Learn about the abolition of British involvement in the slave trade.
This web resource forms part of the "Inhuman Traffic" project by Gloucestershire Archives and partners to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. It is based on documents held at Gloucestershire Archives, especially the papers of the early anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp (1735-1813). It covers:
- the background to the transatlantic slave trade
- the early abolitionist Granville Sharp and his family
- the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
- the black contribution to the abolition movement
- the Gloucestershire dimension
- modern day slavery
It supports the "Inhuman Traffic" virtual exhibition and covers in more depth the themes of the exhibition. The virtual exhibition itself is available to download in PDF format to the right. Individual pages can be accessed using the links below.
Each page has a link to some key documents from the archives. Click on the image to learn more about them. Each document's reference number is given, and some pages have downloadable lists of other relevant documents held at Gloucestershire Archives.
If you are unable to access the audio, video and PDF downloads, please contact us and we will send you a copy on CD.
Material used in this resource is copyright Gloucestershire Archives, Antislavery InternationalOpens new window, the National Portrait GalleryOpens new window and the National Maritime MuseumOpens new window
Copyright (c) 2007, all rights reserved.
"Inhuman Traffic" is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and MLA South West and is part of the "Set All Free" initiative in Gloucestershire.
The background to slavery
Slavery was a feature of many ancient and traditional societies. However, the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in the 18th century was carried out on a previously unknown scale.
A slave is a person:
- Forced to work - through physical or mental threat
- Owned or controlled - by an "employer"
- De-humanised and treated as a commodity to be bought and sold
- Physically constrained - or who has restrictions placed on their freedom of movement
The transatlantic slave trade was the enforced removal of men, women and children from their African homelands to the Americas (both north and south and the West Indies), a journey of thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean. The trade developed because of the need to provide labour to work on plantations of tobacco, coffee, cotton and, above all, sugar.
All the major European sea-faring powers were involved in the trade which was based on ancient trading routes. England did not start the trade and played little part in its development, but by the 18th century had come to dominate it. The slave trade brought great prosperity to Britain and other European countries but at an enormous cost - the human suffering of an estimated 12 million Africans.
There were three strands to the trade, often thought of as a triangle:
- English ships sailed to the coast of West Africa carrying goods such as cloth, iron and trinkets. These were exchanged for enslaved Africans who had been captured inland and taken to the coast where they were held in readiness for the ships
- in the notorious "middle passage" of the trade, the slaves were then taken across the Atlantic ocean to the Americas where they were sold to plantation owners
- the ships then returned to England with luxury produce from the plantations such as tobacco and sugar.
Mickleton churchwardens' accounts
Gloucestershire parish records contain several references to local people being taken as slaves during the 17th century.
The churchwardens of Mickleton record payments of money made to help John Mansden, "his father and brother being in slavery under the Turcke", 1651 [P216 CW 2/1]. For many centuries, both Christian and Muslim societies believed that slavery was justified, provided the enslaved person was not of their faith.
Slave ship 'The Brookes'
It has been estimated that a total of 1.5 million Africans died on board slave ships. Conditions were appalling. A former ship's surgeon who later gave evidence against the trade described them as "slaughterhouses". Men, women and children were chained and stowed below deck like cargo during a voyage which could take up to 4 months. Disease and illness were widespread and it was said that a slave ship could be smelt two days before it docked.
A diagram of the slave ship the "Brookes" was sent to the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade by an anti-slavery group in Plymouth. It was a graphic illustration of the inhumane way in which slaves were packed into slave ships to maximise profit.
The image had huge propaganda value and was re-worked by Thomas Clarkson and other members of the Society to show the ship carrying 482 slaves (this was erring on the side of caution since the ship had been known to carry over 600 slaves). In 1789, the Society printed 700 posters of the diagram which became one of the most shocking and enduring images associated with the trade [D3549 13/3/29].
