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29 March 2007 Edition

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Abolition anniversary should focus attention on modern forms of slavery


Last Sunday, 25 March, marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade.  It was a further 26 years before Bill for the ‘Total Abolition of Colonial Slavery’ was passed in 1833.   A look at the struggle that led up to the passage of the 1807 legislation demonstrates that it takes courage and tenacity to fight for ideals in face of powerful economic forces.  This lesson should not be lost on us today.
The bi-centenary has allowed an overdue focus on contemporary forms of slavery including child slavery, trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation and forced labour.  
In the late 18th century and in the early 19th century powerful economic interests supported the slave trade.  Banks such as Barings Banks, Lloyds Bank and the Bank of England accumulated great wealth on the back of the slave trade. Insurance companies similarly profited.  A powerful lobby mobilised in its defence in advance of the passage of the 1807 legislation.  The merchants and manufactures of Manchester presented a petition to the House of Lords on 13 May 1806 objecting to the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill.
While slavery had been declared illegal in England and Scotland in  the 1770’s the real economic interests in maintaining slavery were related to the slave trade and slavery in the colonies.
The manufacturers of that time argued that they could not be ‘competitive’ without the slave trade – the cost of imports such as cotton would rise if slavery was abolished. The arguments today for re-location to low cost economies, for a roll back on workers’ rights, for the use of raw materials from countries that do not respect labour standards are reminiscent of the arguments made in favour of the slave trade.  Clearly there are always those who will defend exploitation for economic reasons.


 When the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in London in 1783 it set itself against the powerful commercial interests of slave owners in the colonies and manufactures, bankers and others in Britain. The Society was founded following the first parliamentary petition against the slave trade by 300 Quakers.
Quakers who were to the fore in the campaign for the abolition of slavery were at that time, prior to the 19th Century Reform Acts, debarred from parliament.
Subsequently in an attempt to ensure wider support for the cause a smaller non-denominational committee was formed. Amongst this group were three evangelical Anglicans including William Wilberforce who was chosen to lead the group. Wilberforce had been elected to parliament 3 years earlier at the age of 21. Wilberforce was no radical – he was opposed to the extension of the franchise to the working classes.
On 12 May 1789 Wilberforce made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons. He argued that the trade was morally reprehensible and an issue of natural justice. Wilberforce introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791. It was defeated by 163 votes to 88.   He moved bills for its abolition again in April 1792 and February 1793.   
While Wilberforce worked for the abolition of slavery in parliament, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade worked to raise public awareness and to mobilise public support behind the abolitionist cause.  Its activities included writing and publishing anti-slavery books, abolitionist prints, posters and pamphlets, organising lecture tours in towns and cities (including the ports of England), presenting petitions to the House of Commons and organising anti-slavery rallies.  The abolitionist cause was further boosted by the work of the African Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiography, a first-hand account of the slave trade and slavery, was published in 1789.

Contemporary forms of slavery

 The Society was effective in bringing public attention to its cause and to raising public support for its campaign.  Arguably parliamentary action alone could never have brought about change – the establishment that controlled parliament had too much economic self interest in maintaining the slave trade.  Things are not that different today.  If genuine economic and social change is to be brought about parliamentary action must be augmented by building public support, building a public demand for the change that we are seeking.
With the passage of the 1807 legislation abolitionists transferred their attention to the abolition of slavery in the colonies – this was achieved in 1833.  The public played an even greater role in the campaign which brought that legislation including petitioning (5,484 petitions sent to the British parliament including one signed by 187,000 women who at that time did not have the vote) and a mass boycotting of products from the West Indies.
The current organisation Anti-Slavery International traces its routes back to the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  It actively campaigns against contemporary forms of slavery including  the exploitation of migrant, child labour and debt bondage.
Anti-Slavery International argues that “one of the greatest difficulties in dealing with contemporary forms of slavery is that, since many of the practices are illegal, evidence is hard to come by. Equally, many forms of exploitation may go for years undetected, or may never be called to public attention for political or economic reasons”.
A blind eye is presently being turned to modern forms of slavery – that this bi-centenary has focused some attention on plight of those enslaved today is especially important.
Anti-Slavery International can be accessed at

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