History of the British
abolitionist movement

Address delivered on November 2, 1992, by
The Right Honourable Lord Archer of Sandwell, QC  

(This is Lord Peter Archer, not to be confused with the disgraced novelist, the infamous Lord Jeffrey Archer)

Between 1787, when the pioneers of our Movement formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and 1807, when Parliament abolished slave trading in British ships and by British subjects, a new science was invented. In those twenty years, there emerged the science of political lobbying.

A closely-knit group set about employing techniques of persuasion which are now in common use, but were then developed for the first time.

They set about persuading members of Parliament to abolish the slave trade in areas which lay within the jurisdiction of the British Parliament. They won one of the most complete and outright victories for a great cause in human history. But as with so many moral victories, when they arrived, they found not that they were looking down on Eldorado, but that they were simply confronted by the next stage of the journey.

"People o’er the hills, and Alps on Alps arise", wrote Pope. In particular the abolition of the slave trade left slavery itself intact. In many British possessions economic activity still depended on slaves. And the children of slaves provided the next generation of slaves.

There was no time for celebratory feasting. They embarked on the next assault. And in 1833 they secured the passage of another Bill by Parliament, to abolish slavery itself in all British possessions. You might have thought that all the champagne which there was no time to drink in 1807 would now be consumed, and a band of brothers and sisters would be wishing one another a happy retirement. But it was not to be.

First until 1833 they were concerned largely with slavery in the British Empire. Should they then proceed to attack slavery in other countries?  Some, even among the leaders, believed that what other countries did was not the business of British campaigners. After the 1833 Act, T B Macaulay said that his commitment was now ended. And Sir George Stephen, the historian of the group, said that the Movement should now wind itself up. But for others, human rights were indivisible. Anyone’s slavery diminishes me.

That division within the Movement presented at least a clear and simple issue. Sometimes, issues even of principle were not so clear. In 1840, there was a great political controversy in Britain as to whether import duties on foreign sugar should be maintained. Generally, those in the liberal tradition believed that they should be abolished, so that there would be genuine competition, and people could buy sugar at prices which they could afford. Not surprisingly the West Indian sugar planters wanted the duties maintained so that they could retain their monopoly of the British market.

Where should the Anti-Slavery Movement stand? They lost little sleep about the living standards of the West Indian planters. But the slaves whom they had worked so hard to free were now wage-earners and dependent for their jobs on the sugar plantations. Was the Anti-Slavery Movement to support a campaign which would leave them jobless and regretting that they had ever been freed?

There was a further consideration. Before 1833, the campaigners had been met with the argument that to free the slaves would bring economic ruin to the West Indies. They had replied that it need do no such thing. It was possible to run a prosperous industry with free labour. And where they were campaigning to free slaves in other countries, they were involved in the same debate. If now they supported a measure which would bring economic ruin to the West Indies, it would destroy their credibility.

But there was a consideration which concerned them even more. If they created a free market in sugar, it would admit foreign sugar which had itself been produced by slave labour in areas over which the British Parliament had no jurisdiction. British purchasers would be encouraging slavery. Yet to oppose the campaign for making the British public free to buy cheap sugar would lose them the support of the very groups in Britain who had been their natural allies.

There was yet a further reason why, after 1833, it could not be said that they lived happily ever after. Although they had campaigned throughout the country, their purpose was to persuade people who, in turn, would persuade or pressurize their MPs. And those who could persuade MPs were themselves a very small group in the population. So the campaign for hearts and minds was directed at a very limited number of hearts, and perhaps even fewer minds. The MPs, we must remember, were members of the old, unreformed, House of Commons. So although there were Anti-Slavery groups in various localities, the leadership lay firmly within a small group in London, and specifically in Clapham.

In 1832, the year before slavery was abolished, the great Reform Act was passed. There was now a different House of Commons. Members were much more responsive to much larger numbers of electors. Future campaigns would need to be addressed to a wider public. Local groups needed to be more active, more flexible, more responsive to local conditions, and correspondingly less dependent on central leadership. And these people in the sticks wanted to chip in their two-penn’orth on questions of policy.

A gap had opened even before 1833 between the leadership and those whom Stephen called "the Young England Abolitionists". These even formed a separate organisation, the Agency Anti-Slavery Society, directing their activities much more in the direction of forming mass opinion.

They had little time for the political skills of the old guard. The 1807 and 1833 Acts were products of private conversations over a meal, of deals and compromises, and of recognizing what options were available. The Clapham evangelists were men of principle, but they practised the art of the possible. The Young England Abolitionists saw the issue as a moral crusade, part of the eternal struggle of Good against Evil. They would settle for nothing less than the immediate and total abolition of slavery everywhere.

In the campaign for the 1833 Act, Buxton, who was leading the fight in Parliament in succession to Wilberforce, grasped that they could achieve their objective only if the slave owners were compensated. Otherwise, a majority in Parliament would believe abolition to amount to a confiscation of private property. He managed to persuade the British Government to put up the money, 15m. He took it and ran. The British taxpayer was compensating the slave owners for their wickedness. Furthermore, there was a demand that when they were freed, the slaves should continue as unpaid apprentices for the remainder of their lives. Buxton negotiated a compromise. All slaves above the age of six would serve as apprentices, on an unpaid basis, for three quarters of the working day, over a period of six years. It was the best deal he could negotiate, and he took it.

