The Origins of the British Empire

In 1485 Henry VII inherited a kingdom that was smaller than it had been for over 400 years. For the first time since the 11th century the realm did not include one French province. The only part of France still held by the English was the Marches of Calais, a strip of territory around the town of Calais. He held the title of "Lord of Ireland" since the 12th century, but effectively governed only an area that was roughly a semi-circle forty miles deep around Dublin.

Henry was warned about the success being achieved by Spain and Portugal. His advisers were especially concerned about the discovery of America in 1492. In 1495 John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) an Italian explorer who had got into financial trouble over one of his expeditions, visited England. The following year he was commissioned to lead a voyage to discover a route to Asia via the North Atlantic. Cabot sailed in 1497, and although he successfully made landfall on the coast of Newfoundland there was no attempt to found a colony. On his return he was rewarded with a pension of £20 (equivalent to about four years' pay for a craftsman). He set sail for another voyage in 1498 but he was never heard of again. (2)

It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that the idea of obtaining an empire was revived. In 1563 Francis Drake joined his cousin, John Hawkins, on a voyage to Africa. The two men started capturing people in Sierra Leone and selling them as slaves to Spanish settlers in the Caribbean. As it was illegal for the settlers to buy from foreigners, Hawkins and Drake soon came into conflict with the Spanish authorities. (3)

In 1567 when Drake took part in a successful attack on Spanish ships in the port of San Juan de Ulua. He returned to Plymouth with a great deal of gold and silver. Drake, a committed Protestant, saw himself as an instrument of God in his crusade against Philip II and the Spanish Empire. This was followed by voyages to the West Indies and in 1572 he seized gold and silver in the Americas and the Atlantic Ocean. It is estimated to have amounted to about £20,000 - £600,000 in modern values. (4)

Drake was introduced to Sir Francis Walsingham, and this association led to a plan for him to take a fleet into the Pacific and raid Spanish settlements there. Investors included the Queen and Walsingham. The journey began in November 1577. By the end of the following month six Spanish and Portuguese ships were taken, then looted and eventually set free. (5)

On 5th February 1579 he arrived on the north coast of Chile and captured a merchant ship carrying thirty or forty bars of silver. Sailing along the coast of Mexico, Drake took a few more ships and raided several more ports. On 17th June 1579 Drake landed in a bay on the the coast of California. Most historians believe that Drake had stopped in a bay on the Point Reyes peninsula (now known as Drake's Bay). (6)

A local group of Miwok brought him a present of a bunch of feathers and tobacco leaves in a basket. John Sugden, the author of Sir Francis Drake (1990) has argued: "It appeared to the English that the Indians regarded them as gods; they were impervious to English attempts to explain who they were, but at least they remained friendly, and when they had received clothing and other gifts the natives returned happily and noisily to their village." John Drake claims that when they "saw the Englishmen they wept and scratched their faces with their nails until they drew blood, as though this was an act of homage or adoration." (7)

Drake now claimed the land for Queen Elizabeth. When Drake arrived in Plymouth on 26th September 1580, he became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world. Drake return to England as a very wealthy man and he was able to purchase the Buckland Abbey estate. In 1581 Queen Elizabeth knighted Drake and later that year he was elected to the House of Commons.

Walter Raleigh and the Americas

According to Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, Queen Elizabeth first encountered Walter Raleigh in the streets of the city. "One day Elizabeth was passing along the streets, and the people as usual came crowding to see her. Among them was Sir Walter Raleigh. The Queen stepped from her coach and, followed by her ladies, was about to cross the road. But in those days the streets were very badly kept, and Elizabeth stopped before a puddle of mud. She was grandly dressed, and how to cross the muddy road, without soiling her dainty shoes and skirts, she did not know. As she paused Sir Walter sprang forward. He, too, was finely dressed and he was wearing a beautiful new cloak. This he quickly pulled off and, bowing low, threw upon the ground before the Queen. Elizabeth was very pleased, and, as she passed on, she smiled at the handsome young man who had ruined his beautiful cloak to save her dainty shoes, and ordered him to attend her at court." (8)

