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The British Campaigns Against Slavery

The British Campaigns Against Slavery

Welcome to the third in the History Reclaimed series of webinars on the British campaigns against slavery and the slave trade.



Our guest this evening is Professor Lawrence Goldman, who was formerly editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a post he held for 10 years. Also, former director of The Institute of Historical Research. He read history at Cambridge, and then studied American slavery at Yale. He taught the history of American slavery for some years in Oxford, where he is now emeritus fellow of St Peter’s College. So there’s no one who is better qualified to talk to us this evening about the British abolitionist campaign in its domestic and perhaps its global dimensions.

We’ve already had, those of you who listened in last week will know, Professor Andrew Lambert talking about the naval campaigns against the slave trade. Now we’re going to hear, I think, of the moral, intellectual, and political campaigns against slavery and the slave trade. Professor Lawrence Goldman, Lawrence, welcome and over to you.

Thank you very much indeed Robert, and good evening to everyone. I hope you can hear me and see me nice and clearly. I’m looking forward, in the next half hour, to taking you through quite a lot of history. It will be a fairly rushed ride, but I hope you enjoy it.

What I want to do is to explain the slave trade to people. To trace the causes of anti-slavery, and the groups who led it in Britain. To examine the process of the legislation, which led first to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and then to the emancipation of slaves later in 1833. I want to consider why the movement was successful in Britain. Why Britain came first in the history of anti-slavery. We’ll also consider inter alia, as we go through, the wider impact of the movement on British public and political life in general.

Let’s begin in 1800 and see what the world looked like then, before the British movement had had any marked success. It may surprise you. Well over three- quarters of the population of the world then lived and worked as slaves, or as forced labourers. Free men and women, in possession of their own person and labour, were in the distinct minority, and today that may well seem incredible. At this point, close to 80,000 Africans, were being transported across the Atlantic every year, half of them in British vessels. In total between the late fifteenth century and the mid nineteenth century, something like 11 million Africans were taken across to the Americas, of whom about 9 and a half million arrived. That means that roughly, 12 or 13% of those shipped died on route.

The European slave trade had initially been dominated by the Portuguese and the Spanish. The first mention of an English slave ship dates from 1555. But by the eighteenth century, the British ships took most of the Africans. It’s estimated that out of that overall figure of 11 million, some 3 million, approximately, were carried by British ships. The British took their slaves mainly from West Africa. An equivalent number of Africans were also taken from the south central areas of the continent: places like modern Angola, and mainly by the other slave trading nations: Portugal, Spain, France, Denmark, the Dutch. Other nations also were involved. It’s suggested that 1% of the trade was conducted by Norwegian merchants and ships.

The slave trade developed with the assistance of African and Arab traders, who captured African victims and marched them to the ports where the slave trading vessels were waiting, and on to which the captives were loaded for the “middle passage”, as it was called, over to the West Indies and the Americas North and South. And as is now, I think, well understood, slavery was intrinsic to African society and tribal life. Slaves were taken in warfare or in punishment for debt or for their crimes. There were, of course, African slaves in Islamic and Ottoman lands in this period. India and other parts of Asia enslaved many millions, some of them in debt bondage. In Europe there were tens of millions of serfs forced to do labour for their lords in Prussia, in Austria, and of course in Russia.

So what we’re looking at is a world of forced labour. And this prompted Adam Smith, the great Scottish moral philosopher and economist, to observe in 1763 in one of his lectures in the University of Glasgow, that slavery had hardly any possibility of being abolished. Smith contended that it had been universal in the beginnings of society, and the love of dominion and authority over others would probably make it perpetual.

Slavery was almost universally accepted as a norm in England, up until the 1780s. One historian (Adam Hochschild) makes the claim that if you had buttonholed people in London, in 1787 say – and that was the year that anti-slavery became an organised movement – and if you’d insisted to them that slavery was morally wrong and should be stopped, nine out of ten listeners would have laughed you off as a crackpot. According to another, British abolitionists faced the challenge of ending slavery in a world that considered it fully normal. So given all of this, and given that it took about half a century in Britain to end slavery in the British Empire, is that a long or in fact, a relatively short time? In some perspectives, it’s remarkable that an institution as old and embedded in human history as slavery was ended so quickly. Britain’s anti-slavery movement was the first to challenge forced labour and it pioneered techniques of mass campaigning that have dominated popular politics, not only in Britain but all over the world, ever since. And this is why studying the movement is so important. It was the first of many such in Europe and around the world.

Indeed, it has been claimed that it may well have been the first movement wholly dedicated to the achievement of someone else’s rights. And what’s more, those “others” were people of colour, who lived on another continent. In short, it was a remarkable movement. So our first question this evening is: why should it have come into being in the 1780s?

Some historians have talked of a rise of humanitarianism in the late eighteenth century.

They would therefore trace the effects of that on the anti-slavery movement. But that, I think, is merely to rephrase our question. Why should humanitarianism have emerged at this stage? I think we’re on firmer ground by focusing on religion. And on Quakers and evangelical Christians in particular.

