Abolition and emancipation of slavery

The explanations for the abolition and emancipation of slaves under the 1806 act and 1833 Slavery Abolition Act has been attributed to various causes contested by various historians. From arguments favouring economic influences, as well as the idea that changing attitudes led to mass public support for the anti-slavery movement. Evidently, the 18th and 19th century did see a range of organisations and an increase in the number of people supporting these movements. In effect, this public mobilisation was a result of various tactics adopted by anti-slavery movements through the use of imagery as well as contemporary slave narratives which in turn affected the public’s opinions of slavery. It is clear that these narratives appealed to the sympathies of the British. Nevertheless, it could be argued to what extent these narratives played a role in abolitionist campaigns and to the degree to which they influenced the eventual abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves. Notably, during the period there were various other contributing factors that led to a shift in the perceptions of slavery.
The purpose of slave narratives was two-fold. Firstly, narratives addressed and illustrated the cruelties and hardship of slavery. Secondly, they enabled the reader to humanise the slave which would appeal to the public empathy and sympathy. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth-century, a number of slave narratives were published documenting the lives of slaves whilst also emphasising the morality and intelligence slaves were capable of possessing. Of course, the Abolitionist movement paralleled the Enlightenment movement as well as the Evangelical movement. Consequently, the links between these issues were often addressed in slave narratives which appealed to the public. Evidently, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”, proceeds with an address given to the British parliament in 1789. The speech illustrates Equiano’s gratefulness as well as a plea for the emancipation of other slaves. However, more importantly, appeals to the British by emphasising the British’s superiority; linking this to Britain’s “liberal sentiments”, “freedom of its government” and its “proficiency in arts and sciences”. Additionally, Equiano claims that these notions, as well as the impact of Christian teaching, have improved his life. Nevertheless, this further reinforces the idea that slave narratives often targeted the sympathies of the public by appealing to the values they held. The focus on Christianity and the Enlightenment notions of liberalism, freedom and human nature reinforced Britain’s sense of pride and nationalism. Moreover, these narratives addressed the brutalities inflicted upon slaves. But also, played onto contrasting depictions illustrating the innocence, purity and goodness of slaves in comparison to the evilness of the slave masters. Once again, reinforcing religious and moral ideals onto the public. In one instance, he gives the example of a slave named Emanuel Sankey, whose attempt to escape is discovered by his “Christian master” who consequently inflicts a brutal punishment onto Sankey. Nonetheless, it could be argued that these links between the unchristian ethics possessed by many slave masters were shared by contemporary missionaries such as John Smith, who saw the “humanity” in the slaves and the savagery of his own kind. Stating the “gross immoralities” of the plantation-management. The use of religion in slave narratives played an important role in the abolition and emancipation of the slave trade as it appealed to the moral ideals of the public. But moreover, these narratives would have been circulated amongst a wide range of individuals. Equiano’s subscriber’s list included over 300 names and some of these individuals purchased multiple copies. Moreover, these books could have been purchased by those who were not subscribed.

In spite of the important role played by slave narratives, it could be argued that there were other contributing factors that played a part in the abolition and emancipation of slavery. Notably, revolts played a crucial role in highlighting the resistance and the resentment slaves felt towards the slave trade. But, moreover, these revolts placed pressure onto the colonial system as well on politicians, demonstrating the increasing challenges and problems of slavery. In particular, the Demerara slave revolt of 1823, whilst the slaves were largely non-violent, the brutal treatment of slaves, as well as the resulting death of John Smith, led to sympathies as well as support for the abolitionist cause. Joshua Bryant’s account of the revolt in 1824, highlighted the restraint of slave rebels as well as the low proportion of white deaths. But additionally, Bryant’s account highlights the loyalty and respect of slaves to those who granted them privileges. For example, Mister Forbes who was reassured that he would not be killed as he had been “a good man, love God, and have not debarred your negroes from having their meetings”. Thus illustrating that slaves only demands were that of greater equality as well as the ability to practice religion. Thus, reinforcing ideas of the Christian morals of slaves. As well as the restraint demonstrated by the West Indian slaves during the Demerara revolt, the rebellion in French-controlled St Dominigue in 1798, highlighted the drain of the economy in suppressing these revolts. In more than six months, Britain had spent more than half a million pounds in putting down these revolts. Consequently, whilst slave narratives played a vital role in gaining support and sympathies of the public, slave rebellions and revolts were also significantly crucial. For example, this notion was adopted by various abolitionists such as William Wilberforce who stated that the colonies had become “a constant drain of the population of the mother country”. Thus, leading to fear of the impact these revolts could potentially have in other British colonies. The effect of such revolts exposed the human cost as well as the financial burden of maintaining slavery. Therefore, revolts were also an important factor in the abolition of slavery.

