We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (act. 1787–1807), formally constituted on 22 May 1787, was composed of predominantly middle-class idealists, some of them radical in their opinions, whose purpose was to campaign specifically for the abolition of the British slave trade. It drew upon earlier abolitionist sentiment in Britain, notably articulated by Quakers, whose London Meeting for Sufferings had first petitioned parliament against the trade in 1783. The organizers of the society were also strongly opposed to slavery itself, but believed that the abolition of the trade in slaves, in which Britain was a leading participant, was a more immediate, and accessible, target. With the society's foundation began the public campaign against the British slave trade that came to fruition in 1806 and 1807.

The organizational impetus of the society was provided by its London committee, which consisted of twelve members. Nine of the original twelve, including the treasurer, Samuel Hoare (1751–1825), were Quakers. As the dissenting minister Richard Price observed, ‘A great proportion of the members are Quakers; and their zeal in this instance does them peculiar honour’ (Correspondence, 3.146). Price himself declined nomination to the committee on the ground of pressing commitments, but expressed his full support for their campaign against ‘the diabolical traffick’ and was a subscriber to the society (ibid., 148). However, the two dominating figures, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, were both evangelical Anglicans. Sharp had already applied his legal training in helping to secure the release of the former slave James Somerset in the celebrated legal judgment of 1772 and in taking up the infamous Zong affair (1781), in which slaves had been thrown overboard from a slaver in order to obtain insurance payments. Clarkson, who was intended for the church and had already been ordained as a deacon, had written a prize essay at Cambridge on the subject of the slave trade, and it was published in June 1786 under the title An Essay of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African by the Quaker bookseller James Phillips (d. 1816), another member of the London committee. Clarkson began to investigate the subject in increasing depth and in so doing attracted the attention of William Wilberforce, a fellow graduate of St John's College, Cambridge. Wilberforce, one of the MPs for Yorkshire, quickly became one of the society's principal spokesmen in the House of Commons and used his friendship with the prime minister, William Pitt the younger, to good effect.

The London committee defined its essential function as ‘procuring such Information and Evidence, and for distributing Clarkson's Essay and other such publications, as may tend to the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (Oldfield, 43). Its principal method of proceeding was through the extensive circulation of books and pamphlets. The works that the society circulated included John Newton's Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade and James Ramsay's Objections to the Abolition of the Slave Trade, with Answers, both published in 1788. Some of the society's publications had print runs in excess of 15,000. The society also exploited the propagandistic possibilities of iconography; the London committee adopted as its seal Josiah Wedgwood's celebrated cameo, with the image of the supplicating slave in chains and the slogan of emotive pathos ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’ It became one of the best-known and enduring of the artistic representations of the abolitionist movement.

The initial success of the society is evident in the list of its committee and subscribing members that it published in 1788. One year after its foundation, the London committee had increased to twenty-five members, including Sharp (chairman), and John Frederick Garling (secretary). Other members included Josiah Wedgwood, James Martin [see under Martin family], MP for Tewkesbury, the philanthropist William Morton Pitt (1754–1836), MP for Poole; and the dissenting ministers Andrew Kippis of Westminster and Henry Mayo (1733–1793) of Nightingale Lane, Wapping. There were ten honorary and corresponding members of the committee, one of whom was the bishop of Cloyne, Richard Woodward; four of the others were French and based in Paris. At the same time the society published a lengthy and impressive list of subscribers. Among them were the radical pamphleteer Capel Lofft, the reformers John Cartwright and Christopher Wyvill, the Unitarian minister John Disney and his wife, Jane (d. 1809), the daughter of Francis Blackburne, together with the MPs Sir Gilbert Elliot [see Kynynmound, Gilbert Elliot Murray, first earl of Minto], Joshua Grigby (1731?–1798), Thomas Dimsdale, and William Smith. The evangelical brothers Henry Thornton, Samuel Thornton, and Robert Thornton (1759–1826), all of whom were current MPs, were also subscribers. Charles James Fox, the effective leader of the parliamentary opposition, contributed 5 guineas. The small but significant number of female subscribers included the scholarly author Elizabeth Carter. By the time of the petitions of 1788 to 1792 the number of female subscribers to the abolitionist cause had greatly increased. There were separate lists of subscribers from Cambridge University, Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, Leeds, Manchester (a particularly large number), Rotherham, Sheffield, and York.

The List of the Society reported that the total amount of the subscriptions raised was £2760 2s. 7d., with expenditure of £2131 13s. 0d. The main items of expenditure were £1106 19s. 9d. spent on printing and books, £618 10s. 6d. spent on collecting information and evidence, and travelling costs. The pattern of expenditure illustrates the society's methods of proceeding: extensive use of printed material, buttressed by the dissemination of detailed information based on considerable research and observation, and augmented by travel, public meetings, and lectures.

