Abolition of the Slave Trade

Abolitionists in Scotland

Sketch of William Dickson

William Dickson of Moffat drove the Abolitionist campaign in Scotland. He had been in Barbados as the secretary to the Governor for 13 years and saw slaves being overworked, brutally punished and executed without a proper trial. When he came back to London he offered his services to the Abolitionist Society. He was sent to Scotland, which he turned into a powerhouse for the movement.

"Of the Africans, above one fourth perished on the voyage to the West Indies, and four and a half percent more died on average in the fortnight intervening between the days of entry and sale. To close this awful triumph of the King of terrors, about two in five of all whom the planters bought were lost in seasoning within the first three years and before they could be said to have yielded any productive labour."

Extract from a letter from William Dickson to Thomas Clarkson, 1787

'The Skating Minister', The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, National Gallery of Scotland

He sought out influential people in the town councils, churches and universities. One person he won over was the Reverend Robert Walker of Canongate, Edinburgh - you might recognise this famous painting.

His tour was very successful. In four years, Scotland sent 185 petitions, a third of all those that reached Parliament. Every kind of group - churches, universities and town burghs - the length and breadth of Scotland sent one. Most who signed were ordinary people without the vote, shocked by what they had been shown and told about the slave trade.

But Dickson had his enemies in Scotland. They wanted things the way they were. One of the most dangerous was the Reverend James Lapsley of Campsie, who was a government spy. His evidence put one minister in prison and had another churchman transported to Australia. He thought the Abolitionists were troublemakers.

The government agreed that this was not the time for change. There had been a terrible and bloody revolution in France followed by a successful slave revolt on a French sugar island. So the Act to Abolish the Slave Trade was dropped for 15 years. It was not until 1807 that it became law in the British colonies.




Picture credits

William Dickson portrait. Courtesy of the Library of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain.

Reverend Dr Robert Walker (1755-1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch by Sir Henry Raeburn. National Gallery of Scotland.