1833
  • Teaching Resources about Slavery and Abolition
  • Road to Freedom documentary – Eastside Community Heritage
  • Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice
  • Text of Bill
  • Timeline of Aftereffects
  • Developments leading up to the Bill being passed

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