Both were notable for their belief in an essential religious equality among all people. All were capable of religious inspiration, however humble, and all were of equal spiritual and moral worth. The Quakers, in addition, knew what it was like to be persecuted and excluded as a minority, and it’s been suggested they therefore had a natural affinity for the slaves.

The most famous of the Evangelical Anglicans were gathered together in the So-called “Clapham sect”, based upon that location south of the centre of London where they chose to live together in close spiritual proximity. They included some of the most famous names in the movement: William Wilberforce, James Stephen, Henry Thornton, the Macaulay family, the Venns. And their leadership threw up a kind of paradox, as well. Those at the very forefront of this progressive cause were in other respects, deeply conservative.

These people were generally Tories in politics, opposed to social change, moralistic and censorious in their public as well as their private attitudes. They led the movement in the name of God and the Bible, rather than liberalism and social progress.

But a third theme, quite obviously in this period, concerns the revolutionary ideas of the age, drawn from America and from France: America in the 1770s and 1780s, and of course France in the 1790s. Revolutionary individualism, the idea of contractual government, and the idea of human rights as written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1791 in France, summed up these new ideas, though neither in the case of the American Revolution, nor of course, in the French Revolution – at least over time – did this lead directly to emancipation.

I think for the British movement, we’re on firmer ground if we look north of the border to the Scottish Enlightenment, and to a new way of thinking, both about economics and about history. This great movement associated with Adam Smith, David Hume, Dugald Stewart and many other notable intellectuals clustered around the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In the view of many influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, slavery was an inefficient form of labour. They laid down the basis for a liberal critique of slavery that ran right through the nineteenth century that free labour was a much more efficient as well as a morally more acceptable form of labour.

They also developed a view of history that implied an equality of all races. So-called stadial history, a history of mankind divided into stages through which all races would pass, though they were at different stages in their journey, meant that Africans were not inherently any different from Caucasians. They were just nearer the beginning of their civilisational journey, which would lead eventually towards the stage of commercial society which Europeans had reached by the mid eighteenth century. My own work at present is on someone called Henry Brougham. He rose to become a leading Whig politician of the 1820s and the 1830s, and was very central to many of the issues we’re discussing in this lecture. He’d come from Edinburgh. He was educated at Edinburgh University. He was a founder of the Edinburgh Review. And he brought these Scottish ideas with him to England in the early years of the nineteenth century, working his way into the Whig party, but also working his way into the very inner circles of William Wilberforce, the Clapham Sect and the Evangelicals, who recognised that his hard-headed case for freedom, based upon this new thinking, economic and historical, might have rather more likelihood of success when dealing with hard-headed opponents of anti-slavery than their moralistic and Christian arguments.

A fourth theme that is absolutely central to this subject concerns black agency, and the fear of rebellion that this gave rise to. In Britain we can think of this in two ways. The first concerns the famous cases of James Somerset and James Knight. Somerset came before the English courts in 1772, and Knight before the Scottish court in 1777. The resulting judgments, in both cases, seemed to establish that no one in Britain could be a slave, that slave status disappeared on arrival in this country. And both cases drew attention to the special quality of British freedom under the law as it was then understood. We should not underestimate in this story a degree of national pride that ran through the anti-slavery movement, that Britons could never be slaves, as the eighteenth-century song has it, and they should work, therefore, to ensure that this was true of other nations, as well.

We should also note the role of black activists in London and other cities in the late eighteenth century, especially of black authors of narratives of their lives in slavery. They found a readership for their accounts, and they made contact with the wider anti-slavery movement.

The most famous of these, Olaudah Equiano, wrote the famous Interesting Narrative of his life and made friends with many of the leading figures in anti-slavery in London and also in Cambridge, in the 1780s. But more important still than the domestic role of black activism in Britain in the late eighteenth century, was the role of black rebellion in the Caribbean and in imperial history in general. There’s a long history of rebel action in the West Indies from Tacky’s rebellion in 1760 on Jamaica onwards. There were major uprisings in Jamaica; in Grenada in 1795; then on Barbados in 1816; and on Demerara (now part of Guyana) in 1823. And then, at the moment of political climax in this story, came Sharpe’s Rebellion, named after Samuel Sharpe, its leader, in Jamaica in 1831.

Now of them all, the most significant rebellion was not, in fact, on a British colonial possession but on Saint-Domingue, which we now know as Haiti, in 1791. And you will probably know something of the complex story of this rebellion, and of the many different armies in the field, and you will perhaps also know that at the end of a dozen years and more of fighting, an impoverished and broken Haiti declared independence on the 1st January 1804. For 5 years from 1795, what’s perhaps less well known is that British troops in very large numbers tried to pacify the island of Saint-Domingue for two reasons. In order to gain control of its wealth: we were at war, after all, with the French in the mid-1790s; and also to prevent the contagion of slave rebellion from spreading to other islands that the British directly controlled.