Song of slaves in Barbados
This song was written down in the mid 18th century by anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp "from the information of Dr William Dickson who lived several years in the West Indies and was secretary to a Governor of Barbados". Explanations of some of the words and notes on how the song would be sung are given. [D3549/13/3/27]
Download a recording of the song being performed by the choir of Christ Faith Tabernacle, Gloucester. This file may take a few moments to download.
Advertisement of slaves for sale
When slaves first arrived in the Americas, they underwent a "seasoning process" which lasted several months. They were then sold at auction - a slave cost less than an ox. The majority of slaves were destined for field work, especially on sugar plantations which were very labour intensive. Family and friendship groups were deliberately split and slaves were given new names by their owners to remove their old identity. Slaves could be sold on many times during their lifetime. One third of all slaves died within three years of reaching the Americas.
The majority of slaves in Virginia, North America, worked on tobacco plantations. North America was an English colony until the War of Independence, 1775-1783. A newscutting from the Virginia Gazette contains details of an auction of slaves, 1773 [D3549 13/3/20].
Mortgage of Rose Hill plantation in Jamaica
Slaves were treated as commodities by their owners and could be bought, sold and bequeathed. In this document, all the slaves on the plantation are listed as security for £10,000 which Charles Payne, a Bristol merchant, has lent Charles Palmer of Surrey. Although the shipping of slaves was abolished by British Parliament in 1807, this did not free those who were already slaves. Slavery itself was not abolished in British colonies until the Emancipation Act of 1833.
Mortgage of Rose Hill [sugar] plantation, slaves and stock in the island of Jamaica to secure £10,000 interest, 1824 [D1421 bdl 18]
This list of slaves begins "Parish of Clarendon, co Middlesex, Jamaica. Slaves as registered in the register of colonial slaves, along with all future issue of the females." It then goes on to list all the slaves, giving their name, age and origin.
Ancestry.co.uk has made available 100,000 entries from slave registers of former British Colonial Dependencies 1812-1840. Currently only Barbados is covered, but eventually there will be 3 million entries from the British colonies. The entries include the name of the owner, place of residence, name of slave, gender, age and nationality. Following the act of 1807 many of the British colonies began keeping registers of black slaves who had been so-called "lawfully enslaved". They were later used regarding claims of compensation.
Granville Sharp (1735-1813) was one of the first people in England to question the morality of slavery. He was born in Durham but spent his adult life in London. In 1765, he had a chance meeting with a young slave called Jonathan Strong who been brought from the West Indies by his owner but had run away after being badly beaten. This meeting, and events two years later when Jonathan was re-captured by his owner, affected Granville deeply. He took up legal studies so he could help defend other runaway slaves and challenge English law through the courts.
In 1772, after several unsuccessful cases, he obtained a landmark legal ruling with the case of James Somerset, another runaway slave. Granville continued to fight to change public opinion on slavery. He wrote the first major anti-slavery work by a British author and published many pamphlets on the subject. He corresponded tirelessly with clergymen, politicians and other influential people, both in Britain and abroad. He also gathered evidence of inhumane treatment and cruelties inflicted on slaves in British colonies.
Granville was co-founder of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, formed in 1787, and chairman of its London committee. In the mid 1780s, he was involved in the establishment of the Sierra Leone colony for freed slaves. He was 72 years old when the British slave trade was abolished on 25 March 1807 and died 20 years before slavery itself was abolished in British colonies by the 1833 Emancipation Act.
Granville Sharp's papers are held at Gloucestershire Archives [reference D3549]. The catalogue of this collection is available in our online catalogueOpens new window.
The detail of Granville Sharp is taken from a portrait of the Sharp family, on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, and is reproduced by kind permission of the owner.
Download a timeline of events leading up to the abolition of slavery.
