Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Previous section
The Abolition Movement

British Abolitionists

Note: This chapter includes language historically used to describe Black people that is now recognised as offensive. It is included here in the name of a primary source document for the purposes of historical accuracy only.

William Wilberforce worked closely with, or was influenced by, many abolitionists during the campaign to end slavery.

 

The Clapham Sect

In 1792 Wilberforce and his family moved to Clapham, London. Wilberforce already had many friends there. He was also a member of a group nicknamed the Clapham Sect, which was made up of wealthy politicians, professionals and businessmen, like Granville Sharp (see below). 

These group were philanthropists. They worked for charitable causes, and aimed to make the world a more Christian place by trying to improve life for the poor. One of their key campaigns was to end British involvement in the slave trade. They also set up soup kitchens and schools, did missionary work overseas and campaigned for things like better working conditions in factories.

 

Granville Sharp (1735-1813)

The co-founder of the Abolition Society, Granville Sharp's interest in slavery began in 1765 when he met Jonathan Strong, who had been formerly enslaved. Strong had been badly treated by his owner and when his owner tried to sell Strong back into slavery, Sharp took the case to the Lord Mayor who fought on Strong's behalf and as a result, Strong was freed. 

This prompted Sharp to find out whether it was lawful for an enslaved person to be forced to leave Britain. In 1772 he secured a ruling by the Lord Chief Justice that enslavers could not legally force enslaved people to return to the colonies once they had come to Britain. This was regarded by many as a huge step forward in ending British involvement in the slave trade. 

Sharp is also known for engineering a resettlement project in Sierra Leone, west Africa, during the 1780s, and persuading former enslaved Africans to move there.

 

Hannah More (1745-1833)

Hannah More was the most influential female figure within the Abolition Society. She was a writer and playwright but turned her attention to the Abolition movement after becoming disillusioned with the theatre. Hannah was friends with prominent abolitionists, including Wilberforce and worked with the 'Clapham Sect'. She wrote many religious texts and poems, including 'The Sorrows of Yamba (or, The Negro Woman's Lamentation)' in 1795, and a novel entitled, Coelebs in Search of a Wife in 1809.

 

James Stephen (1758 - 1832)

Abolition activist James Stephen studied law in Britain. Tempted by the prospect of making his fortune in the West Indies, he moved there in 1783. On arrival in Barbados, he was asked to attended the trial of several enslaved people who had been wrongly accused of murder. They were all found guilty and sentenced to death. Stephen felt horrified at such a blatant miscarriage of justice and vowed never to become an enslaver himself. He began taking action by sending information and evidence back to the abolitionists in Britain about the inhumane treatment of the enslaved Africans who worked on plantations. 

After returning to Britain he continued to campaign and was instrumental in carrying out the 1806 ban on British ships transporting captured African people to French-owned territories. This act was partly responsible for the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. Stephen later became an MP and campaigned against slavery for the rest of his life.

 

James Ramsey (1733 - 1789)

James Ramsey was a naval doctor who was asked to treat an outbreak of dysentery on board a slave ship in 1759. Ramsey was so shocked by the conditions on board that it led him to leave the navy and he became an Anglican minister on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. As a clergyman, Ramsey preached to the enslaved workers, much to the anger of the plantation owners. 

Ramsey returned to Britain ten years later and became involved in the Abolition Movement, Ramsay wrote several books based on his experiences of slavery. Because of his unique experiences of life on the plantations, he was asked to give evidence to parliament and worked closely with Wilberforce and the Abolition Committee.

 

Elizabeth Heyrick (d. 1831)

Heyrick was a Quaker who was responsible for publishing a very successful booklet entitled 'Immediate, not Gradual Abolition', in 1824. Her booklet helped to start more than 70 British women's anti-slavery societies and she was a key figure in the sugar boycott. She was a controversial figure, however, as she demanded that the slave trade was abolished with immediate effect. She was also criticised for sympathising with enslaved people who rose up in revolt on the West Indian plantations. 

 

Glossary

Blatant - doing something nasty in a noticeable way

Disillusioned - to realise that something you believed in is not true

Dysentery - an infection that causes severe diarrhoea

Influenced - using power to change someone's mind

Missionary - someone who travels overseas to do religious work

Philanthropist - someone who works for charitable causes

Plantations - large farms or estates where labourers grow crops

Prospect - the chance that something will happen in the near future

Resettlement - moving a group of people to live in another place