I have to tell you that the British troops who were sent failed abysmally. It’s estimated that half of the 90,000 soldiers sent there from Britain and British possessions died in battle or of wounds or from disease, and they were joined by another 20,000 dead sailors. After the Haitian revolt, the fear of slave rebellion became a fixture in the public mind across the Atlantic world. In some, of course, it stimulated a very harsh line in how to deal with slaves. That was very much the case in the southern states of the United States in the early nineteenth century. But in other minds, of course, it stimulated the idea that only full emancipation would bring such wars to an end and save both white and black lives as well.

The disillusion and the change of attitude among the British as a consequence of the involvement in the utterly failed Haitian campaigns of the 1790s was palpable. Defeat there showed the limits of imperial power but also the possibility of black emancipation, by means of violence if necessary, all over the West Indies, where Britain’s slave empire was based. It was better, surely, to grant freedom peacefully than risk the very islands themselves and thousands of lives in rebellions.

In addition, another argument deployed against Wilberforce, and the abolitionists, had fallen as a consequence of the Haitian revolt. The success of African armies against European troops, and especially against the French, nullified the oft-repeated concern that if Britain ended the slave trade, France might come to dominate it and dominate also the whole economy of sugar in the West Indies. What happened on Haiti destroyed the argument that Britain’s act of generosity in regard to slavery would rebound to French advantage.

We should consider for a moment the methods that were used in the anti-slavery campaigns that ran from the 1780s to the 1830s. Let me begin with one theme, which is not exactly a method so much as a point about who was participating. One of the most notable features of the campaign, from the 1780s onwards, was the participation of British women in anti-slavery. It’s said that British women spoke in public for the first time in the 1780s as part of the emerging anti-slave trade campaign. In the mid-1820, it was a woman, Elizabeth Heyrick, previously a schoolteacher, and a Quaker as well, who first campaigned for immediate as opposed to gradual emancipation. This was an idea that spread very quickly through the movement in the late 1820s. In 1826, the first corporate body in the anti-slavery movement to call for immediate emancipation was a women’s committee in Sheffield. And for historians of the women’s movement in the nineteenth century, women’s participation in the anti-slavery movement in the early and mid-nineteenth century was a crucial conduit and a place where women learnt the techniques of public speaking, and of mass organisation which were then transferred to their own emancipation from the 1850s onwards.

Petitions were crucial to the movement. In 1788, just a year after the national movement had been established, 103 petitions were sent to Parliament containing around 80,000 signatures. This was a new and popular form of activism and it was used throughout the decades of the anti-slavery movement to draw attention not only to the cause itself, but to the hundreds of thousands of people whose signatures showed they were supporting the movement as well. These petitions were sent to both Houses of Parliament.

The Movement also pioneered the use of images as elements of persuasion and propaganda, and I’m sure you’ve got in your mind’s eye as I speak two very famous images. The first is of a slave ship loaded with slaves. It’s actually a known ship. It was called The Brooks. It was owned by a Liverpool family, and Thomas Clarkson, truly the great hero of the anti-slavery movement, had this ship, as it were, drawn diagrammatically with 482 slaves in its hold. Matchstick figures, crammed into every space in order to draw attention to the conditions in which the slave trade proceeded. And it was reproduced in all media. Books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets. And Clarkson himself took it with him, as a sort of poster, wherever he went on horseback to draw attention to anti-slavery and to the immorality of the slave trade. It was a crucial visual aid in his great campaign through the 1780s and 1790s in provincial England.

The second image is that of Josiah Wedgwood’s famous porcelain piece,  depicting a kneeling African in chains, lifting his hands as if in prayer, encircled by the question “Am I not a man and a brother?”

There were also among these methods boycotts of slave-grown produce, above all, of course, boycotts of sugar. The first of these started in 1791, directly after the defeat of the first motion in Parliament to abolish the slave trade. Clarkson estimated from his journeys that summer, the summer of 1791, that no fewer than 300,000 persons had abandoned the use of sugar. Some contemporaries set the number even higher and it grew and grew. So that, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, to offer slave-grown sugar in polite society became  socially outré. This was the first large-scale consumer boycott in modern history and, of course, there were many more of them in the nineteenth century and up to the present.

The movement was also very interesting for the way it systematically collected data and disseminated facts. It was fascinated by statistical and numerical details of what is after all, a subject full of statistics of death, and disease and exploitation. The movement collected together vast amounts of data and would fill pamphlets, books, digests of parliamentary enquiries and so forth, with them, disseminating the information through its organisations around the country. Again it shows a new kind of approach to mass campaigning. These campaigns, it must be said, were required because the anti-slavery movement faced considerable organised opposition in the form of the so-called ‘West Indian Interest’. Slavery was supported by a strong and well-resourced planter interest in this country. The West India Committee holding it together was made up of two groups: slaveholders, who were the dominant group, but also representatives of the slave traders and the sea captains.

