Abolition of the slave trade

Dr Keith Suter


200 years ago this month Britain ended the trade in slaves. It took another three decades before the owning of slaves was also abolished. It was to take the United States three more decades to do the same.

Slavery is one of the world’s oldest economic and social institutions. For example, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt thousands of years ago at the time of the Pharaohs. Many economies were based on it, and some still are.

Slavery is still not completely ended. There are millions of slaves around the world. I have been a member of Anti-Slavery International in London for 40 years and I chair the Board of Trustees of the Anti-Slavery Society in Sydney.

British merchants transported almost 3 million Africans across the Atlantic. But some Britons opposed this trade. In 1787 the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was created. This set the organizational pattern for the non-governmental organizations that now form such an important part of modern life, such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and anti-nuclear groups.

The Society decided to mobilize Britons by writing books and pamphlets. It had a network of local agents and committees scattered across the country. In 1788, over a 100 petitions were presented to the House of Commons calling for the abolition of the slave trade.  William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament, led the campaign inside Parliament. Another campaigner was former slave owner John Newton (composer of the hymn 'Amazing Grace').

It had been an uphill struggle: the financial interests supported slavery, some conservative religious leaders claimed that it was justified by the Bible, and many others simply thought that since slavery was such an old institution it was impossible to imagine a day when it could be abolished.

The opponents of the slave trade had only a few weapons but they were enough. They had enthusiasm and determination, radical Christians were able to show how the Bible actually opposed slavery, and they had organizational skills. They eventually won over public over and the politicians.

Eventually the campaign was successful in 1807. Britons were banned from taking part in the slave trade.

Britain was then the world’s super power. By 1815 Britain possessed over half of the world’s total battleship tonnage. It had the ships to stop the trade across the Atlantic. It used its massive power for a good cause.

The Americans are still haunted by slavery, even though it was abolished in 1863 during the American Civil War. The wealth in the British North American colonies and then the United States came partly from slavery. In the colonial era, much of the Atlantic trade was slaves, the products of slaves, or things bought with the earnings of slave labour.

The American Civil War (1861-5) was fought partly over slavery. 600,000 Americans were killed – the costliest war Americans have ever fought.

The US still has black-white racial problems. Many of the descendants of those slaves are still among the poorest people in the country. They may be free but they are not necessary wealthy or treated equally (more blacks are in prison than in higher education and 90 per cent of black babies are raised by single parents usually the mother).

The descendants of the slaves are campaigning for a greater recognition of the role of slaves and slavery in American history, not least in creating the country’s wealth.

Keith Suter

Dr Suter is Chairman of the Anti-Slavery Society.

This address was originally
broadcast on March 2, 2007 on Radio 2GB's "Brian Wilshire" program.





Last Updated April 14, 2008







  2007 by the Anti-Slavery Society. The text on any page may be reproduced provided that the source is acknowledged.  This does not apply to photos.