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Scotland and the Slave Trade: 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act


Abolition begins

"The African slave trade in its present mode of existence and throughout all stages" was "a direct violation of all Jehovah's righteous laws that positively require every man to love his neighbour as himself."

Credit: The Great Anti-Slavery Meeting of 1841, at Exeter Hall, engraved by Henry Melville (fl.1826-41) (engraving) by Shepherd, Thomas Hosmer (1792-1864) (after) © Guildhall Library, City of London / The Bridgeman Art LibraryNationality / copyright

Credit: The Great Anti-Slavery Meeting of 1841, at Exeter Hall, engraved by Henry Melville (fl.1826-41) (engraving) by Shepherd, Thomas Hosmer (1792-1864) (after) © Guildhall Library, City of London / The Bridgeman Art LibraryNationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright

Chapter 5: Abolition Begins

Supporting the Trade

The argument for the trade was primarily based on the economic advantages of both the trade and the production of crops that yielded high profits due to forced unpaid labour. In the early years there were those that justified the trade on the grounds that the Africans were inferior to Europeans, and that prejudice continued even amongst some of those who opposed slavery. David Hume's view was:

"I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or in speculation. No ingenious manufacture among them, no arts, no sciences."

The Kirkliston born Archibald Dalzel, former Governor of Cape Coast Castle in modern day Ghana, argued that slavery was a 'civilising process' which 'rescued Africans'. However, the conversion of the enslaved to Christianity meant they were perceived to be at least equal in the eyes of God. The main thrust of the pro-slavery debate therefore remained about economic advantage and disputing the abolitionists' arguments that the trade was cruel.

"The slave trade has been the source and chief foundation of the riches, strength, power and greatness of this kingdom. There is no branch of any foreign trade whatsoever, beyond the limits of Europe, so naturally adapted to the interests of Britain and her plantations, as the Trade to Africa."

Charles Davenant, Reflections on the Constitution and Management of the Trade to Africa (1709)

The Case for Abolition

There had always been people who objected to the slave trade and slavery, but the details of the slave trade were not known amongst the general public. There were few newspapers at this time, so information was mainly from sailors returning home. However, details could be attributed to individual voyages as opposed to overall trends. The Abolitionists brought slavery to the attention of the general public. However, in the last quarter of the 18th century, when the slave trade was at its peak, a number of factors came together that forced British people to consider their country's involvement in the system. The new non-conformist religion questioned the slave trade on moral grounds at the same time as the enlightenment was raising the issue of the rights of man and the treatment of others. Frances Hutcheson in Glasgow and Adam Ferguson from Edinburgh produced strong theological and humanitarian arguments against slavery, whilst Adam Smith wrote his position of opposition from a secular perspective. Concurrently the lecturer James Beattie was ensuring that his students at Aberdeen University were fully aware of the horrors of the trade.

In addition the continued resistance of the enslaved people themselves was having an impact on those involved in slavery and living in the Caribbean. The process of change took a huge cultural shift in Britain, and it also meant a shift in the machinery of government as the slave trade and slavery had become rooted in both the legal system and the economic foundations of the Empire.

In 1787 the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in London. It was led by Quakers but also appealed to others, such as key abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp. The society decided to focus on the Parliamentary campaign, and the initial aim was to collect information and evidence that could be presented to Parliament to win over MPs. It was decided to focus on ending the trade rather than slavery itself. This was deemed more achievable, whereas to demand an end to slavery would be seen to be threatening people's property, which is what the enslaved were considered to be at that time.

As well as campaigning in Parliament the society encouraged the setting up of local and regional abolition committees. Those committees encouraged a number of activities, including the refusal to buy slave-produced sugar, significant at a time when in 1800 British families spent 6% of the household expenditure per annum on sugar. The Abolitionist Committee in Edinburgh, led by Francis, Lord Gardenstone, was thought to be the third strongest in Britain after those of London and Manchester.

A main focus of the campaign and of the abolitionist pamphlets was the horrors of the Middle Passage. Many surgeons or sailors were called upon to give evidence of what they had witnessed on the Atlantic crossing.

Thomas Smith of Arbroath gave evidence to the agents of William Wilberforce. Thomas was 20 years old when he left his home in 1762. He was recruited by David Adam, the Scottish master of the slaving ship the Anne of London, of which nearly a quarter of the crew were Scottish. Disaster hit the Anne after it reached West Africa and Thomas, stranded, signed onto the Liverpool slaving vessel the Squirrel. He reported that the deliberate brutalisation of the slaves started the moment they came on board.