In the 1820s it was estimated that as many as 50 MPs were part of this block in Parliament. Beyond that, the anti-slavery movement had to deal with the colonial assemblies. Now many of these were established in the seventeenth century as forums for white planters. They had established, through precedent, extensive powers of self-government, making it very difficult indeed for the imperial government in London to cajole or force the slaveholding whites towards anti-slavery measures and policies. By the 1820s, the anti-slavery movement in Britain was, I think, less focused on the West India Committee at home and more focused on the problems of getting the colonial assemblies to move an inch in the direction of emancipation.

The history of anti-slavery shows three great climaxes and I’ll take you through them to give a sense of the overall chronology.

The first great movement occurred between 1787 and 1792. In 1787, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established, the first great anti-slavery organisation, founded by William Wilberforce. There was a sudden explosion of public interest in anti-slavery, reaching a high point in the debate in Parliament in 1792 on Wilberforce’s motion to end the slave trade. The motion  passed both Houses, in fact, but only with the insertion of the word, “gradually” into the text. Parliament had indicated its willingness to end the trade, but only at some unspecified date or time in the future, and only by degrees.

But this high point in 1792 was followed by the declaration of war against France in 1793, and with it came the suppression of domestic radicalism in Britain, as the government cracked down on oppositional movements fearful of the potential for a revolutionary situation to develop in this country. And for a decade, anti-slavery was in decline: the times were simply not propitious. But then, from 1804, the movement was reinvigorated during a brief period of peace with France and, led again by Wilberforce in the House of Commons, it managed in that year to win the support to both Houses of Parliament for the abolition of the slave trade. The argument was won, though it still took 3 more years to achieve actual majorities in both Houses.

There’s a tendency to neglect the next phase of the movement, as the issue changed from that of the slave trade to slavery itself, because the movement, though it whispered it quietly to itself, had always ultimately, I think, been focused on the emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire. Ending the slave trade was in many views, one step towards that ultimate goal, though that could not be said in public because it would almost certainly have increased opposition to the initial movement regarding the trade itself. But from 1828, there came a third climax in the movement. And the movement at this point depended ultimately on political change in Parliament: and it re-emerged, therefore, as the whole question of Parliamentary reform itself re-emerged at this time. The two causes, anti-slavery and Parliamentary reform, then marched together.

Once the old Tory Anglican dominance of politics was reduced in its potency by Parliamentary reform, it was one of the great and early achievements of the reformed House of Commons, after the 1832 general election, that it emancipated all the slaves in the British Empire. A more representative parliament after 1832 was by definition, an anti-slavery Parliament in which the size of the West Indian interest had been drastically reduced. So to sum up, at the end of the 1820s, three factors came together to give new life to the movement: political reform; a revived anti-slavery movement, now with women and more religious nonconformists at its head, and also now with far more activists committed to immediatism rather than gradualism; and thirdly something I’ve mentioned already, black agency in the form of Sharpe’s Rebellion in Jamaica, which it must be said really frightened the planters and broke their resolve to oppose change.

The emancipation act was passed in 1833 and it came into effect on the 1st of August 1834, a date that was celebrated for many years afterwards all across the Atlantic world. But at that point there was still more than 2 million slaves, in the southern states of America, more than a million and a half slaves in Brazil, perhaps half a million slaves on the Spanish Island of Cuba. And it was to the international campaign to end slavery that the British movement now turned, led by a new organisation: the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

Briefly, why did Anti-slavery succeed in Britain, and in Britain first? I think some of the answers are clear in what I’ve said already, but some more factors can be thrown in, also. First of all, we benefit in this country from a compact geography. And though we may not recognise it, communications in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Britain were undoubtedly better than in other European states of comparable size. Roads, a compact geography, even an effective postal service, again in relative terms, meant that it was possible to organise a national mass campaign. The profusion and proliferation of newspapers spread the word. A dozen newspapers, most of them dailies, were emanating from London by the 1780s. A large publishing industry made it possible to print pamphlets and periodicals easily, and libraries and booksellers in large numbers were able to disseminate this literature to a wide and widening reading public.

There was also, of course, a pre-existing culture of direct public action and protest. The role of the crowd in eighteenth century British history and the moral economy of ordinary people is well attested in the historiography of popular action and mass movements. But we might extend Edward Thompson’s argument here to contend that slavery just like high prices and monopolies, infringed a different type of moral economy of many ordinary people. We might extend that concept of a moral economy and apply it to this widening sympathy for the slaves, which took in so many different groups and classes by the early nineteenth century.

So, let me then conclude very briefly. Slavery and the slave trade were central to the history of early modern Britain. Anti-slavery meanwhile, is one of the great movements of modern British history, with lingering legacies throughout the nineteenth century, and indeed, even into our own day, when now we struggle with so-called ‘modern slavery’. The two, slavery and anti-slavery, have to be taken together and held in balance. That has not always been the case in recent discussions and investigations. Both, I think have been neglected in the standard histories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries up to now, and both deserve a much more central place in the British narrative. But in everything that we write and say and do in relation to these subjects, we certainly need to be true and faithful to the history. In my view, the more widely that history is spread and properly understood the better, and this lecture has been offered in that spirit. Thank you.


