Africans and Abolition

In this section, we'll consider the influence of Africans on the Abolitionist movement that arose in London and elsewhere in the 18th century.  A number of scholars now recognize that Abolitionist reform would not have developed with as much urgency if Africans had not been a part of these movements.  Africans were key contributors to the debate and shaped its political course in England.  Two memoirs by former slaves provided a platform for activism by Africans themselves in the milieu of London reformers.  These were Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, (1787) and Olaudah Equiano, Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African written by himself (1789).  Equiano's book became an international best seller and he became a famous speaker on abolition, until his death in 1797 at the age of 42.

Equiano's book may be downloaded via Project Gutenberg, or read online separately as Volume 1 or Volume 2.  Questions about Equiano's birth, including accusations by some researchers that the memoir is distorted and that Equiano was not even born nor captured in Africa, but was born into captivity in South Carolina have been put forth by Daniel Carretta and a few others. The historian, Paul Lovejoy in his article, "Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African," introduces the broader context and importance of Equiano and addresses this controversy and has shown how these arguments are less than persuasive.

An excellent history of the global Abolitionist movement from the 18th to 19th centuries is Seymour Drescher, Abolition:  A Histoyr of Slavery and Antislavery (Cambridge University Press, 2009).  Activism by former American slaves also impacted the development of abolitionist movements in the United States.  These included prominent figures like the poet Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)  Frederick Douglass, (1818-1895) and his autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and My Bondage and Freedom (1855) and Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).

The history of abolition movement is often centered on Britain where the liberal abolitionist reformers began to organize for legal measures that would limit and eventually abolish the slave trade.  The first organized abolitionist movement was the founding in May 1787 of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (also known as the London Committee).  Quakers and others opposed to slavery were at the forefront of this movement and managed to publish the memoirs of Cugoano and Equiano as part of their campaigns.  By 1788, the London Committee had gathered over 10,000 signatures of supporters for petitions including the support of workers.  By May 1788 an open discussion of the issue of slavery was held in Parliament.  Among the parliamentarians at the forefront of this movement was William Wilberforce who made his first speech against slavery in 1789.

Wilberforce's Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, issued in 1807 was a 350 page tract calling for the end of slave trade and direct Parliamentary action. Wilberforce was a gradualist who did not openly appeal for the immediate abolition of slavery but rather sought and eventually gained limited legislation that abolished the slaver trade.  This was the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which you can read here.  A second act, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 made slavery illegal within the British Empire.

Slavery and its abolition in other Atlantic based countries had an uneven history.  Mexico and many Latin American countries outlawed slavery altogether during the 1820s.  Canada has a proud tradition as one of the few countries on the Atlantic never to have allowed slavery.  The United States did not limit slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 and it did constitutionally eliminate slavery until the adoption of the 13 Amendment on December 6, 1865.  In Brazil, slavery was not formally ended until 1884 and 1885.