Anna Whitelock, the author of Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court (2013) has pointed out: "Raleigh, then around thirty years of age... was strikingly attractive, six foot tall with a trimmed beard and piercing blue eyes and a love of extravagant clothes, jewels and pearls. His boldness, blatant ambition, vanity, and self-confidence all greatly appealed to the Queen... In 1583, Elizabeth granted him one of her favourite palaces, the handsome London dwelling Durham Place on the Strand.. Raleigh wooed her with poetry and they spent increasing amounts of time together, talking, playing cards and riding out. He was frequently in the Privy Chamber by day and night, and would often be at the door of the bedchamber, waiting for Elizabeth to emerge in the morning." (9)

It is claimed that it was Walter Raleigh who first put forward the idea of a British Empire. He argued that for this to be successful it would be important to gain control of the seas: "Whoever commands the sea commands the trade, whoever commands the trade commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself." (10)

Raleigh suggested that he should be allowed to take charge of the project. In 1584 Walter Raleigh obtained a patent for the formation of an American colony. (11) Raleigh sought practical advice from Thomas Harriot, the mathematician and astronomer, and Richard Hakluyt, a lecturer in geography at Christ College. In 1585 Raleigh sent out an expedition of four ships and two pinnaces, with 600 men, under Sir Richard Grenvill. Although Raleigh himself never went to Virginia, he was the mastermind behind this expedition. (12)

A settlement was established on Roanoke Island. Grenvill returned to England to obtain supplies for the colonists. During this period the colonists relied heavily upon a local Algonquian tribe. However, after a raid led by Ralph Lane, this food source came to an end. This created serious problems for the colonists and many died from starvation. (13)

Sir Francis Drake arrived at Roanoke on 9th June 1586. He discovered that there were only 105 colonists left alive: "Lane's men were largely soldiers, not artisans and farmers. They were interested in exploring, but lacked the skills and knowledge to form a sustainable community, and to provide for themselves they badgered the natives for food... Understandably, the Indians had begun to resent the colonists." Drake agreed to take the colonists back to England. (14)

The East India Company was established in 1600 to challenge the Dutch-Portuguese monopoly of the spice trade. With the approval of local Indian rulers, the company established trading posts in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta and dealt in cottons, silks, indigo, saltpeter and tea. (15) Queen Elizabeth granted the company monopoly rights to bring goods from India. It was argued that this "monopoly was both just and necessary, because of the expenses in the way of forts, establishments, and armaments". (16)

North America

The British Empire began to take shape during the early 17th century, with the English settlement of North America and the smaller islands of the Caribbean. The colonies soon adopted the system of sugar plantations, which depended on slave labour. To ensure that the increasingly healthy profits of this trade remained in English hands, Parliament decreed in 1651 that only English ships would be able to ply their trade in English colonies. (17)

England's first permanent settlement in the Americas was founded in 1607 in Jamestown, led by Captain John Smith and managed by the Virginia Company. In 1620, Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts was founded as a haven for Puritan religious separatists. Fleeing from religious persecution would become the motive of many English colonists. Maryland was founded as a haven for Roman Catholics (1634), Rhode Island (1636) as a colony tolerant of all religions and Connecticut (1639) for Congregationalists. The American colonies were less financially successful than those of the Caribbean, but had large areas of good agricultural land and attracted far larger numbers of English emigrants who preferred their temperate climates. (18)

In 1670, Charles II incorporated by royal charter the Hudson's Bay Company, granting it a monopoly on the fur trade throughout North America. Two years later, the king gave the Royal African Company the monopoly of the trade to supply slaves to the British colonies for the next 1,000 years. Over the next 20 years the company exported over 90,000 slaves to the Americas. (19)

Seven Years War

France emerged as the biggest danger to the growing British Empire. Conflict broke out in 1754–1756 when the British attacked disputed French positions in North America and seized hundreds of French merchant ships. The Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the British, led by Robert Clive, defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, left the British East India Company as the major military and political power in India. (20)

These conflicts resulted in the Seven Years' War, between France and Britain. France was eventually defeated and the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763) had important consequences for the future of the British Empire. In North America, France's future as a colonial power came to an end. England also kept all her conquests in India and Canada. Along with its victory over France in India, Britain was the world's most powerful maritime power. (21)

Although the war ended with vast colonial conquests, it left a vast national debt. New taxes were imposed on beer, spirits and custom duties. The British government also decided to impose taxes on the colonists to cover part of the cost of the army and navy still kept in America. The colonists complained and raised the old slogan, "No taxation without representation".