Other websites relating to Granville Sharp:
Granville Sharp: biography and bibliography:Opens new window a short biography of Granville Sharp
Oxford DNB article: Sharp, Granville:Opens new window Granville Sharp's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
In Favorem Libertatis: The Life and Work of Granville SharpOpens new window an article about Granville Sharp which gives a full account of the various legal cases he was involved with
Key documents from the archives: See the links below
Granville Sharp and Jonathan Strong
Granville Sharp's chance meeting with young runaway slave Jonathan Strong in 1765 made him take up the cause of slaves in England and the colonies.
Jonathan had been brought from Barbados to London by his master but escaped after being badly beaten and left for dead. Granville first encountered him when he was waiting for medical treatment outside the house of Granville's brother William, a surgeon. Granville was deeply affected by Jonathan's plight and looked after him, finding him work as an errand boy.
Two years later, Jonathan appealed to Granville for help. His former owner had seen him in the street and had kidnapped him. He was now being held prisoner on board a ship bound for the West Indies having been sold to a Jamaican planter. Granville intervened on his behalf and the case developed into a complex legal battle. Although Jonathan was set free, he never fully recovered his health and died a few years later aged 25.
Extract from Granville Sharp's diary, 19 April 1773 [D3549 13/4/2 book G]
"Poor Jonathan Strong, the first negro whose freedom I had procured in 1767, died this morning"
Granville Sharp's account of his first meeting with Jonathan Strong and subsequent events [D3549 13/3/38]
Some years later, Granville wrote a long and detailed account of his fateful meeting with Jonathan Strong and subsequent events.
"Nothing can be more shocking to Human Nature than the case of a Man or Woman who is delivered into the absolute Power of Strangers to be treated according to the New Masters Will & pleasure; for they have nothing but misery to expect; and poor Jonathan Strong, who was well acquainted with West India Treatment seemed to be deeply impressed with that extreme horror which the poor victims of the inhuman Traffic generally experience."
Granville Sharp's correspondence with the clergy
Many people in the 18th century thought that the Bible justified the slavery of non-believers. Granville Sharp wrote to many clergymen, particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury, to express his horror at slavery in English colonies and to argue against it, hoping to enlist their support.
Letter from Granville Sharp to his brother John about lobbying the clergy, March 1779 [D3549 13/1/S8]
"I have lately made it my business to call upon the archbishops and bishops to request their influence and assistance towards putting a stop to the slave trade, as the House of Commons have appointed a committee to enquire into the state of the African Trade, & therefore...there is an opportunity of exposing the iniquity of it which ought not to be let slip. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishops of Lichfield, St David's, St Asaph, London, Ely, Bangor & Oxford strongly express their horror against it and the bishop of Peterborough since I called on him, has exerted himself in a very extraordinary manner in calling upon a variety of people that have knowledge of the trade and reading all books that he can find upon the subject, in order that he may be enabled to answer the pleas of interested people who endeavour to promote the trade."
Letter from Granville Sharp to the Archbishop of Canterbury about helping a slave, 1 August 1786 [D3549 13/1/C3]
In this letter Granville describes his attempts to free a slave about to be sent to Barbados. He is writing in 1786, over 20 years since he first intervened to help escaped slave Jonathan Strong.
"Last Friday morning early, two poor negroes came to inform me that one of their friends was by his Master on shipboard at Gravesend to be sent as a slave to Barbados. All the judges being out of town on the circuit I could not obtain either warrant or writ of habeas corpus after the most unwearied endeavours till late on Saturday night and in the meantime I had notice that the ship was sailed from Gravesend. However I sent off by an attorney and the young man's friend in a post-chaise that same night to Deal in hopes that the ship might not yet have quitted the Channel and they happily arrived in the Downs just in time to save the poor despairing man: a delay even of a single minute more would have been fatal! However they brought the young man safe to me yesterday at noon and after proper consultation I sent him this morning with officers to catch his master but he had prudently decamped and fled to Scotland. The young man confessed that he had intended to jump into the sea as soon as it was dark in order to avoid slavery by death!"
