Background information

The end of the slave trade to the end of slavery

The British Parliament passed an act to abolish the slave trade in 1807 but the trade continued in many British and European colonies until 1890s. During the years following the 1807 Act, women became more actively involved in the anti-slavery movement. They pressed for the immediate rather than gradual emancipation of slaves as had been instituted in the form of apprenticeships in all Britain?s colonies. This was finally achieved in 1838 but inequality had by then become endemic in plantation societies.

After 1807

Britain was not the first European country to abolish the slave trade. Denmark had ended its more modest trade in 1803. The 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act did not end slavery as an institution in British colonies. A quarter of all Africans who were enslaved in the period 1500 - 1870 were transported across the Atlantic after 1807. In 1808 the US banned the trade in people from Africa but not internally or from the Caribbean. Although the British were no longer trading legally, an illegal trade evolved and other European countries stepped up their activity to meet the ongoing demand of plantation owners for slaves. At the Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the British tried to put pressure on other European countries to end slave trading.

Policing the abolition

In 1808 the British West Africa Squadron was established at Sierra Leone (declared a Crown colony the previous year, to retain Britain?s trading links with Africa) in order to suppress illegal slave trading by the British. Royal Navy ships were ordered to patrol the West Coast of Africa and the Atlantic Ocean to suppress slaving activity. Between 1820 and 1870 they seized over 1500 ships and freed 150,000 Africans destined for the Caribbean and the Americas.

Slavery in Zanzibar
Slavery in Zanzibar
The British government signed anti-slavery treaties with over 50 African rulers but British motives were not entirely altruistic: they hoped to end European involvement in the slave trade so as to open up a free-trade market with Africa. Trading in people, however, actually increased in the 1830s and 1840s through demand in the United States to increase cotton production. The Navy was overwhelmed with the scale of the enterprise that it had to patrol and they only intercepted one in sixteen of ships that still carried slaves.

For 80 years Royal Navy ships continued to chase and capture slaving vessels around Africa but without international support they could not stop the trade, only discourage it. In the 1860s attention shifted to East Africa, where ships intercepted a thriving slave trade run by Arabs. About 20,000 people each year, including children, were captured and transported to Zanzibar and then to the Persian Gulf and Arabia.

Royal Navy ships were rewarded for each slave released alive but this did not mean the return of Africans to their homes. Slave ships gathered people from different cultural backgrounds along the coast. Most of those who were freed were disembarked at Sierra Leone, the Crown colony where former enslaved Africans who had served in the British Army or Navy during the American War of Independence had been repatriated. An incredible account tells of Frank Peter, a 30-year-old, who on return to Sierra Leone from America found the exact spot where he had been captured 15 years previously. Later, an elderly woman recognized him as her own son. Another account reported that John Gordon, who became a Methodist lay preacher in America, met the man who had initially kidnapped him in Sierra Leone.

Read the full PDF version of the background information for this theme in the Learning resources.

Find more resources for Emancipation in our learning resources