The colonists also had other complaints. Their most valuable products produced in the Americas (tobacco of Virginia, the rice of the Carolinas, the sugar of the West Indies, and the tar and timber of New England), could only be exported to Britain. The economic organisation of the British Empire in the 18th century, embodied in the Navigation Acts, had as "its object the utilisation of the trade and wealth of the colonies for the exclusive benefit of the English ruling class". (22)

American Revolution

The American Revolution began with rejection of Parliamentary authority and moves towards self-government. In response Britain sent troops to reimpose direct rule, leading to the outbreak of war in 1775. The following year, in 1776, the United States declared independence. They gained the support of reformers in Britain including people such as Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, Thomas Bentley and Erasmus Darwin. (23) Price wrote that he saw the events in America as "a revolution which opens a new prospect in human affairs, and begins a new era in the history of mankind." (24)

In 1776 Thomas Paine, the English writer, who was living in Philadelphia, published Common Sense, a pamphlet that attacked the British Monarchy and argued for American independence. It became an immediate success, quickly spreading 100,000 copies in three months to the two million residents of the 13 colonies. In all about 500,000 copies total including unauthorized editions were sold during the war. Paine also travelled to France in 1781 to raise money for the American cause. (25)

The first years of the war saw a number of English successes. In October 1777 the Americans won their first great victory when General John Burgoyne and his 5,000 soldiers were forced to surrender at Saratoga. Following the defeat, France recognised the United States and entered the war on 6th February 1778, transforming it into a global conflict. Spain also joined in on the side of the Americans. After a decisive defeat at Yorktown in 1781, Britain began negotiating peace terms. American independence was acknowledged at the Peace of Paris in 1783. (26)

Growth of the British Empire

On average the British had been transporting a thousand convicts a year to America since 1718. The discovery of Australia by James Cook in 1770 provided an alternative. In 1787 the first shipment of convicts set sail, arriving in 1788. Britain continued to transport convicts to New South Wales for the next 50 years. The value of Australia increased with the discovery of gold in the colony of Victoria in 1851, making its capital Melbourne for a time the richest city in the world and the second largest city (after London) in the British Empire. (27)

The East India Company continued to expand its control over India and continued to pay a high dividend to his shareholders. India in the 18th century was in a state of exceptional weakness and confusion. The immense superiority of the British forces made it possible for them to intervene in the local wars of native rulers with decisive effect. This allowed them to set up puppet princes whom the company could control.

Trading monopolies in important commodities like salt, opium and tobacco yielded immense fortunes. According to A. L. Morton, the author of A People's History of England (1938): "In 1769 and 1770 the English created a famine over wide areas by cornering rice and refusing to sell it except at exorbitant prices. Clive himself amassed one of the largest fortunes known up to that time by taking bribes and 'presents' from native rulers." (28)

The British government became jealous of the large fortunes being made in India and in 1767 they insisted on taking a direct share of the plunder, and the company was forced to pay £400,000 a year into the Exchequer. This was followed by the Regulating Act of 1773 and the East India Company Act 1784 that secured the government a partial control over the administration of the conquered provinces. (29)

As Morton points out this legislation was "to systematise the exploitation of India, which was now too profitable to be allowed to continue in private hands" and it "marks the beginning of the transition from the first stage of British penetration, in which India was a source of certain valuable commodities which could not be produced at home, to the second stage in which it became an important market for British manufactured goods, especially cotton textiles." (30)


In the 18th century Britain was mainly interested in Africa as a source of slaves. After a large number of petitions from merchants and manufacturers, the Royal African Company (RAC) lost its monopoly to provide slaves to the British Empire in 1698. They now opened up the business to independent companies but had to pay high taxes to the British government. This gave them rights to the infrastructure of the RAC. This included the coastal forts where they kept the captured Africans until the arrival of the slave-ships. Between 1698 and 1797, the new companies carried 75,000 slaves, compared to the 18,000 carried by the RAC. (31)

