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I speak of Africa

Thomas Clarkson

The tide began to turn against the Atlantic slave trade in the late eighteenth century and it was in Britain, then the leading slave-trading European nation, that it turned. New ideas of the universal brotherhood and equality of man, emanating from the writers of Enlightenment France, combined with the growing influence of evangelical and nonconformist Christian groups, such as the Quakers and Methodists.

Diagram showing how slaves were loaded in the hold of a slave ship, from: Thomas Clarkson. The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British parliament. Volume II. London: printed by B. Taylor … for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1808 [FCO Historical Collection HT1162 CLA ]Diagram showing how slaves were loaded in the hold of a slave ship, from: Thomas Clarkson. The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British parliament. Volume II. London: printed by B. Taylor … for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1808 [FCO Historical Collection HT1162 CLA ]In 1772, in an important test case, Lord Mansfield ruled that, as slavery did not exist in England, any slave who set foot on English soil was in effect free and could not be recaptured. While this ruling only affected slaves brought to England by their masters from the American colonies, the considerable controversy it caused gave the small band of anti-slavery campaigners who had initiated it valuable publicity, encouraging them to launch their long campaign for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.

While Christian ideals and altruism drove the abolitionists, there were also sound economic reasons for their ultimate success. The slave trade was beginning to lose its value to Britain, whose Caribbean sugar plantations had become less productive through overworking of the soil; many British plantation owners saw that the slave trade was now simply playing into the hands of the French, by supplying their fertile Caribbean island plantations with an endless supply of labour. At the same time Britain’s North American colonies, soon to become independent, were diversifying into commerce and industry and had less need of slaves.

Much of the success of the abolitionists’ campaign was due to the tireless efforts of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846). A prolific author of anti-slave trade publications, he helped to disclose the horrors of the ‘Middle Passage’ (the transportation of slaves by sea from Africa to the Americas) to the British public. The plate on display, made in 1789 as part of a submission to a parliamentary select committee, was based upon the slave ship Brookes. The committee calculated that if every male slave was allocated space of just over six feet by one foot, a total of 450 slaves could be stowed on board. The Brookes was found to have carried 609.

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