Without those compromises, there would have been no 1833 Act. But the radical wing of the Movement accused him of selling out. Two years ago, I managed to obtain a copy of Charles Buxton’s biography of his father (not an easy quest these days). He quotes Buxton’s notes of a conversation with Sturge, the leader of the Young England Group:

After Sturge acknowledged the purity of my motives, he added: "But it cannot be denied that you acted against the wish of many of the delegates, and if you had stood firm the planters would have got no compensation". "Perhaps so", said I, "they no compensation, and we no extinction of slavery".

There was yet a third occasion for discord in the Movement. And it remains with us. When they began to look abroad, it was clear that there was so much slavery in the world, and the problem so vast, that unless they selected specific goals, their energies and resources would be dissipated. Yet understandably, some emphasised one goal, some another. Some spent their time supporting the Anti-Slavery movement in Africa. But that Movement itself was split, and the splits were reflected among the British who became involved. Buxton was interested in Africa, and formed the African Civilization Society. Others formed the British Indian Society. Sturge was chiefly concerned to ensure that, now that slavery was no longer lawful in the West Indies, the law was observed (a problem of which those in this room could quote examples).

The very magnitude of the tasks led to a fragmentation from which the Anti-Slavery Movement has never recovered. It coalesced again in this Society, but at the price that it renounced the advantages of an active mass membership. The membership here today, if I may say so respectfully, while it appears formidable in this hall, consists of a well-informed and creative minority.

Those of us who are here can usually achieve a high degree of consensus. And that is an advantage which may well be worth retaining. But no human rights movement can have it both ways. If we are to speak on behalf of a mass membership, we cannot at the same time retain the cohesion which we now enjoy.

It used to be believed that what a sovereign government did to its own subjects was a matter between itself and the subjects. They must resolve their political differences by whatever means lay to hand, but the rest of the world was not entitled to intervene in a family quarrel. It required events this century, not among developing peoples but in Europe, to persuade the international community that there are some ways in which a government can treat its subjects for which our consciences cannot find so simple an alibi.

One battle which is already won is the recognition in principle that the sovereignty of a government does not extend to a right to ignore the international consensus. Stephen and Macaulay were wrong about that in 1833. But to recognize it in principle is far from applying it to specific cases, where there is room to wriggle and to lie. And we the peoples cannot leave the job of enforcing standards to governments, however well disposed. They have other fish to fry. They do not go looking for problems. An abuse about which no-one is protesting can be left unremarked, for they prefer a quite life. The initiative, as in 1787, must come from non-governmental organisations.

We must begin by trying to persuade the government concerned or (remembering that governments are not homogeneous) to strengthen the hand of our friends within the government. But even when the decision is taken in principle, governments do tend to let their attention wander, and they have constantly to be reminded.

It is not usually that governments consist of cruel people (though some do). Most consist of busy people, who will intervene in the last resort only if it becomes more uncomfortable to do nothing than to take action.

The outburst of indignation which brings people flocking to join us is too easily crushed beneath the weight of research, and fundraising, and constitutions, and bureaucracy, of an effective NGO. And for every NGO, the problem varies according to the work which it seeks to do. Oxfam is concerned simply to supply resources, and its members can find productive and rewarding outlets for their energies with little need for debate about policies; Amnesty invites its members to become involved with individual prisoners of conscience, and it is possible to form a person-to-person relationship. The Society necessarily devotes its energies to larger groups of people, and individuals are simply examples of general principles.

I seek only to raise the questions. Hopefully there are others better fitted to provide some answers. But I suspect that the supporters of the Society will not be those who thrive on dramatic demonstrations, but those who can support a more extended dedication, over long years of lobbying, letter-writing and campaigning, sometimes throughout long periods without reward, until step by step, we have extended the leaven throughout the world.

This is an abridged version of Lord archer's address.  If you want to read the full text of his address, click on the icon below.



Last Updated April 09, 2007


Links to other pages dealing with British abolitionists:

Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1846)

Thomas Clarkson  (1760-1845)

Granville Sharp (1735-1813)

Joseph Sturge (1793-1859)

William Wilberforce  (1759-1833)

Links to other pages dealing with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire:

Slave Trade Act 1807

Slave Trade Act 1824

Slave Trade Act 1843

Slavery Abolition Act 1833

Links to pages dealing with the abolition of slavery in the USA:


Virgin Islands

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Abraham Lincoln

American Civil War

13th Amendment to the Bill of Rights

Links to pages dealing with the abolition of slavery in other countries:


Peter Van Scholten

Links to other pages dealing with slavery:

Does slavery still exist?

What is slavery?

Slavery Convention 1926

West African slave trade

Slavery in South Asia

Slavery on the cocoa plantations in West Africa

Traditional slavery in West Africa

Hierodulic servitude in South Asia


Rescuing slaves






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