Alexander Falconbridge, was a surgeon on board a slave ship. He wrote in 1790: "When the negroes whom the black traders have to dispose of are shown to the European purchasers, they first examine them relative to age. They then minutely inspect their persons, and inquire into their state of health; if they are afflicted with any infirmity, or are deformed, or have bad eyes or teeth; if they are lame, or weak in the joints, or distorted in the back, or of a slender make, or are narrow in the chest; in short, if they have been afflicted in any manner so as to render them incapable of such labour they are rejected. The traders frequently beat those negroes which are objected to by the captains. Instances have happened that the traders, when any of their negroes have been objected to have instantly beheaded them in the sight of the captain." (32)

John Newton was a slave-captain between 1747 and 1754. He wrote in Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787): "The slaves, in general, are bought, and paid for. Sometimes, when goods are lent, or trusted on shore, the trader voluntarily leaves a free person, perhaps his own son, as a hostage, or pawn, for the payment; and, in case or default, the hostage is carried off, and sold; which, however hard upon him, being in consequence of a free stipulation, cannot be deemed unfair. There have been instances of unprincipled captains, who, at the close of what they supposed their last voyage, and when they had no intention of revisiting the coast, have detained, and carried away, free people with them; and left the next ship, that should come from the same port, to risk the consequences. But these actions, I hope, and believe, are not common." (33)

Explorers gave details of how the system worked. Mungo Park witnessed the taking of slaves from Africa. "The slaves are commonly secured by putting the right leg of one, and the left of another into the same pair of fetters. By supporting the fetters with string they can walk very slowly. Every four slaves are likewise fastened together by the necks. They were led out in their fetters every morning to the shade of the tamarind tree where they were encouraged to sing diverting songs to keep up their spirits; for although some of them sustained the hardships of their situation with amazing fortitude, the greater part were very much dejected, and would sit all day in the sort of sullen melancholy with their eyes fixed upon the ground." (34)

The merchants obtained the slaves from African chiefs by giving them goods from Europe. At first, these slaves were often the captured soldiers from tribal wars. However, the demand for slaves become so great that raiding parties were organised to obtain young Africans. Ottobah Cugoano was a 13 year-old boy from Ghana when he was captured by slave traders: "I was snatched away from my native country, with about eighteen or twenty more boys and girls, as we were playing in a field. We lived but a few days' journey from the coast where we were kidnapped... Some of us attempted, in vain, to run away, but pistols and cutlasses were soon introduced, threatening, that if we offered to stir, we should all lie dead on the spot." (35)

Olaudah Equiano was living in an Igbo village in the kingdom of Benin in 1756: "One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound; but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew." (36)

It is estimated that up to 15 million Africans were transported to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. (37) To maximize their profits slave merchants carried as many slaves as was physically possible on their ships. By the 17th century slaves could be purchased in Africa for about $25 and sold in the Americas for about $150. Even with a death-rate of 50 per cent, merchants could expect to make tremendous profits from the trade. The Liverpool merchant William Davenport reported that some voyages gave him a profit of as much as 147% on his investment. (38)

Working on a slave-ship could also be very profitable. James Irving was a surgeon on the ship Vulture that sailed to Jamaica in November 1782. It has been argued by Suzanne Schwarz, the author of Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (1995): "Assuming that Irving was paid £4 wages a month, together with the value of two privilege slaves and one shilling head money for each of the 592 slaves delivered alive to the West Indies, it is likely that Irving earned approximately £140 from this voyage. This is consistent with the average voyage earnings of slave-ship surgeons in the late eighteenth century, which were typically between £100 and £150." (39)

The conditions on board the slave-ships were so appalling that rebellious slaves had to be punished very severely. Thomas Phillips, a slave-ship captain, wrote an account of his activities in A Journal of a Voyage (1746): "I have been informed that some commanders have cut off the legs or arms of the most willful slaves, to terrify the rest, for they believe that, if they lose a member, they cannot return home again: I was advised by some of my officers to do the same, but I could not be persuaded to entertain the least thought of it, much less to put in practice such barbarity and cruelty to poor creatures who, excepting their want of Christianity and true religion (their misfortune more than fault), are as much the works of God's hands, and no doubt as dear to him as ourselves." (40)