Thank you very much, Lawrence, for a remarkable tour de force and tour d’horizon, as the French say, over this enormously important and fascinating subject. I must admit it had never occurred to me that, as you said at the beginning, three-quarters of the world’s population was subject to bondage. I’m sure that many of us were struck by that figure which I  think we should be more aware of. So thank you for taking us through this extraordinary story and the 50 years which, as you say, is a remarkably short period to have overcome such a powerful and ancient institution and abuse. So ladies, and gentlemen, we’re delighted Lawrence has agreed that he will address your questions and there are already three in the ‘question & answer’ box, so those who’d like to ask questions, do please write them in. We have plenty of time for asking them, and I’m going to be the virtual chair. I’m going to start with the first question to Lawrence: given the vitriol against academics like you, says our questioner, who try to explain the context and the nuances: is it the same experience, ie. vitriol, for academics in other countries?

Hmm, that’s very interesting. One of the great things in my life is that I’m not on social media. So, if there’s vitriol I’m not even aware of it, actually. I’m continuing to continue, you might say. I think it’s difficult to say, really, and I wouldn’t want to generalise about other places, and other subjects. I know the United States best of all, and I think in America there is a strong body of empirical historians who address American slavery, and do so in the best possible manner. I’ve spent more of my time reading and thinking and teaching the history of American Slavery than British Slavery and I’ve read over the years some tremendous works of empirical history which suggests to me that many American historians are unmoved by the vitriol, or any sort of criticism, that they receive. If we bring this down to something a very recent, I was deeply impressed by some of the finest historians of slavery in America, and indeed of American History more generally, who took on openly the so-called ‘1619 Project’ of the New York Times, which wanted to put the history of American slavery at the very heart of the American experience, but made a range of wild assumptions and claims for that history which simply do not bear close scrutiny when one thinks of the facts, and the history that we know. And to the great credit of a number of very notable American historians, whatever the criticism and the vitriol, they spoke up for the history as it should be understood, and as it should be written, based upon the sources and the facts. I admired that.

  1. Well that you refer to America brings me onto our second question, which is about the influence of American race culture, if one can call it that, on Britain and whether that makes it more difficult for us to understand our own history. The questioner gives the example of the World Cup: the England team took the knee while the U.S.A. team didn’t. I mean, have we become very ‘Americanised’ in our understanding of this question?

That’s very interesting, and again, I hesitate to go here because I’m not a sociologist and I’m not a pundit of the present. I’m a ‘common or garden’ historian interested in the past so it’s more difficult for me. What I think I can say, having spent 40 years of my life going to and fro to America, and having studied at an American University, and taught in American universities also, is that we’re obviously on the receiving end of a lot of American concepts about race and other things, in a way that has changed the flow. Historians in America used to be extremely influenced by British historiography, by the work of British historians. When I first went to America as a student, I was acclaimed, really, because I came, as it were, bearing the fruits of British scholarship, and British historical ideas which seemed so revolutionary and important to Americans at that time. Admittedly at that time they were more interested in questions of class, for example, than race. So I think the flow has, if you like, reversed and the more dominant cultural tradition is now American ideas flowing into Britain. I don’t think one should resist this. But as an empirical historian I simply think one works with the grain of the facts, and I think I feel more comfortable always doing that. My history, I’d like to think, starts from the documents and the established narrative rather than from an ideology or a conceptual approach that then becomes, if you like, overbearing when one looks to the history. I hope that makes some sense.

  1. Well, we have we have a question which, in a sense, relates to that, Lawrence, and perhaps in a way you’ve already answered it but you may want to say one or two things more. How factual is our history? How best is fact described? By the way, says the questioner, your lecture is incredibly interesting. Thank you I’ll be sharing with my friends, and so on. Which is just what we want ladies and gentlemen. But how do you counter the post-modern approach which says “well, history is just interpretation and I’ve got mine, you’ve got your facts and I’ve got my facts and you’ve got your history and I’ve got my history?’

Yes, I understand the question. and I think all historians struggle with it. I think it’s our duty as academic historians to uphold, how can I put it, a scholarly approach to the past: one that grows out of the careful study of documentation and evidence, evidence of all sorts, and that, as it were, has always something behind it, something that both restrains us in what we can say and that in many ways enables us, because if you have source material you can be confident of what you think. Now that’s not a perfect answer. It doesn’t answer those historians, ideologists and people who would want to address these questions in quite a different way, and for whom evidence matters far less. All that I would say to students, those viewing this lecture, anyone interested in history, is that you should always turn to the back of the book and look at the sources, and if you see that there has been a real attempt to write the history based upon the reading of sources; if you have some confidence that the person who’s writing the article or the book has actually engaged with the material fully and fairly then I would say read on! But always be sceptical of those for whom the facts obviously do not count. They will inevitably distort and make more problems for the rest of us.