Colony for former slaves in Sierra Leone
In the mid 1780s, Granville Sharp became involved with a project to re-settle former slaves in a new colony in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The colony was intended to deal with the increasing numbers of poor black people on the streets of London during the early 1780s. Many were former slaves who had fought for the British against America in the war of Independence, in exchange for their freedom and a promise of wages, which in most cases had never materialised. The image shows the printed notice advertising the settlement [D3549 13/3/23].
The project foundered when the intended colonists began to question whether it was in their best interests, and key black figures such as Olaudah Equiano withdrew their support. Despite these doubts, 374 mainly black colonists sailed to Sierra Leone in 1787. The colony was plagued by war and disease and by 1791 only 60 of the original colonists survived.
Granville was one of the directors of the St George's Company, which managed the settlement until it was taken over by the Crown in 1808. He published a "sketch" for the government of the colony and also produced plans suggesting how the new towns could be laid out. Although Granville's role in this unhappy episode has been seen as problematic by modern historians, it is clear from letters that he wrote to his brother John that he genuinely believed the colonists were going to a better, even an idyllic, life.
Letters from Granville Sharp to his brother John about the Sierra Leone colony [D3549 13/1/S8]
"I had the pleasure of hearing this day of the safe arrival of the African settlers at the Madeira islands and that all the jealousies and animosities between the whites and blacks had subsided...schools are established on board each ship as I had proposed and they have daily prayers."
"I have had hitherto but melancholy accounts of the unfortunate colony to Sierra Leone. But I have however discovered that most of the evils have arisen from the allowance of rum distributed on board the ships; and the landing just in the rainy season on an un-cleared woody country when they were so enervated and infatuated by the rum that there was no prevailing on them to clear the underwood as I had recommended...They have purchased 20 miles square of the finest and most beautiful country...that was ever seen. The hills are no steeper than Shooters Hill and fine streams of fresh water run down the hill on each side of the new township and in the front is a noble bay where the river is about 3 leagues wide, the woods and gorges are beautiful beyond description and the soil very fine. So that a little good management and a prohibition of rum and spirits will produce a thriving settlement."
Granville Sharp and the Sharp family
Granville Sharp was born in Durham in 1735, the youngest son of Thomas Sharp, archdeacon of Northumberland, and grandson of John Sharp, Archbishop of York. (All three have entries in the Dictionary of National Biography). He was from a large family of nine children, with four brothers and three sisters (one brother died young). At the age of 15, Granville became apprenticed to a linen draper and moved to London, where two of his brothers, William and James, were already living.
The Sharp family had a strong philanthropic streak. Both Granville's London based brothers, William and James, were actively involved with his fight against slavery. William was a surgeon who gave free medical treatment to the poor, and it was at his house, awaiting treatment, that Granville first encountered runaway slave Jonathan Strong. James accompanied Granville to the Lord Mayor of London to intervene when Jonathan was re-captured by his master. As a result of this, both brothers were later charged with £200 damages. James and William supported Granville financially from 1776 when he resigned from his job in the Ordnance office (a government department which supplied the army and navy with weapons) on a matter of conscience. This enabled him to devote himself to campaigning against slavery, and to other causes such as electoral reform.
Granville never married and died childless in 1813. His papers passed to the family of his niece Mary, who in 1800 had married Thomas Lloyd Baker of Uley in Gloucestershire. In 1977, Granville's papers were deposited, along with other papers of the Sharp family, at Gloucestershire Archives where they are preserved for posterity and can be viewed by the public [reference D3549]. The catalogue of this collection is available in our online catalogueOpens new window.
The portrait of the Sharp family is on loan to the National Portrait Gallery and is reproduced by kind permission of the owner.
Download a timeline of events leading up to the abolition of slavery.
Portrait of the Sharp family
This portrait of the Sharp family was painted by society artist J. Zoffany from 1779 to 1781. It was commissioned by William Sharp and cost 800 guineas.
The family are pictured with their musical instruments on board a yacht which was jointly owned by William, James and Granville. Fulham parish church and Fulham House, William's retirement home, are shown in the background.
