Abolition of the Slave Trade

, the popular campaign and parliamentary debate process that culminated in the 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which illegalized the transatlantic sale of slaves across the British Empire.

CRITIQUES of the practice of slavery and the slave trade were printed as early as the late seventeenth century. Notable Scottish intellectuals such as Adam Smith, George Wallace, and Adam Ferguson offered legal and philosophical justification for ending the slave trade, as did English jurist William Blackstone and American physician Benjamin Rush. Official efforts to abolish the slave trade began with the 1787 formation of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, led by the popular campaigning of Thomas Clarkson and the parliamentary action of William Wilberforce. The Committee’s efforts took twenty years to come to fruition and resulted in the 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. While the Act eliminated the trade, it did not illegalize slavery or emancipate those held as slaves; complete British emancipation came with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

The Edinburgh Review consistently attacked the slave trade up to the Act of 1807, with Jeffrey and Brougham, especially vigorous in favour of its abolition, taking the Review with them. In July 1808, Samuel Taylor Coleridge contributed a review of Thomas Clarkson’s The History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade which caused controversy because Jeffrey altered it to highlight the contribution of William Wilberforce, who had himself contributed a review on the topic in 1804.




David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987).

The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People, ed. Stephen Farrell, Melanie Unwin, and James Walvin (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007).

Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440 – 1870 (London: Papermac, 1997).



Return to the Encyclopedia search
This item's Geotag
This item on the Timeline