  1. Thank you, Lawrence. Now we have a couple of factual questions. I think you you’ll be able to answer them pretty quickly, or at least relatively quickly. One is about the point you began with, which I referred to earlier: the people who lived in some form of bondage and the questioner would like to ask how one distinguishes between slavery, forced labour, serfdom and indeed modern slavery.

Yes, that’s a very interesting question and the brush with which I was painting was very broad indeed. Essentially, what I was saying, and what you as a questioner have picked up is that there are lots of different types of forced labour, then and now. What I think one would want to focus on is a concept that was growing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that concept of freedom of contract, that idea that we sell our labour on the basis of a contract, and at any point under the terms of that contract we are free to withdraw our labour and go elsewhere. We, if you like, are in command of our labour, we have choice over how we give our labour to whom and when and for what price. And these ideas were very important. I recall an interesting exchange with one of my professors, David Brion Davis, when I was very young, at Yale, as Robert mentioned, where we were talking about this and I was trying to make the case that someone like John Bright, who owned a cotton mill and employed workers and probably could have paid them more in that cotton mill in the 1850s and the 1860s, nonetheless would have replied to any criticism: “My workers have freedom of contract, they can go anywhere else, to another mill down the road, or somewhere completely different, and that is why even as a mill owner I am committed to anti-slavery and the abolition of slavery in America, because that’s different, it’s a form of forced labour”. Anything that is not genuine freedom of contract is a type of forced labour, of which there are many different types. Serfdom for example, involves labour service on the land, and Russian serfs literally laboured for two, three, or four days a week on the land of the noble and owed him service in that form. Or there was debt bondage for the payment of debts incurred. Both are quite different from slavery. So there are lots of different ways of thinking about forced labour but the difference is always in the absence of freedom of contract.

Q: Some people who are critical of abolitionism, or at least of the emphasis that we give to it, say that “well, these people were only interested in efficiency”. In other words, “their abolitionism was self-interested, there isn’t a moral dimension, it’s because they thought that free workers were more efficient and perhaps even cheaper”. How do you assess that within the whole abolitionist movement?

Yes, I think there are two ways of trying to deal with this: one on a very broad scale, and one more direct. If you look for that kind of discourse in the anti-slavery movement in Britain, you won’t really find it up to the early 1830s, up to emancipation. It is certainly true that out of Scotland came this idea – very strongly to the fore in the Wealth of Nations, published of course by Adam Smith in 1776 – that free labour is more efficient, it encourages greater creativity, workers have incentives and they’re much more creative in the way they use their labour and their freedom and that makes it more efficient. But it’s a very generalised argument and you don’t really find it much developed by the sort of Christian evangelicals who lead the anti-slavery movement. I know that there is this argument, but it’s not one that you can find very strongly represented in the rhetoric and the arguments of the anti-slavery movement in Britain, which are moralistic, which are Christian, which are certainly focused on the concept of Britain’s wider national interests, and which don’t make the economic argument that you can get more return out of a free labour force in Jamaica or Barbados, than you can from a slave labour force.

Behind that, however, is a much wider question, which I didn’t really have time to go into this evening, which is summed up in a book published in the 1940s, controversial then and still controversial, by Eric Williams called Capitalism and Slavery. Williams there developed an argument that slave culture in the West Indies was in decline in the early nineteenth century and that emancipation occured, and the anti-slavery movement won, because British economic interests were moving away from the sugar islands and the primary products produced there, and turning towards the Industrial Revolution and the manufacture of export goods like textiles and so forth in Lancashire and Yorkshire from the 1830s. But that argument, which I think is still current in some quarters, has been quite considerably critiqued over the decades.

I think the overwhelming weight of historical argument comes down against that view which is sometimes held to be a little too glib, and which wants to reaffirm, certainly in recent work, the moral attributes and the moral identity of the anti-slavery movement. This is fundamentally about religion and conscience and a belief in freedom. It’s not really about the calculation of best advantage either nationally, or in terms of an individual slaveholder or an individual industrial entrepreneur. One of the problems, I think, with the Williams argument is, who is the agent in the transition, if you like, from slavery to industrialism? It certainly isn’t the central government in Britain, because governments have so little control over the economy in the early nineteenth century. And certainly, industrialisation emerging from the 1770s and 1780s was a very grassroots phenomenon. It’s not as if anybody is taking any sort of decision that we move from one form of capitalism to another.

There are, if you like, two different economic complexes, the one developing quite separately and independently in the English Midlands and the North of England, from the 1780s in an entirely different world from that of Atlantic merchants, slavery, and the Caribbean sugar islands. So I would tend to keep them apart and contend that economic arguments in this subject are less important than moral and political ones.