The slave-ship Brookes (1788)
The slave-ship Brookes (1788)

Thomas Trotter, a physician working on the slave-ship, Brookes, told a House of Commons committee in 1790: "The slaves that are out of irons are locked spoonways and locked to one another. It is the duty of the first mate to see them stowed in this manner every morning; those which do not get quickly into their places are compelled by the cat and, such was the situation when stowed in this manner, and when the ship had much motion at sea, they were often miserably bruised against the deck or against each other. I have seen their breasts heaving and observed them draw their breath, with all those laborious and anxious efforts for life which we observe in expiring animals subjected by experiment to bad air of various kinds." (41) It has been estimated that the mortality rate of Africans on board British ships was 13 per cent. (42)

Church of England and Slavery

The Church of England gave its full support to the British slave trade. Its leading clergy had stated its position on a number of occasions. Reference was made to St Paul who suggested that slaves serve their masters "with fear and trembling". It was argued that what St Paul meant was that "liberty could only be expected in the next world." (43)

Another source often quoted was The City of God, a book of Christian philosophy written in Latin by Augustine of Hippo (later St. Augustine) in the early 5th century AD. According to Augustine, "by preserving the institution of slavery mankind could be disciplined and his self-aggrandisement corrected; and because no man was innocent, it was God's will alone who should be master and who should be a slave". (44)

In 1778, the Reverend Raymond Harris produced a wealth of scriptural evidence to support his contention that slavery, and particularly slavery of blacks, was in accordance with the word of God. He used several passages from the Old Testament that suggested God approved of slavery. He also used the New Testament to support his view of slavery. Harris quoted from Christ's Sermon on the Mount as the basis for his argument that Christianity recognised the existing systems and institutions. "Think not that I am come to destroy the Law of the Prophets; I am not come to destroy but to fulfil." (45)

The Church of England also owned a large number of slaves. Its missionary arm, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, were active in those areas where there were slave populations. Some wealthy slave owners, left them to the church when they died. Christopher Codrington, who owned a plantation in Barbados, and in a good year made a profit of £2,000 - roughly £265,000 in today's money. Codrington left 750 slaves to the Church. Soon afterwards the words "SOCIETY" was burned onto the chests of slaves with a red-hot iron. (46)

In February 1766, William Warburton, the Bishop of Gloucester, made the first denunciation of the slave trade by a member of the Established Church when he complained that these bequeaths resulted in the Church becoming "innocent partakers of the fruits of this iniquitous traffic". (47) Despite this comment the plantation had one of the worst records in the Caribbean, with the death-rate being about five-sixths the birth-rate." (48)

Anti-Slavery Movement

Opposition to slavery mainly came from the Nonconformist religions. George Fox, the leader of the Society of Friends (Quakers), visited Jamaica in 1671. He encountered African slaves for the first time and responded by condemning the institution of slavery. As a result Quaker settlements in North America abhorred slavery and many took every opportunity to speak out at the injustices of the system and of the means of transportation bringing them to the New World. (49)

John Wesley, the leader of the Methodists, also opposed slavery. In his pamphlet, Thoughts Upon Slavery (1744) he argued: "I absolutely deny all slave holding to be consistent with any degree of even natural justice... Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is to to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary choice." (50)

The Unitarian movement was united in its opposition to slavery. People such as Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, Thomas Bentley and Erasmus Darwin were all active in the anti-slavery movement. There is no set doctrinal beliefs that all Unitarians agree on. In fact, the most important aspect of Unitarianism is the right of individuals to develop their own religious opinions. Unitarians tend to believe that Jesus Christ was a human religious leader to be followed but not worshipped. Unitarians argued that Jesus is the "great exemplar which we ought to copy in order to perfect our union with God". (51)

Some members of the Church of England were opposed to the slave trade. Two of them, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson established the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. However, nine out of the twelve members on the committee, were Quakers. It also gained the support of political radicals such as Samuel Romilly, John Cartwright, John Horne Tooke, John Thelwall, Thomas Walker, Joseph Gales and William Smith who were also involved in the campaign for universal suffrage.

