The British Antislavery Movement, 1787-1833

Module code: HS3768

By the 1780s, Britain had become the world’s largest slave-trading nation, shipping around 40,000 slaves per year to its colonies in the New World. The Atlantic slave trade and West Indian slave plantations were lucrative enterprises, and aroused relatively little public protest. Yet by 1807, Britain’s Parliament had abolished its Atlantic slave trade, and in 1833 it passed an Emancipation Act that by 1838 had freed the 800,000 people of African descent enslaved on its Caribbean plantations. How can we explain these dramatic developments? In this module, we will examine the rise of a popular British antislavery movement, the parliamentary campaigns of William Wilberforce, and the interplay between British abolitionism and Caribbean slavery. Attention will be given to the role of grass roots activists, women, black Britons, and slave revolts. The module will examine a rich variety of printed and manuscript sources: histories, memoirs, diaries, letters, debates, sermons, pamphlets, petitions, poems, and trial records. We will use these documents to explore the arguments, motivations, and tactics of the abolitionists, and to understand how – for the first time in history – antislavery became a mass movement.