The society's list of subscribers of 1788 illustrates the unifying influence that abolitionism was able to achieve. Their commitment to abolition emanated from several different intellectual and social directions. The long-standing Quaker opposition to slavery in all its forms combined with the imperatives of evangelicalism, which depicted the slave trade as a national sin. Protestant dissent was well represented, perhaps because some dissenters perceived themselves to be second-class citizens under an Anglican regime and felt some sense of affinity with those who suffered physical enslavement. Some of the leading figures of radical Unitarianism were subscribers, such as Thomas Brand Hollis and the former Anglican clergyman Theophilus Houlbrooke (d. 1824). Many of those involved had been members of the Society for Constitutional Information, founded in 1780; some, like Sharp, had been critics of the British government's American policy. A high proportion favoured moderate, or in some cases more radical, parliamentary reform. Implicit in the society's propaganda and membership was a critique of many of the existing values of British society, a product of the self-analysis necessitated by the loss of the American colonies and stimulated by the debates over Britain's responsibilities to its subject peoples that reached a climax with the impeachment of Warren Hastings, which opened in 1788. Implicit, too, was an appeal to the growing humanity and the tendency towards sentimentality (evident, for example, in the growing literature condemning cruelty towards animals) and the culture of politeness, all of which were increasingly characteristic of the middle-class and professional readership that was the society's main target. Fundamental to the society's work was an assumption that the nation was becoming increasingly literate.

The London committee quickly became a focus for abolitionist argument and counter-argument. One of its purposes was to provide immediate ripostes to anti-abolitionist assertions, such as the claim that abolition would inflict damage upon the British economy, and especially the ports most involved in the slave trade, notably London, Liverpool, and Bristol. A further argument that it sought to refute was the long-standing one that slavery and the slave trade were sanctioned by scripture. A particularly effective denial of this belief was provided by the Oxford graduate Robert Boucher Nickolls (b. 1743/4), dean of Middleham, a corresponding member of the committee, and the son of Isaac Nickolls of Barbados; he wrote in a public letter to the society's treasurer, Samuel Hoare:
The truth is, the gospel was designed, like a little leaven, to leaven the whole lump; to operate secretly upon mens' minds, till it should, by its divine influence, form them to its own temper, and produce its effects in a moral way; which is analogous to other proceedings of its divine author: and if the justice and benevolence it enjoins under the highest sanctions, were practised amongst its professors, there would not at this day have existed any ground of controversy respecting the slave-trade. (Nickolls, 64)
The London committee was also quite prepared to appeal to the national interest; its report of 15 January 1788, published in the Gentleman's Magazine, cited the heavy loss of life experienced by ‘our own seamen’, in addition to the sufferings of the slaves, during the long sea journey from Africa to the British colonies in the Caribbean (GM, 162).

However, at the end of 1787 the Manchester Abolition Committee, of which one of the luminaries was the medical practitioner and social reformer Thomas Percival, took an independent decision to launch a nationwide petitioning campaign against the slave trade. With extensive support from the provincial press, well over 100 petitions to parliament were submitted in 1788. If their immediate effect was limited, they helped to transform the abolitionist cause from one of metropolitan lobbying to one of national agitation and to bring it to the centre of parliamentary politics. Although the London committee gave its approval to the Manchester-led campaign, its work was somewhat overshadowed by these and other provincial efforts. It played little part in the passage of Sir William Dolben's Slave Limitation Act of 1788, a measure that sought to improve the conditions on board slave ships, on the ground that such regulation might confer legitimacy upon the trade. When the petitioning movement reached its peak in 1792, with perhaps as many as 100,000 signatures (10,639 from Manchester alone), the lead was taken by provincial anti-slavery groups with particularly strong support in the north of England (Drescher, 82–5). A measure for the gradual abolition of the trade was carried in the House of Commons in that year, but it did not survive in the House of Lords. Thereafter, the reaction against the French Revolution ‘took its toll’ (Oldfield, 185), although not as severely as the toll that it levied upon parliamentary reform movements. The passage of abolition in two stages in 1806–7 took place in rather different circumstances: the renewal of war with France in 1804 gave the abolitionists the chance to use nationalistic arguments to secure in 1806 the abolition of the transportation of slaves to captured French colonies which might be returned to France at the peace, and which it was not therefore in British interests to supply. With that, so substantial a proportion of the British slave trade had been ended that the abolitionists could use their humanitarian propaganda to strike down the remainder the following year.

It has been suggested, quite reasonably, that the contribution of the society, and especially its London committee, has been overlooked by historians (Oldfield, 41). In fact the society had several accomplishments to its credit. It brought together a large number of articulate and influential people to support a cause that, though attracting increasing sympathy, still lacked formal organization. It facilitated co-operation between individuals who, on most other public issues, were mutually opposed. Its successors, notably the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, formed by Sharp, Clarkson, and Thomas Fowell Buxton in 1807, and the Anti-Slavery Society of 1823, owed much to its methods of proceeding. Not only did it prepare the ground for the mass campaigning that some historians believe was central to the achievement of abolition (Drescher, chap. 5), but it encapsulated a significant national mood, illuminating the changing intellectual and social currents of later eighteenth-century British society.

G. M. Ditchfield


minute books of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1787–1819, BL, Add. MSS 21254–21256 · List of the Society instituted in 1787, for the purpose of effecting the abolition of the slave trade (1788) · R. B. Nickolls, Letter to the treasurer of the society instituted for the purpose of effecting the abolition of the slave trade, 4th edn (1788) · R. Anstey, The Atlantic slave trade and British abolition, 1760–1810 (1975) · T. Clarkson, The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave trade by the British parliament, 2 vols. (1808) · B. Fladeland, Abolitionists and working class problems in the age of industrialization (1984) · S. Drescher, Capitalism and antislavery: British mobilization in comparative perspective (1987) · J. R. Oldfield, Popular politics and British anti-slavery: the mobilisation of public opinion against the slave trade, 1787–1807 (1995) · GM, 58 (1788), 161–3 · The correspondence of Richard Price, ed. W. B. Peach and D. O. Thomas, 3 vols. (1983–94)


BL, minute books of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Add. MSS 21254–21256