British Made: Abolition and the Africa Trade

Kevin Shillington looks at the impact on Africa of the slave trade, and its abolition 200 years ago this month.

March 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the Act of Parliament that officially ended direct British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. The Act of 1807 made it illegal for British ships to transport captive Africans across the Atlantic for sale into slavery. That, however, was the full extent of the Act’s ban. Other European nations continued the nefarious trade well into the mid-nineteenth century, a number of their ventures bolstered by finance from British investors. Slavery itself continued in British colonies for a further three decades and was not finally abolished throughout the trans-atlantic world until the 1880s. 

Nevertheless, the British Abolition Act of 1807 was important, not least because the British themselves had until then been the world’s leading slave-traders, by a large margin. With slavery in the British colonies abolished shortly before the accession of Victoria in 1837, a historical narrative developed that glossed over Britain’s determining role in the growth of the slave trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and focused instead on the the campaign to eradicate the trade and the British as the great emancipators of the age. Thus the story became one of a handful of heroic philanthropists, led by the ‘abolitionist’ William Wilberforce, who persuaded the British parliament to ban British involvement in the immoral trade in human beings. This view was reinforced in the early twentieth century, at the height of the colonial period in Africa, by the works of Reginald Coupland whose Wilberforce: A Narrative (1923) and The British Anti-Slavery Movement (1933) laid out the case for the abolitionists in meticulous detail. 

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