How did the slave trade end in Britain?

The campaign to end slavery began in the late 18th century. Alongside the work of famous campaigners and formerly enslaved people living in London, one of the key events in the abolition movement was a rebellion on the island of Haiti.



Shipping in the Pool of London by Robert Dodd
Shipping in the Pool of London, 18th century

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Key facts about the transatlantic slave trade 

  • Between 1662 and 1807 British and British colonial ships purchased an estimated 3,415,500 Africans. Of this number, around 2,964,800 survived the 'middle passage' and were sold into slavery in the Americas.  
  • The transatlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration in human history and completely changed Africa, the Americas and Europe. 
  • Until the 1730s, London dominated the British trade in enslaved people. It continued to send ships to West Africa until the end of the trade in 1807.  
  • Between 1699 and 1807, British and British colonial ports mounted 12,103 slaving voyages - with 3,351 setting out from London.  

The abolition campaigns

As the trade in enslaved people reached its peak in the 1780s, more and more people began to voice concerns about the moral implications of slavery and the brutality of the system. From the beginning, the inhuman trade had caused controversy. London was the focus for the abolition campaign, being home both to Parliament and to the important financial institutions of the City. As early as 1776, the House of Commons debated a motion 'that the slave trade is contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men'. 

Ignatius Sancho

Abolitionist Ignatius Sancho
Ignatius Sancho, 1729-80

Ignatius Sancho was born in 1729 aboard a slave ship bound for the Caribbean. Orphaned at the age of two, he was taken to Britain where he was given to three sisters in Greenwich. A chance meeting with the Duke of Montagu (1690-1749) changed the young Sancho’s life. Montagu was taken by his intelligence and encouraged his education. After Montagu’s death in 1749, Sancho persuaded his widow to take him away from his mistresses, and she hired him as a butler. 

With the support of the Montagu family, Sancho established a grocery in Westminster. His wealth and property even secured him the vote. Sancho moved in, and corresponded with, a wide and influential social circle of nobles, actors, writers, artists and politicians. He was a supporter and patron of the arts, as well as being a composer in his own right. Sancho died in December 1780, and was the first African in Britain to receive an obituary. 

Olaudah Equiano

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Olaudah Equino was another important figure in the abolition campaign. He published his autobiography – The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings – in 1789. In this book, he described being captured in West Africa, forcibly transported to the Americas and sold into slavery. He eventually managed to buy his freedom. His Interesting Narrative was reprinted many times, becoming one of the most powerful condemnations of the trade and an highly significant piece of abolitionist literature. 

The task faced by the abolitionists was enormous. Parliament passed legislation to control the trade, such as limiting the number of Africans that could be carried on an individual ship, but abolition did not have enough support. Between 1791 and 1800, around 1,340 slaving voyages were mounted from British ports, carrying nearly 400,000 Africans to the Americas. In 1798 alone, almost 150 ships left Liverpool for West Africa. New colonies in the Caribbean and the continued consumer demand for plantation's goods fuelled the trade. 

Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce

Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce were two of the most prominent abolitionists, playing a vital role in the ultimate success of the campaign. Clarkson was a tireless campaigner and lobbyist. He made an in-depth study of the horrors of the trade and published his findings, also touring Britain and Europe to spread the abolitionist word and inspire action. This helped the abolition campaign grow into a popular mass movement. 

William Wilberforce was the key figure supporting the cause within Parliament. In 1806-07, with the abolition campaign gaining further momentum, he had a breakthrough. Legislation was finally passed in both the Commons and the Lords which brought an end to Britain’s involvement in the trade. The bill received royal assent in March and the trade was made illegal from 1 May 1807. It was now against the law for any British ship or British subject to trade in enslaved people. 

Although the abolitionists had succeeded in ending of Britain’s involvement in the trade, plantation slavery still existed in British colonies. The abolition of slavery now became the focus of the campaign though this would prove to be a long and difficult struggle. Full emancipation was not achieved until 1838 and none of the former slaves received compensation. 

The Haitian Revolution

The campaign to end slavery coincided with uprisings of enslaved communities in the Caribbean. One of these took place in the French colony of Saint-Domingue on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. It began on 23 August 1791, when enslaved Africans began attacking plantation owners. 

Saint-Domingue had become one of the wealthiest colonies and therefore attracted the interest of the French, the Spanish and the British, three of the world’s strongest powers at the time. There were a number of factors that led to the rebellion, one of which was the French Revolution in 1789, which had caused turmoil in France and its colonies. 

Revolution in Saint Domingue

On 23 August 1791 a massive revolt by enslaved Africans erupted on the island of Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The uprising would play a crucial role in making Saint Domingue the first Caribbean island to declare its independence and only the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The island had become one of the wealthiest producing colonies and therefore attracted the interest of the French, the Spanish and the English, three of the world’s strongest powers at the time. There were a number of factors that led to the rebellion, one of which was the French Revolution in 1789, which called for ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (liberty, equality and fraternity).

Toussaint L’Ouverture

Illustartion of 'Toussaint Louverture, Chief of the French Rebels in St. Domingo'

For 13 years, the country was in a state of civil war with enslaved Africans fighting for their freedom. One of the most successful commanders was a man called Toussaint L’Ouverture. Toussaint organised resistance against the French, Spanish and British forces that attempted to regain control. He was a skilful military leader but was eventually captured by the French and died in France in 1803. The rebel forces continued to fight for their freedom and on 1 January 1804 Haiti was declared an independent republic. 

International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition

Medal commemorating the abolition of the slave trade
Medal commemorating the abolition of the slave trade

The Haitian Revolution, as the uprising became known, remains the most successful slave rebellion in world history. It became a pinnacle of resistance for enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas and was a turning point in the fight to abolish transatlantic slavery.  

Today, 23 August is known as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. This marks the proclamation of the first modern black republic. If you want to find out more about this uprising and see fascinating objects relating to the Haitian Revolution, visit ‘The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire'. This permanent gallery is located in the National Maritime Museum, which is free and open daily from 10am.

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For further reading visit Understanding Slavery, a dedicated website to the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade