Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Abolition of the Slave Trade

One of the important anniversaries being marked in England this year is the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade. The slave trade was abolished with the enactment of the Abolition Act on March 25, 1807. One of the great names associated with the abolition of slavery in Britain is William Wilberforce (1759-1833), an evangelical Christian and member of Parliament for Yorkshire, who devoted his parliamentary career to the abolitionist cause. He gave his first speech against the slave trade in Parliament in May 1789, and introduced the first abolition bill in 1791. That first bill was defeated 163 to 88. Through the tireless efforts of Wilberforce and others, the tide slowly turned, and the Abolition Act finally passed on February 23, 1807, on a vote of 283 to 16. Wilberforce is buried in Westminster Abbey. His portrait (above) by Thomas Lawrence (1828) is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Recommended reading: Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (Ecco 2006). An excellent book about British abolitionism, focusing on the plight of the American ex-slaves (including some of George Washington's slaves from Mount Vernon) who escaped to the British side during the Revolutionary War. It follows the efforts of British abolitionist Granville Sharp (later taken up in Parliament by Wilberforce), and the fate of the former American slaves, who after the war were precariously settled first in Nova Scotia and then in Sierra Leone.

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