The family made many excursions on the Thames by boat, and played music on board, even entertaining King George III on one occasion.
Download a key sheet to the portrait, with members of the Sharp family identified.
Zoffany portrait on loan to the National Portrait Gallery and reproduced by kind permission of the owner
Playing card by Mary Sharp
This playing card, the ace of clubs, is one of a set designed by Mary Sharp, the niece of Granville Sharp, co-founder of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. It is clearly inspired by the Society's logo of a kneeling slave in chains with the words "Am I not a man and a brother?" [D3549 24/1/1].
Many women took up the abolitionist cause. They played a prominent part in a highly effective boycott of slave-produced sugar in 1792 and in petitioning against the slave trade.
When campaigners started to fight slavery itself in the 1820s, a number of women's anti -slavery societies were formed. They re-worked the Society's logo to show a female slave with the words "Am I not a woman and a sister?".
Download an article about women's contribution to the fight against slavery and the slave trade.
James Sharp, inventor, engineer and manufacturer of iron goods
James Sharp was an inventor, engineer and manufacturer of iron goods. He lived in Leadenhall Street in the city of London, and had an iron foundry in Tooley Street, south London. The image shows a brochure for James' foundry [D3549 12/2/1].
Letter to Granville Sharp from Mr Wilcocks, mentioning a conversation with James Sharp, 1768 [D3549 13/1/W22]
This letter to Granville Sharp mentions a conversation with his brother James about the need to invent a labour saving device which could be used on plantations instead of slaves.
"May your pamphlet come to the hands of some person, concerned in the American plantations and who may be moved by it to soften the yoke of his slaves. Even so, it may do considerable good. But it is to be feared that no strength of argument will be sufficient to prevail against the slave trade in general. Happy would it be, if it could be eradicated by other means.
"An evening or two ago some conversation passed on this subject with your worthy good brother James Sharp in which he expressed his wishes that some mechanical instrument could be invented for the culture of rice, tobacco and sugar, analogous to the plow for corn - something like the instrument for hoeing bean in Kent. What honour, what infinite happiness would the inventor of such an instrument enjoy? ... For if the invention of such an instrument was brought to perfection and introduced properly into America, the planters would soon, though gradually, fall into the use of it . As the great object of it would be to save human labour perhaps one Negro slave might by its assistance do with ease more work than ten at present can achieve in misery and toil. Consequently the expense of the purchase of slaves would proportionally cease: that is, nine parts in ten of the natives of Africa which are now annually exported to the hard work of American slavery, would remain at home; and those that were brought to America would have much lighter burdens on them than before."
The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787 by Granville Sharp (1735-1813) and Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846). Granville Sharp, a long standing opponent of slavery, was elected chairman of the London committee. Thomas Clarkson, who in 1785 had written a prize wining essay questioning the lawfulness of slavery, was elected president.
Sharp and Clarkson gathered evidence of the brutality of the trade. Clarkson also travelled the country, giving talks and liaising with the Society's regional branches.
Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), a manufacturer of high quality pottery, commissioned the design of a seal for use by the Society. The image of a kneeling slave in chains with the words "am I not a man and a brother?" became the society's logo and was used on medallions, snuff boxes and brooches.
The Society was very successful in winning and harnessing popular support for the cause. Some 300,000 people joined a boycott of slave-produced sugar. More than 500 petitions against the slave trade, each one bearing many thousands of names, were received by Parliament, more than any other issue has ever generated.
The Society's spokesman in Parliament was the young MP for Hull, William Wilberforce (1759-1833). He introduced his first bill to abolish the slave trade in 1789 and when it was defeated, introduced annual anti-slavery bills for the next decade. For a time, external events, particularly war with France and the massive slave uprising in the French colony of St Domingue, seemed to weaken the abolitionist cause. But the tide of public opinion was turning inexorably against the slave trade. At last, on 25 March 1807, MPs voted to abolish the British transatlantic slave trade.
