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date: 22 October 2021

Anti-Slavery Societyfree

(act. 1823–1833)

Anti-Slavery Societyfree

(act. 1823–1833)
  • Catherine Hall

Anti-Slavery Society (act. 1823–1833), was founded on 31 January 1823, when a group of men well known for their opposition to the slave trade and slavery met at the King's Head tavern in London to form a new association. Many of them had been involved in the campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British empire, which had finally succeeded in 1807. Some had gone on to form the African Institution, committed to keeping a watchful eye on the activities of foreign slave traders, improving knowledge about Africa in Britain, and advising the government on African questions. Abolitionists had expected that the ending of the slave trade would have meant improved conditions for the enslaved, for the assumption had been that once planters could no longer buy 'new blood', as men and women captured in Africa and forcibly transplanted to the Americas were called, they would ensure that their 'property' not only survived but reproduced itself. Those Britons concerned with the conditions on the plantations, however, had come to realize that such hopes had not been met. The group that came together at the King's Head were 'deeply impressed with the magnitude and number of the evils attached to the system of slavery', a system they believed to be 'opposed to the spirit and precepts of Christianity as well as repugnant to every dictate of natural humanity and justice' (Committee on Slavery, minute book 1823–5, 1–2, 31 Jan 1823, Bodl. RH, Brit. emp. S20, box E2/1).

While Christianity had long co-existed with slavery, and indeed Anglicans were substantial slaveholders, by the late eighteenth century such an association was abhorred by many Christians—especially those associated with the evangelical revival that affected both Anglicans and dissenters. The evangelical revival had inspired the development in the 1790s of missionary societies that saw their task as carrying their message to heathens abroad as well as at home. Their belief in the central importance of the individual experience of spiritual rebirth, an experience that should be open to all men and women, meant that they came into conflict with planters who were deeply reluctant to allow the enslaved access to Christian teachings, fearful of its potential to encourage resistance.

The men who met at the King's Head had decided the time had come to form a new association, the London Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery throughout the British Dominions. In the classic pattern of voluntary organizations they established a system of subscriptions, a committee, and officeholders, as well as an office and a secretary. They ensured aristocratic support in the person of their president and some of their vice-presidents. They instituted a minute book and kept careful notes of their meetings. They set up a series of sub-committees—to deal with publications, the periodical press, foreign and home correspondence, and finance. Financially the society could not have survived without the support of the Quakers, who advanced large gifts. The relatively small amounts coming in from subscriptions never matched the large sums being spent, primarily on publications.

Many well-known names were at the King's Head: first and foremost William Wilberforce, but by this time he was more of a figurehead than actively engaged in everyday political activities, and rarely attended meetings. He had already approached Thomas Fowell Buxton to take on the issue of slavery in the House of Commons and Buxton had agreed a few months before the meeting. A well-to-do philanthropist, Buxton was closely associated through his mother and his wife, Hannah, with the Quakers, particularly the Gurney family, who were to be very active supporters of the new association. He had been an MP since 1818 and was identified particularly with the cause of prison reform at home and moral reform in the empire. He was to become a key figure in the humanitarian movement of the 1830s and 1840s, a central voice not only on slavery but on the responsibilities of the British to indigenous peoples. Buxton was at the King's Head and was always at the heart of negotiations with the government and decisions about parliamentary activities in the decade ahead.

Perhaps the most dedicated member of the new society was Zachary Macaulay, who attended the great majority of the meetings over the ten years of the society's existence and was an indefatigable worker for it. He often took the chair, served on all the sub-committees, and wrote much of the published material. Along with Wilberforce he was a member of the Clapham Sect—the group of Anglican evangelicals who had lived around Clapham Common at the turn of the century and dedicated their lives to reforming the manners and morals not only of the nation but of the empire. Macaulay, father of the celebrated historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, had spent five years as an overseer in Jamaica before his conversion. He became an enthusiastic member of the Wilberforce circle and was sent by them to Sierra Leone to act as their agent in their new colonial venture. After eight years, most of them as governor, in Sierra Leone, where he proved himself to be an authoritarian and illiberal figure in his dealings with the freed African settlers, he returned to England. He was appointed secretary to the Sierra Leone Company and the following year became editor of the Christian Observer, the new periodical established by the evangelicals. In 1807, when the African Institution was set up, he became its secretary and was very active in collecting evidence about the operations of the slave trade, playing a key role in its abolition. He and the lawyer James Stephen (another Claphamite, also on the committee of the new society) were the only two with first-hand knowledge of the colonies. Macaulay and Stephen kept the issue of slavery alive after the abolition of the trade, leading the demand for the registration of the enslaved which provided an important source of evidence.

The other well-known figure who joined the committee was Thomas Clarkson, again famed for his work on the abolition of the slave trade and a man with more liberal views than the majority of those on the committee. In 1823 both he and Macaulay published important pamphlets, putting the question of slavery back on the political agenda. Clarkson spent much of 1823 and 1824 travelling the country, addressing meetings and encouraging enthusiasts in the provinces to set up auxiliary associations. In addition to these old hands there were some new faces on the committee: James Cropper, the Liverpool Quaker merchant and great advocate of East Indian sugar produced by free labour, who was a dedicated supporter, writing in regularly with proposals and suggestions; Samuel Gurney represented the wealthy Quaker family; and Thomas Babington Macaulay, who was acclaimed for his speech at the first big meeting of the association in 1824 and was said to be the great hope for the next generation, but who only attended a couple of committee meetings.