  1. Well on the moral argument, if I could ask you something myself, rising from my own curiosity. I seem to remember reading a very interesting article some years ago, I think in the Historical Journal (I forget the name of the author) who was talking about the way in which slave owners were considered. So we know that there is, as you said, a growing recognition of the equal humanity of the slaves, of the enslaved people. But this article was saying that the slave owners came to be seen, and perhaps I’m simplifying, as the epitome of immorality because of their sexual abuse of slaves, their drunkenness, their materialism, and so on. On one hand, you have a rising, moral image of the enslaved person, and perhaps at the same time, a degraded image of the slave owner.

Oh, without question, absolutely. The slaveholders were held in growing and increasing contempt as the decades went by. By the Napoleonic period, there were at least two famous examples of slaveholders who behaved with such brutality towards their slaves, that they become pariahs in England, and again there is a kind of upthrust of contempt across public media and even parliamentary opinion against these two. One, by the name of Hodge on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, was found guilty of mass murder and executed; the other, Huggins, on the island of Nevis, was acquitted, causing outrage in Britain.

There was a growing critical response to people who behaved in such appalling ways towards their slaves. I think this is associated, not just with humanitarianism, and the desire to assist slaves in slavery, and indeed, to reduce the brutality of slavery, which is one technique, one tactic, that the anti-slavery movement certainly adopted in the early nineteenth century, but I think it’s also a product of a change in the moral atmosphere of Britain between say, the 1770s, and the 1830s. If you think about who’s leading the campaign against slavery, it’s evangelical Christians. And for them, of course, the behaviour of slaveholders not just in regard to their slaves, but the in the luxury of their lifestyle, their excess,  exploitation, sexual appropriation and sexual exploitation – all of these things are so ungodly. Over time, of course, British society was changing its moral outlook. By the mid-nineteenth century, Victorian values, so-called, had emerged. And so slaveholders are throwbacks to another age, as British moral society moves into a different kind of age, with a much more censorious view of personal conduct. These people are dinosaurs, not just because of the way they treat their slaves, but because of their general demeanour, and they are shunned and hounded because of it.

Q: And yes, of course, and as we know, this is often raised as a criticism of the whole abolitionist process, and one of our questioners raises it too: the fact that the slave owners are paid compensation. And of course it was controversial at the time, but I think it would be useful if you could say a word or two about the fact that large amounts of money was paid to slave owners.

Yes, yes, absolutely. Just to put the facts down first: in 1833 the Emancipation Act decreed that 20 million pounds would be paid in compensation. That was, roughly, 40% of government expenditure in that year. Well, if you were to do a sum today in terms of 40% of government expenditure it would be astronomically high. It was considered then to be a very large sum indeed, and on principle to be entirely wrong. As many pointed out, the compensation should have gone to the slaves not to the slaveholders. But it had to be paid: it was necessary to grease the palm of slaveholders in the final denouement of this 50-year struggle.

It was necessary to give them an incentive to give up their slaves and, in a negotiation, the government found it necessary to pay for what many thought was morally necessary, but nevertheless an insupportable act of appeasement. But there you are: that’s what sometimes peace deals are about. What was the other part of the question?

‘Was it the only way to ensure emancipation’. but I think you’ve answered the question.

Yes, it would be fine to think that they would have accepted and understood that the time was up. But they wanted to be paid, and a great national sum had to be calculated, the £20 million had to be very carefully divided between great slaveholders, who might have more than a 1,000 slaves and be paid thousands of pounds. Or, as was often the case, an individual, say a widow, who might own half of a slave, had also to be compensated. The research that’s been done, very good work indeed, on the business of compensation, shows how broad was the ownership of slaves in British society. It wasn’t just a matter of very large-scale absentee owners, who already owned broad acres in this country. It’s a whole variety of figures who owned one or two slaves, or even a part of a slave, and had drawn a small income from that.

Questions have been coming in thick and fast Lawrence, have you got a few more minutes?

Yes, certainly

Well a couple of quick questions, was the Duke of Wellington, a defender of slavery?

Do you know, I couldn’t swear to know the answer to that. I think he probably was, but I can’t actually be sure.

Not a prominent one, then not a prominent voice on either side,

Now this is a more difficult question which you may not want to answer but who is the most significant individual in Britain arguing against the abolitionists.

Oh, goodness me that would be difficult. The name of the Liverpool merchants, one of whom had been an officer in the army and fought in the American War, escapes me.


Yes, Banastre Tarleton and his brother John Tarleton, for many years spoke up for the slave traders. Their family had been involved in slavery and slave trading, notably on Grenada, and Banastre Tarleton was, I think, probably the most notable, the most aggressive voice in the House of Commons. He’d fought in America, he then got himself a seat, and he was, I think, the most vociferous, and in some ways the most frustrating of the opponents of the anti-slavery movement. Thank you, Robert: the Tarletons. Yes.

Q: There’s a wonderful portrait of Banastre Tarleton by Reynolds in the National Portrait Gallery. I almost hesitate to mention it in case it gets removed or covered in marmalade, but please don’t do that, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m going to amalgamate two questions. And these may be our last questions. Can I ask whether we give too much prominence to matters of race? Or rather, whether we use, or if there is a tendency to use, race as too simple a lens, through which to view our history and if there’s any way of countering the tendency to teach critical race theory in schools and universities?