Josiah Wedgwood joined the organising committee. He urged his friends to join the organisation. Wedgwood wrote to James Watt asking for his support: "I take it for granted that you and I are on the same side of the question respecting the slave trade. I have joined my brethren here in a petition from the pottery for abolition of it, as I do not like a half-measure in this black business." (52)

As Adam Hochschild, the author of Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) has pointed out: "Wedgwood asked one of his craftsmen to design a seal for stamping the wax used to close envelopes. It showed a kneeling African in chains, lifting his hands beseechingly." It included the words: "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" Hochschild goes onto argue that "reproduced everywhere from books and leaflets to snuffboxes and cufflinks, the image was an instant hit... Wedgwood's kneeling African, the equivalent of the label buttons we wear for electoral campaigns, was probably the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause." (53)

Wedgwood Slave Emancipation Medallion, black on yellow jasper (1787)
Wedgwood Slave Emancipation Medallion, black on yellow jasper (1787)

Thomas Clarkson explained: "Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and this fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom." (54)

Hundreds of these images were produced. Benjamin Franklin suggested that the image was "equal to that of the best written pamphlet".Men displayed them as shirt pins and coat buttons. Whereas women used the image in bracelets, brooches and ornamental hairpins. In this way, women could show their anti-slavery opinions at a time when they were denied the vote. Later, a group of women designed their own medal, "Am I Not a Slave And A Sister?" (55)

Wedgwood Slave Emancipation Medallion, black on yellow jasper (1787)
"Am I Not a Slave And A Sister?"

William Wilberforce were totally opposed to women being involved in the campaign against slavery. One of Wilberforce's concerns was that women wanted to go further than the abolition of the slave trade. Early women activists such as Anne Knight and Elizabeth Heyrick were in favour of the immediate abolition of slavery, whereas Wilberforce believed that the movement should concentrate on bringing an end to the slave trade. Heyrick criticised the mainstream anti-slavery figures for their "slow, cautious, accommodating measures". (56)

In 1805 the House of Commons passed a bill that made it unlawful for any British subject to capture and transport slaves, but the measure was blocked by the House of Lords. In February 1806, Lord Grenville formed a Whig administration. Grenville and his Foreign Secretary, Charles Fox, were strong opponents of the slave trade. Fox and William Wilberforce led the campaign in the House of Commons, whereas Grenville, had the task of persuading the House of Lords to accept the measure.

Greenville made a passionate speech where he argued that the trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy" and criticised fellow members for "not having abolished the trade long ago". When the vote was taken the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill was passed in the House of Lords by 41 votes to 20. In the House of Commons it was carried by 114 to 15 and it become law on 25th March, 1807. (57)

After the passing of Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, British captains who were caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found on board. However, this law did not stop the British slave trade. In fact, the situation became worse. Now that the supply had officially ceased, the demand grew and with it the price of slaves. For high prices the traders were prepared to take the additional risks. If slave-ships were in danger of being captured by the British navy, captains often reduced the fines they had to pay by ordering the slaves to be thrown into the sea. (57a)

Some people involved in the anti-slave trade campaign argued that the only way to end the suffering of the slaves was to make slavery illegal. A new Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1823. Members included Thomas Clarkson, Henry Brougham, William Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton. Although women were allowed to be members they were virtually excluded from its leadership.

Records show that about ten per cent of the financial supporters of the organisation were women. In some areas, such as Manchester, women made up over a quarter of all subscribers. On 8th April, 1825, a meeting took place at the home of Lucy Townsend in Birmingham to discuss the issue of the role of women in the anti-slavery movement. Townsend, Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge and the other women at the meeting decided to form the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves (later the group changed its name to the Female Society for Birmingham). (58)

The formation of other independent women's groups soon followed. This included groups in Nottingham (Ann Taylor Gilbert), Sheffield (Mary Ann Rawson, Mary Roberts), Leicester (Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts), Glasgow (Jane Smeal), Norwich (Amelia Alderson Opie, Anna Gurney), London (Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, Mary Foster), Darlington (Elizabeth Pease) and Chelmsford (Anne Knight). By 1831 there were seventy-three of these women's organisations campaigning against slavery. (59)

Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Day and Erasmus Darwin helped form the Birmingham Anti-Slavery Committee. They were attacked by several leading merchants in the city and some of them even petitioned Parliament against abolition. Priestley declared that although they supported the commercial interests, they would oppose "any commerce which always originates in violence and often terminates in cruelty". (60)

Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. This act gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. The British government paid £20 million in compensation to the slave owners. The amount that the plantation owners received depended on the number of slaves that they had. For example, Henry Phillpotts, the Bishop of Exeter, received £12,700 for the 665 slaves he owned. (61)



(1) S. J. Gunn, Henry VII : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) James A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages (1962) page 220-223

(3) Harry Kelsey, Sir John Hawkins: Queen Elizabeth's Slave Trader (2003) pages 14-17

(4) George Malcolm Thomson, Sir Francis Drake (1990) page 93

(5) Harry Kelsey, Francis Drake : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) George Malcolm Thomson, Sir Francis Drake (1990) pages 140-141

(7) John Sugden, Sir Francis Drake (1990) pages 135-137

(8) Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, An Island Story: A History of England for Boys and Girls (1876) page 431

(9) Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court (2013) page 220

(10) Christopher Bayly, Atlas of the British Empire (1989) page 18

(11) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 118

(12) Mark Nicholls, Walter Rayleigh : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(13) Alan Shaw Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001) page 124

(14) John Sugden, Sir Francis Drake (1990) page 198

(15) John Guy, Tudor England (1988) page 351

(16) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 215

(17) Trevor Owen Lloyd, The British Empire 1558–1995 (1996) page 32

(18) Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (2004) pages 72-73

(19) Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (1997) page 202

(20) Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (2001) page 58

(21) Paul Monard, Imperial Island: A History of Britain and Its Empire (2009) page 201

(22) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 267

(23) Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men (2002) page 258

(24) Brian Dolan, Josiah Wedgwood: Entrepreneur to the Enlightenment (2004) page 293

(25) Mark Philp, Thomas Paine : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(26) Jeremy Black, British Foreign Policy in an Age of Revolutions, 1783–1793 (1994) pages 11–20

(27) David Fieldhouse, The West and the Third World: Trade, Colonialism, Dependence, and Development (1999) pages 145-149

(28) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 262

(29) John Keay, The Honourable Company. A History of the English East India Company (1991) page 390

(30) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 263

(31) Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (1997) page 206

(32) Aexander Falcolnbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (1788)

(33) John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787)

(34) Mungo Park, Travels to the Interiors of Africa (1799)

(35) Ottobah Cugoano, Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa (1787)

(36) Olaudah Equiano, The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African (1789)

(37) Richard Reddie, Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) page 72

(38) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) page 14

(39) Suzanne Schwarz, Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (1995) page 35

(40) Thomas Phillips, A Journal of a Voyage (1746)

(41) Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (1997) page 206

(42) Richard Reddie, Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) page 72

(43) Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (1997) page 30

(44) Jack Gratus, The Great White Lie (1973) page 140

(45) Reverand Raymond Harris, Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave Trade (1788)

(46) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) pages 68-9

(47) William Warburton, the Bishop of Gloucester, sermon (21st February, 1766)

(48) Jack Gratus, The Great White Lie (1973) page 140

(49) Larry Ingle, George Fox : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(50) John Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery (1744)

(51) Brian Dolan, Josiah Wedgwood: Entrepreneur to the Enlightenment (2004) page 40

(52) Josiah Wedgwood, letter to James Watt (1788)

(53) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) page 128

(54) Thomas Clarkson, History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (1807) page 191

(55) Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men (2002) page 412

(56) Elizabeth Heyrick, Immediate, not Gradual Abolition (1838)

(57) Michael Jordan, The Great Abolition Sham (2005) pages 120-121

(57a) Jack Gratus, The Great White Lie (1973) page 136

(58) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) page 326

(59) Richard Reddie, Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) page 214

(60) Edward Royle and James Walvin, English Radicals and Reformers, 1760-1848 (1982) page 36

(61) Jack Gratus, The Great White Lie (1973) page 240