Abolition of the Slave Trade

Abolitionist movement

While many people in Britain opposed slavery, it was not until May 1787 that a small society was started in London by Thomas Clarkson to push Parliament to dismantle this evil institution.


Josiah Wedgwood's 'Am I not a man and a brother?' anti-slavery image

This new society very cleverly declared that their aim was only to end the transatlantic slave trade to the British colonies. They hoped that, with the supply of slaves cut off, plantation owners would turn to free paid labour. So they called themselves the 'Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade'. They changed their name to the 'Anti-Slavery Society' after the slave trade was banned.

Their problem was that only men with large properties had the vote. Many had money invested in the produce of slavery - sugar, tobacco, rice, cotton and indigo - or owned plantations. Others thought that banning the slave trade was too dangerous and would cause great unrest in the West Indies. Some even thought that Africans were better off working as slaves on the plantations than being left in the hands of their murderous chiefs.

Illustration of a boat with slaves being thrown overboard into the sea

To change their minds and put pressure on the Members of Parliament, the Abolitionists were the first to use modern campaigning methods to rally public opinion.

These were:

  • collect eyewitness statements of the horrors of the slave trade
  • deliver a simple message with a logo and a catch phrase
  • produce information leaflets to give out at public meetings
  • recruit influential people in the local community to their cause
  • organise local petitions, signed by thousands, to send to Parliament
  • lobby Members of Parliament to vote for the ban.

The world famous porcelain manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood designed their logo of the slave on his knees under the phrase 'Am I not a man and a brother?'

They later encouraged their supporters to 'boycott' sugar produced by slave labour. Wedgwood made lead tokens that were handed out to children who gave up sugar.

Abolitionist Movement

Wedgwood anti-slavery image. Copyright Glasgow City Council (Museums).