Hmm, yes, once again, I’m going to hesitate to talk about these questions today, because, though I don’t want to disappoint, I don’t feel myself to be an expert on these matters. What I think you could say about the history of anti-slavery is that for many people at the time – and I say this with a degree of hesitation – but I think for many of those involved this was not a question that they saw through a racial lens. They felt that slavery as an institution was wrong, that modernity mandated freedom, political freedom, as well as economic freedom, that slavery led to exploitation and all those barbaric practices that we’ve already mentioned in this discussion; that it was an excrescence on civilisation, and should be removed.

I think they felt that, without needing to address these issues through a racial paradigm this was simply wrong. Slavery itself was wrong. It was even more wrong, if you like, that a dominant race should enslave those who were less advanced in a civilisational sense. And this is where the Scottish Enlightenment historiography comes in. Because in this intellectual tradition there was a very strong sense that all races were equal, as I said. Despite, as it were, colour and all other such considerations, all races have the capacity to reach full civilisational development. It’s just that some have started from a more primitive position than others and there is a concept there also of stewardship: that it is our responsibility to assist those less fortunate, and further back in, if you like, this developmental process to come forward and fully embrace what the Scots, call “commercial society”. Now, this isn’t an awfully common view of slavery and anti-slavery, but it’s a rather interesting view based upon a concept of racial equality.

So I think I would say to these questions, that many in the anti-slavery movement held racial views that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine at that time. It’s important to also remember something else here: these are people of the early nineteenth century, a period quite different in its view of social identities than the late nineteenth century. The late nineteenth century may well be a much more racist era when people think more deterministically about race, and genetics, and consider races to have very obvious differences in their capacities, their intelligence, and so forth. But this isn’t what you hear in a lot of the anti-slavery rhetoric and argumentation at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. There’s a much stronger sense coming out of the Enlightenment of the equality of races and the similarity of all humans, and that sense of obligation, therefore, to treat all races equally and fairly. It’s a very different mindset from one that develops say from the 1860s and the 1870s, and a much more attractive one as well.

Q: Well, you’ve been very patient with questions. Here’s one which I think you’ve probably answered just now, by implication, but it might be worth just raising, because one hears it quite often. One of our questioners asks about the people whom you said, at the beginning of your lecture, would have regarded it as nonsensical to think that slavery could be abolished, yet they sing “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”. How do we reconcile those 2 things?

Oh, yes, I see what you mean. I think they can be reconciled.

I don’t know what the man in the streets of London in the 1780s would have said, but I think it would have been something along the lines of: “Slavery is natural elsewhere in the world in places less fortunate than here in England, in places less advanced, less economically sophisticated. We have, as it were, developed a culture of freedom; they unfortunately, and it’s not exactly the slaves fault, but they in benighted places elsewhere, they have to live with slavery because they haven’t managed to develop those civilisational qualities that we enjoy.” So there is an element here of national pride, national arrogance perhaps, but also some sort of sympathy for those who have not yet and perhaps will never achieve what the Brits have achieved. Britons never will be slaves, and it’s a nationalistic point, it’s a point of national identity. It makes us, if you like, the people that we are in the eighteenth century. In this country we are free; in other countries, sadly, they are not as fortunate. So I don’t think that it’s national arrogance if that’s the implication of the question. Obviously, there’s a kind of paradox here. I think the hope would be that through civilisational advance more peoples would gain the kinds of liberties and freedoms that the English have. I’m talking to Robert now who is an expert on French history, of course. The British would look upon the French in the eighteenth century as a poor benighted people who lived under absolutist monarchies, or failed absolutist monarchies, and who should develop the kinds of liberal freedoms, and opportunities, that we here in England had developed. And I think that if you spoke to that Englishman in the street in the 1780s, what you would have got in return would have been a further development of that kind of argument: that so few people are lucky enough to enjoy our freedoms and our opportunities.


Well, thank you, Lawrence I think we will draw this to a close. Now, there are two questions that I can answer very quickly. One is: is it possible to get the transcript? And the answer to that is, yes, we shall be publishing it as soon as we can.

The other question is about the Arab slave trade. I’m not going to ask you to comment on that: that would take an awfully long time. But I can say that we are going to welcome Professor Thomas Otte in a future webinar shortly, who will be talking about that very subject, so those interested please do listen in. But for now I’m going to thank you for a long and very full lecture and discussion of the campaign against slavery and one that will give us all a lot to think about. And I think for those of us and of our questioners who are worried that history is being taught wrongly will know that the empirical and factual base and evidence-based approach that you have taken is, we hope, we trust, the way of combating the distortions of a certain kind of historical discourse. So thank you very much. Lawrence and thank you to all our questioners, and to all our listeners, and we hope to greet you again in due course.

Thank you

About the author


Lawrence Goldman

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).