History of Slavery

Slavery spans history. From days of old through to modern day, the enslavement of people has been present as a form of trade in human life and labour. In ancient times, enemies would be captured and made to work as slaves – something widely celebrated in combat. Moving into the middle ages, slavery became normal practice in rural England; those who were destitute would offer themselves, and their families, as slaves to landowners. Many think this is now confined to the history books however, although moments in history have brought breakthrough in the battle against the crime, slavery still exists in modern society.

The Middle Ages
Following the Black Death, there was a shortage of slaves. Slaves then poured in from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
The Atlantic Slave Trade
The 1400s saw the beginning of a global trading system with slaves shipped across the seas. New trade routes were developed from Europe to Africa. Portuguese traders brought the first large cargo of slaves from West Africa to Europe by sea, thus beginning the Atlantic slave trade.
The Renaissance
During the Renaissance, Spanish explorers brought the first African slaves to a Spanish settlement in what was to become the United States – these were the first African Americans.
Slavery in Europe
Massachusetts becomes the first British colony to legalise slavery. By the mid 17th century, the transatlantic slave trade was in operation. Wealthy European countries began to depend upon supplies of enslaved people. Plantations were developed with people enslaved to cultivate land where crops were grown, such as sugar and tobacco, to then be sold for commercial purposes. British-made goods were transported to Africa in return for slaves who were shipped to the West Indies and sold for sugar, tobacco and cotton. Slaves crossed the Atlantic in huge and increasing numbers.

The Journey to Slavery

Once captured, slaves were made to walk for miles to the coast, sometimes chained to one another by the neck. Before boarding the ships, slaves would then be placed in coastal forts - these were overcrowded dungeons with appalling conditions, where revolts and conflict were commonplace. Finally the slaves boarded ship - their home for up to 10 weeks.

Men were separated from women and children. Crews on ships would use iron muzzles and whips to ensure control over their captives, and often inflicted physical and sexual abuse to those on board. People were chained together and placed in the shelves of cargo holds with so little space that they were forced to either crouch or lye flat. Many did not survive the voyage. Disease and psychological trauma claimed countless lives. Some illnesses caused blindness and in these instances slaves were simply thrown overboard.

Once landed, people were sold or auctioned. Those deemed unfit for work were either sold for little, or left to perish. Once enslaved, the violence continued. Abuse was used as a way of enforcing labour or as a means for masters to entertain themselves, with continual sexual abuse inflicted on women.


Slavery in Britain
By the 18th century, the British were shipping an estimated 40,000 people per year as the slave trade generated approximately 80% of Britain’s foreign income. The slave trade had become a fully functioning system.

The money made from the slave trading business attracted many. Individuals were lured by the hope of profit. Numerous people joined and henceforth the growing slave trade flourished. People invested in slave ships – monarchs, merchants, craftsmen and even shop owners put money into the system of slavery. Approval from the monarchy led to backing from the government.

Those in Parliament were often presented with a false picture of life on board the ship as accounts given by captains would dramatically differ to accounts of captives. Yet parliament soon legislated the expansion and regulation of the slave trade. The slave trade became another form of oceanic trade. It was a carefully arranged system of buying and selling; arms, metal goods and textiles were exchanged for African slaves.

The Quakers Anti-slavery Committee
Although people were aware of the harshness and brutality of the slave trade, complaints about its operations were uncommon before the mid-18th century. However The Quakers did indeed find fault and questioned the morality of slavery. Quakers in both the United States and Great Britain began campaigning and the 1780’s saw the establishment of the Quakers Antislavery Committee. In 1783 they presented to Parliament the first slave trade petition for its abolishment.
Thomas Clarkson
Meanwhile a man named Thomas Clarkson, who was studying at Cambridge University, had won an award for his undergraduate essay titled, ‘Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting’?

This essay was published by the Quakers and became a significant contribution towards the abolitionist campaign.
William Wilberforce
The London Quakers, with Thomas Clarkson, formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The society decided that only Parliament could meet their needs if they wanted to see an end to slavery and so they sought the assistance of William Wilberforce, a member of parliament passionate about social reform. Clarkson and Wilberforce met regularly and on the 13th of March 1787 Wilberforce agreed he would lead the parliamentary campaign. He also later became an official member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

The abolitionists faced a huge task – there was heavy opposition in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords for the majority were in favour of the trade since it grossly benefited the economy.

The work of the abolitionists was the world's first grassroots human rights campaign, in which men and women from different social classes and backgrounds volunteered to end the injustices of others. They led a huge propaganda campaign reaching countless members of the public. They interviewed sailors and those working in slave ports, collected vital witness testimonies and pieces of evidence that could later be used to fight for freedom in Parliament.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade
On 12 May 1789, William Wilberforce made his first speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons but faced great opposition.
The Slave Trade Act
Following a challenging campaign, support started to grow and finally in 1807 the Slave Trade Act was passed. This abolished the slave trade in all of the British Empire, making it illegal for British ships to transport slaves and for British colonies to import them. However, although the slave trade was abolished, slavery went on and so abolitionists strived for complete freedom of slaves. Wilberforce argued that total emancipation was morally and ethically required, and that slavery was a national crime.
The Slavery Abolition Act
In 1833, just days before Wilberforce’s death, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. This abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, and in British colonies in North America.
Modern Slavery
Although slavery was abolished by law in 1833, it did not completely disappear. Human beings continued to be enslaved by others and today, in the 21st century, it is in fact a growing problem. There are more slaves today than ever before in human history – even more than the transatlantic slave trade. There are now an estimated 45 million slaves worldwide, with approximately 13,000 enslaved in the UK.

Find out more on the Modern Slavery in the UK and Global Slavery pages.

Latest Tweets

Quick Exit