The role of women in the abolitionist campaign also played a significant role in the abolition of slavery. These women were most likely profoundly moved by such slave narratives. As well as male testimonies, there were also many female slave narratives. For example, Mary Princes’s autobiography (1831) highlighted the sexual exploitation and treatment of female slaves. In one instance, Prince mentions the flogging of a pregnant slave named Hetty, and the impact of her treatment had on hastening her death. Whilst the book was published when slavery was illegal in Britain, parliament would not abolish slavery in the colonies until 1833. Evidently, perspectives of slavery from a female slave’s view would have significantly impacted women and their perceptions of slavery. For example, Esther Copley, who wrote “A History of Slavery and its Abolition” which highlighted the roots of slavery as human depravity in sin, but also addressed the moral effects of slavery. Prominent female abolitionists such as Elizabeth Heyrick’s “Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition” originally published as a pamphlet in 1824, Heyrick proposed the immediate abolition of the slave trade in the West Indies. But moreover, similarly to Equiano’s slave narrative she alludes to the greatness of Britain and how it has a duty to enforce this superiority into other countries: “the prevailing rational hope of prevailing on our guilty neighbours to abandon this atrocious commerce”. Evidently, women like Women such Heyrick played a significant role in the emancipation of the British West Indies. Whilst contemporary leading abolitionists such as Wilberforce’s attempts favoured the gradual abolition of slavery, Heyrick’s advocacy for immediate abolition influenced them into advocating immediate abolition. Additionally, it could be argued that women’s petitions as well as their actions significantly affected the slave trade. The boycott of West Indian sugar significantly affected the profits granted by slave labour. For example, research has demonstrated that 300,000 people abandoned the use of sugar and the decline in sales from one third down to a half. As well as the purchase of material culture further demonstrated the widespread support of women for the abolitionist movement. Slave narratives were adopted by abolitionists to gain support and mobilise public. However, women were also played an important role in undermining the economic and political legitimacy of slavery.

Moreover, these narratives and the various other tactics adopted by abolitionists appealed to a greater spectrum of the public too. Robert Wedderburn’s accounts of slavery were often published in sensationalist newspapers and were therefore circulated amongst the lower ranking of the population. Nonetheless, Wedderburn’s accounts of slavery in “The Horrors of Slavery” highlighted the inequalities and the brutal treatment of owners onto slaves. As a son of a plantation owner and a slave, Wedderburn described the sexual abuse faced by slave women. The narrative accounts for the “carnal appetites” of his father, and how he “ranged through the whole household for his own lewd purposes”. These accounts and the fact that these narratives were published in print more accessible to working classes, enabled Wedderburn to create sympathy amongst those who had not been reached by missionaries or abolitionist. Moreover, similarities between the treatment of working classes and slaves would have aroused greater sympathies. Abolitionists appealed to labouring classes by drawing parallels between slave labour and free labour. This notion that free labour was at threat under slave labour was increasingly common amongst anti-slavery societies. Moreover, for those who did not have access to published slave narratives, through speaking tours, they were able to listen to former slaves’ accounts of their treatment. Such events were attended by large numbers of both abolitionists as well as labouring classes. Similarly, the use of illustrations and material culture were often also adopted to demonstrate the hardships many slaves dealt with. Notably, the illustration of the conditions of slave ships as well as the illustration of the kneeling slave. Such symbolism was circulated throughout society; therefore, the topic of abolition became a central focus of day-to-day life. The 18th to the 19th century also saw a rise in lectures given by former slaves, such events were attended by abolitionists as well as the ordinary public. Consequently, slave narratives were circulated through various means, which were spread amongst the differing classes.

Whilst Eric Williams claimed in “Capitalism and Slavery” that the declining profits of the West Indian slave trade, due to overproduction, heavy duties and competition with industrial capitalism. Though Williams indicated at the role of the slave trade on the development of the Industrial Revolution. Evidently, for some contemporaries abolishing slavery in the West Indian Colonies was seen as a loss. For example, Joseph Marryat stated the emancipation of West India would result in greater competition as well as the use of East India sugar which was viewed as less profitable. It could be argued that the humanitarian effort behind abolition led to the decline in profitability of West Indian goods. For example, the Peckham Ladies African and Anti-Slavery Association released a pamphlet in 1828 advocating the use of East Indian sugar over West Indies sugar. The pamphlet stated that if “one-tenth of the inhabitants of this country” purchased East Indian sugar rather than West Indian sugar “it would be sufficient to abolish slavery in the West Indies”. The pamphlet highlighted the influence the public was capable of in advocating free labour over slave labour. During the period, there was a shift in the view that free labour was more effective and efficient than slave labour. For example, Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar proposed the use of Chinese agricultural labourers rather than African slaves. Claiming that they would be more profitable as the population had long been “undiminished” in spite of wars and famine. Nevertheless, the increasing support for the abolitionist movement impacted the profitability of West Indian produce which furthered the government to seek initiative in abolishing the slave trade.

In conclusion, the abolition and emancipation of slavery were largely influenced and impacted by slave narratives. These accounts were accessible to the public, through print as well as through oral debates and public readings. These narratives acted as a mobilising force, which gathered growing support and empathy for the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves. The narratives also influenced, the public as well as abolitionists to adopt their own methods to further the campaign. For example, the use of petitions and the boycott of West Indian sugar adopted by Women organisations played a significant role in weakening the economic power of West Indian profitability whilst also, pushing the government to respond. Similarly, the use of material culture and imagery incorporated the topic of slavery into the focus of everyday life. Nonetheless, it could be argued that slave narratives were not the sole explanations behind the abolition and emancipation of slaves in 1806 and 1833. Rather, there were various other factors that pushed the government to act. Notably, the role of revolts has often been underestimated in their impact and effect on the legitimacy of the slave trade. Whilst, the increasingly prominent movements of evangelicalism and enlightenment stressed ideals of free labour, liberty and Christian ethics which were often emphasised in both slave narratives and abolitionist campaigns.

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