Abolition of the Slave Trade

Teachers' area: Scotland and the Abolition of the Slave Trade

18 Centry poster selling slaves


The passing of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Act in 1807, after 20 years of campaigning, was the first major success by a moral conscientiousness movement in modern British politics.

The aim of this online resource is to assist teachers in Scottish schools to harness the rising awareness of this historical event to help pupils in upper primary and lower secondary to develop a range of personal skills and an outlook embodied in the four capacities of Curriculum for Excellence – successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens.

Today, the aims and methods of the Abolitionists still serve as the model of how to mount a peaceful protest campaign to end a great social injustice. As such, it is eminently suited as a vehicle for promoting and developing education for citizenship in young people and demonstrates what fortitude and responsible citizenship can achieve. It also imparts respect for the local men, women and children (black and white) who stood their ground on this, the greatest issue of the day.

The scope of this resource is limited to historical ‘black’ slavery and centres on the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition. While it refers to plantation slavery, it does not explore the anti-slavery campaign to free slaves in the British colonies (1807-34). Nor does it touch on the emancipation campaign to free slaves in the southern states of America (1834-65).

The resource primarily focuses on slavery and the Abolitionist movement from the Scottish experience. This does not imply that there was a separate line of development north and south of the border. Indeed, the ‘Scots in London’ who drove the campaign took a very British view. There are, however, distinctive features to the campaign in Scotland as its independent Kirk and Law Courts took their own view on the institution of slavery and acted accordingly.

The emphasis is on Scotland as a powerhouse for the movement. The Scottish parishes and burghs sent one third of all petitions delivered to Westminster in 1792 - quite disproportionate to the size of the population. Petitions were signed across Scotland. This aspect encourages pupils to identify with the past actions of their communities.

This resource also includes information on slavery today.


The online resource is designed to give the teacher a high degree of flexibility in delivery and pace - with freedom to extend the area of interest.  Pupil activities should be planned to be cross-curricular in approach and ranked progressively by more challenging tasks and scenarios. 

It is envisaged that for effective delivery in the classroom, standard preparation will take place with resources, for example:

  • provision of modern atlases (Scotland, West Africa, the West Indies and eastern America)
  • basic art and craft materials (modelling clay, paper plates and paints)
  • appropriate ICT equipment and access.

It would be helpful if the pupils are introduced to, or reminded of, the ethics and values of Georgian Society - obsessed, as it was, with property and status. Teachers can explain the contradictions of the time - social elegance and 'enlightenment' alongside gross exploitation of child and adult labour and cruel punishments.

Useful sources include:

  • William Kay’s caricatures of Edinburgh people.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s  Kidnapped, first chapter.
  • Extracts from, for example TV historical drama such as Pride and Prejudice.

Teaching Note on Slavery

Slavery, with its racial connotations, is a topic that teachers will recognise requires sensitive handling. 

Language: Georgian society was very bigoted regarding race, religion, gender and social status.  Primary sources reflect this as they frequently make refer to negro, negroland, mulattos, creole and wench. These terms are now considered demeaning in today’s society. This requires explanation, namely; that it was part of the continuous assault on presumed racial and social inferiors. The highly inflammatory terms nigger and coon are slang from a later period in Black American history and not to be tolerated. The terms to promote in this topic are: African, enslaved African, black slave and mixed race.

Images: Contemporary images of the slave trade often exhibit nudity, suggest sexual exploitation and violent punishments.  Some portray the black slave as docile or even comic.  This crude form of early propaganda requires identification and the motives explained.

Websites: This resource provides links to a number of useful websites to enhance study of the topic.  Enquiring pupils are led directly these: it is not advisable to permit 'free' searches of the internet as many inappropriate and offensive websites may be encountered, provided they are even accessible through school / local authority firewalls.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Why did the Africans sell their own people?

Answer: They always had as a means to dispose of criminals and prisoners of war. The arrival of Europeans looking for slaves massively escalated this activity by encouraging inter-tribal war and providing gunpowder and weapons.

Why would anybody choose to serve on slave ships when the conditions were so terrible and dangerous?

Answer: All sailors faced a harsh life. The Navy was particularly brutal. The Scottish apprentices who later testified claimed that they were naïve and drawn to the trade by the lure of exotic places. It was also a free passage to the West Indies and the prospect of making money.

Where are all the 'black voices' from the slave trade - why are they mostly 'white voices' telling the story?

Answer: Only three former slaves are known to have written down their experiences. They had been taught to read and write by their owners. Most slaves were kept illiterate. Family groups were broken up and sold separately so little was passed on of their homeland.

If the horrors of the ‘Middle Passage’ were known for over a century - why did take so long to mount a campaign to stop it?

Answer: There were no investigative journalists then and very few newspapers. What was known was from sailors returning home. Many thought it was the fault of a bad captain.

As most people in Scotland did not have the vote at the time - what’s the point of getting them to sign a petition to Parliament?

Answer: Lots of signatures demonstrate the depth of feeling in society. Politicians have to take note of this if they are to keep their supporters.

What’s the difference between a black slave and a white indentured labourer in the plantations?

Answer: Black slaves were someone’s property. The owner has the power of life or death over them, can mistreat them with impunity and sell them. Their children belong to the owner. White indentured servants were never owned by their masters. He could not kill them and they gained their freedom after seven years. Their children were born free.

If slavery is so wrong, why did the Abolitionists not push to have all slaves in the British colonies freed at the same time?

Answer: That would have been a direct attack on the planters’ property rights. Slavery in the plantations was considered essential if the colonies were to pay for themselves.

Why were there no women leading the campaign to ban the slave trade?

Answer: Many women worked behind the scenes to have the slave trade abolished. In those days a woman was passed from her father to her husband on marriage. He spoke for her. It was not considered a woman's place to speak out separately. Scottish activists like Jane Smeal and Eliza Wigham campaigned against slavery and in 1833 around 162,000 women signed a petition in Edinburgh calling for an end to slavery.

Why did it take twenty years to achieve their goal?

Answer: Bad timing. The French Revolution triggered a severe reaction to any change. Any outspoken critic or radical was dealt with very harshly.

Was it just the Christian nations who engaged in the slave trade? What was happening in Islam at the time?

Answer: Slaving across the Sahara Desert and along the east coast of Africa to the Islamic states in North Africa and the Middle East paralleled that transatlantic trade to the Americas. The Koran does not expressly forbid slavery.

How did the wealthy church-goers who owned slaves justify what they were doing?

Answer: Many chose to believe that Africans were inferior humans who were living in the utmost savagery. Others noted that the Romans had slaves and that the Bible did not condemn slavery.