Other significant figures involved in the society included the radical MP and dissenter William Smith (1756–1835), who chaired the first meeting; the whig lawyers Henry Brougham, Thomas Denman, Stephen Lushington, and James Mackintosh; Thomas Babington, the brother-in-law of Zachary Macaulay; and the Quakers William Allen and Luke Howard. Daniel O'Connell, leader of the group of Irish repeal MPs, was a speaker at the society's Exeter Hall meetings. Among the society's aristocratic patrons were Prince William Frederick, second duke of Gloucester, who was president; Edward Harbord, third Baron Suffield; and Viscount Milton (Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam, third Earl Fitzwilliam).

The association had modest aims: they hoped to mitigate and eventually end slavery but there was no suggestion that this would happen in the immediate future. They assumed that they would work through parliament and they saw the publication of materials on slavery as critical to their cause. They knew that they were engaged in a 'war of representation' (Hall) with the West India merchants and planting interests as to the real nature of the plantation system. The West India interest insisted on its benevolence, a source of improvement for Africans. To counter this argument the society produced pamphlets and circulars in their thousands, and established the Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter, edited by Zachary Macaulay, which systematically collected information on the abuses of slavery. Their first major parliamentary effort was in supporting Buxton when he proposed in May 1823 that all children born after a certain date to enslaved mothers should be free and that those who remained in bondage should be more effectively protected. This was amended by the foreign secretary, George Canning, whose proposal that amelioration should be left to the colonists was accepted. Much energy in the subsequent years was spent on demonstrating the consistent refusal of those colonists to take on the recommendations of the British government—whether about the right of the enslaved to Christian teaching, the discontinuation of the flogging of women, or the removal of obstacles to manumission.

The society supported the establishment of auxiliaries, including those set up by women, the first of which was the Birmingham and West Bromwich Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves. It was the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, Thomas Pringle, who organized the production of The History of Mary Prince in 1831, the profoundly moving narrative of an enslaved black woman in the British West Indies that had a significant impact both then and subsequently. But as a group of élite men well practised in the exercise of political influence at the highest levels they were uninterested in mobilizing popular support, and in the late 1820s the society languished while the question of Catholic emancipation dominated the political agenda. Most of the leading figures in the society were concerned to protect established authority and their commitment to anti-slavery was not a commitment to social or political equality. Emancipation did not mean the loss of all controls over African lives and labour; rather it implied 'the substitution of judicial for private and irresponsible authority' (Committee on Slavery, minute book 1829–32, 143, 9 May 1832, Bodl. RH, Brit. emp. S20, box E 2/3). Their attitude to Africans was paternalist: they regarded African slaves as poor victims of a sinful system who should be rescued and brought into civilization. The major rebellion of the enslaved that took place in Jamaica in December 1831 finally convinced many abolitionists, however, that unless the system was abolished further terrible bloodshed would ensue.

By 1830 the caution and gradualism of the older generation was being challenged by younger men—most notably George Stephen, the lawyer son of James Stephen, who acted as solicitor for the society, and Joseph Sturge, a Quaker corn merchant from Birmingham whose politics were considerably more radical than most of the other abolitionists and who believed in the political agency of ‘ordinary people’. By May 1831, with the reform of the franchise being hotly debated up and down the country, visitors from the provinces, including Sturge, attended the general committee meeting and got unanimous agreement that agents should be appointed to take the issue to the country. Their aim was to call 'forth the voice of public opinion … promptly to support the Friends of Negro Emancipation in Parliament as occasion might require' (Committee on Slavery, minute book 1829–32, 93, 25 May 1831). Initially a new sub-committee was set up including the activists. Soon, however, tensions increased between the old group and the new, and the Agency Committee, as it was called, declared itself independent in March 1832. Meanwhile agents had travelled the country and mobilized public support. Petitions had been organized, candidates for election were challenged to declare their position on emancipation, and large public meetings were held.

In the final push, after it became clear that even the government of the newly reformed House of Commons might not take up the slavery issue, the two societies worked together and deputies were appointed from all over the country and sent to London to demonstrate that the nation demanded emancipation. It was this mobilization that eventually secured the act abolishing slavery in 1833. Final negotiations were, however, very difficult. To appease the planters the government proposed a system of apprenticeship (slavery under another name) and that compensation should be paid to the planters for the loss of their ‘property’. While both groups fought successfully to reduce the term of apprenticeship, the Agency Committee refused to the last to countenance compensation, seeing it as 'an indirect participation in the crime' of slavery (Stephen, 191). After the act was passed the group saw its major work as completed, but many of the activists went on to campaign for the abolition of apprenticeship and then turned their attention to the problem of slavery internationally.


  • Papers of the Anti-Slavery Society, Bodl. RH
  • Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter [later Anti-Slavery Reporter] (1825–33)
  • G. Stephen, Anti-slavery recollections: in a series of letters, addressed to Mrs Beecher Stowe (1854)
  • C. Hall, Civilising subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination, 1830–1867 (2002)
  • D. Turley, The culture of English antislavery (1991)
  • H. Temperley, British Antislavery, 1833–1870
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Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House, Oxford