Download an article about some of the key figures in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and a timeline of events leading up to the abolition of slavery.
For more information about the Society, visit Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
The foundation of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
Nine of the twelve founder members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade were Quakers. This reflected the fact that Quakers were the first religious group to oppose slavery. The Quaker community had a long tradition of campaigning to defend their beliefs and had well organised regional networks which could be mobilised on behalf of the newly formed Society. However, their unconventional beliefs meant that many people regarded them with suspicion.
The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade wanted to appeal to a broad cross section of the community. Two respected Anglicans, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, were therefore chosen for the key roles of chairman and president.
Download an article about the Quaker involvement in the campaign against slavery.
The image shows some of the resolutions of the committee of the Society, made in 1791. One of the resolutions is to thank the Society's influential supporters, including William Wilberforce and William Pitt. [D3549 13/3/47]
Letter from Granville Sharp to his brother John about the foundation of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 19 July 1787 [D3549 13/1/S8]
"A society has lately been formed here for the purpose of opposing the slave trade. Though the members are chiefly Quakers, I thought it my duty when invited to join them in so just a measure and I wish for the honour of the Church of England that some of our dignified clergy would subscribe to it."
Granville Sharp's diary entry about a meeting with William Pitt, 21 April 1788 at 1 o'clock [D3549 13/4/2]
"Mr Pitt said his heart was with us - that he had pledged himself to Mr Wilberforce that the cause would not suffer - but believe that the best way would be to give time to collect all possible evidence and to obtain an order of the present Sessions if the rules of the House would permit...and to resume the business early in the next Sessions"
Popular support for the abolition cause
By 1790, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade had won considerable popular support for the abolition cause. This letter to Granville Sharp, written from the West Indies by a supporter of the Society, shows how anxious people with a vested interest in the slave trade were becoming.
Sir William Dolben was responsible for the Society's first successful piece of legislation. Dolben's Act, passed in 1788, tackled the appalling conditions on board slave ships. The Act limited the number of slaves which a ship could carry and insisted that all ships should carry a doctor.
Letter to Granville Sharp from John Moreton in Grenada, 10 May 1790 [D3549 13/1/M20]
"Sir I did myself the honour of writing to you in January last which I hope went to hand. The late Parliamentary proceedings respecting the slave trade have much alarmed the planters and other owners of slaves in these parts. I have frequent opportunities of hearing their testaments, many of whom have impertinently wished that they had you, Sir William Dolbin and Mr Wilberforce with all the other friends of slaves in their fields to handle hoes, and they wouldcut you up and convince you that severe toil cannot be accomplished without a constant supply of slaves; such are the malicious sentiments of these callous taskmasters. The different legislative bodies of these islands have been at their wits fabricating memorials which they have sent home to lay before parliament. They have all laboured hard to strive to persuade that encouraging and promoting wars in Africa and forcing human beings from their native places of innocence and luxuriance and ease and dooming them and their posterity to hard labour, hunger, chains and torture are not contrary to the laws of God, nor are the means of murdering 100,000 human beings yearly.
"It is true they have made some laws with a politic view to show the Parliament of England that they wish to encourage and protect slaves; yet it must clearly appear that all these laws not any part of them, have the desired effect; the Guardians for slaves are only nominal. I aver it with great sincerity, that they take little or no pains on themselves to redress the wrongs of injured slaves; it is always more pleasing to them to sit down to a good dinner and eat and drink heartily than to enquire into the causes of suffering humanity.
"I have a catalogue of cruelties which I have known to be exercised on slaves with the names of the estates, owners, slaves of the perpetrators which would shock humanity, many of which have come to the knowledge of the guardians and passed unnoticed.
"Indeed there is no one clause in any of our laws to protect the life of a poor slave; for the evidence of a slave is not admitted and there are seldom more than two or three white men on an estate so that a white man may flog, torture or murder as many as the ferocity of his nature will prompt him to do and he cannot be brought to trial for the same."