All the males were forcibly circumcised, branded with a hot iron and loaded down with heavy shackles. Completely naked, they were chained together in tens by the neck, hands and feet, bound down with irons so that their hands/limbs were crushed, almost unto death, and all for the purpose of maintaining due subordination, as it was called, and preserving the peace and safety of everyone onboard. They were not unchained during the entire Atlantic journey, everything would be conducted as a group. If any died during the night their bodies were thrown overboard and the survivors were forced to watch the sharks eat the body. Women and children along with the men were regularly flogged to ensure their compliance. Anyone refusing to eat was flogged. Smith was also horrified by the treatment of the female slaves who were subjected "to the wanton and unrestrained licentiousness of the crew". Of the 450 onboard 45 died during the journey from their treatment and from disease spread due to the severity of their conditions on the ship. Smith left the ship in Jamaica horrified by his experiences.

James Ramsey had been a surgeon in the Navy and he had lived on St Kitts. The abolitionist MP Sir Charles Middleton asked Ramsey to give evidence to the Parliamentary enquiry into the trade. As well as being repulsed by slavery he was also disgusted by the slave trade's disregard for the life of sailors. He wanted a scheme to promote fisheries in North East Scotland, where he had come from, and to open up proper trade with Africa. He argued that "Instead of this our chief aim in our trade to that continent is the commerce of slaves which destroys our seamen annually by thousands". The plight of the sailors on slave ships also became a key tool in the abolitionist argument against the trade.

The image of the Brookes Ship became a famous piece of abolitionist propaganda, used to show how the captured Africans were packed into the ships hold as cargo with little or no room to move. In reality the Brookes Ship shown in the image holding 454 people stacked in rows had actually carried 609 people in previous voyages.

Leading Abolitionists

Olaudah Equiano (1745 - 1797)

Credit: Olaudah Equiano alias Gustavus Vassa, a slave, 1789 (mezzotint) © British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: out of copyright

Credit: Olaudah Equiano alias Gustavus Vassa, a slave, 1789 (mezzotint) © British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: out of copyright

Olaudah Equiano, also called Gustavus Vassa, was a former slave who wrote about his experiences and toured with his book as part of the abolitionist movement. When he was 11 years old he was sold to a captain in the Royal Navy, Michael Pascal, who gave him the name

Gustavus Vassa. Later he was sold to Robert King, a Quaker merchant in Philadelphia. King converted him to Christianity and taught him to read and write. At the age of 21 years Equiano was able to buy his freedom and he became a seaman, travelling over the world. He eventually settled in London and became involved with the abolitionist movement. In 1789 he wrote "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African". The book made him famous and furthered the abolitionist cause. He travelled extensively across the British Isles selling and reading from his book. In 1792 he married and shortly afterwards he set off on his Scottish tour to talk to audiences in the region, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paisley, Dundee, Perth and Aberdeen. Later, in 1792, Equiano became involved in regular correspondence in the Glasgow Courier over the issue of abolition.

Ignatius Sanchos (1729 - 1780)

Ignatius Sanchos was born in 1729 on a slave ship in the mid-Atlantic. His mother died soon afterwards, and his father killed himself rather than be enslaved. In 1731 Ignatius was brought to England and forced to live with three sisters in Greenwich. They did not believe in educating him; nonetheless, Ignatius taught himself to read and write. Eventually, he ran away and stayed with the Duke of Montagu, who lived in nearby Blackheath. Sanchos worked as a butler, but also wrote poetry and two stage plays. He composed music, with three collections of songs, minuets, and other pieces for various instruments all published anonymously. In 1773, he left the service of the Montagus and opened a grocery shop in Charles Street, Westminster, with his wife Anne. Sanchos frequently wrote about his experiences as an African in Britain, once describing himself as only a lodger and hardly that. He died in 1780. Two years later his Letters were published and were an immediate best-seller, attracting over 1,200 subscribers.

William Wilberforce (1759 - 1833)

Credit: Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) 1828 (oil on canvas) (see 112022) by Lawrence, Sir Thomas (1769-1830) © National Portrait Gallery, London, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright

Credit: Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) 1828 (oil on canvas) (see 112022) by Lawrence, Sir Thomas (1769-1830) © National Portrait Gallery, London, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright

Wilberforce was born in Hull to a wealthy merchant family. After university he became an MP for the town and also converted to evangelical Christianity. He became interested in social reform and became involved with abolitionists. He initially only believed in ending the slave trade not slavery itself. He was extremely influential as a speaker and was a key member of the group that influenced others both inside and outside Parliament to join the cause. As an MP he was able to introduce bills to Parliament to abolish the trade. After 1807 he became concerned with the terrible conditions the enslaved continued to live in and he supported the complete abolition of slavery. He died 3 days after the bill to abolish slavery was passed in 1833.

Robert Burns (1759 - 1796)

Robert Burns, the celebrated Scottish poet, was born into humble beginnings. In 1783 he was almost penniless and decided to accept an offer to go to Jamaica as a bookkeeper on an estate. To raise the fare to get from Greenock to Jamaica on the Nancy he was persuaded to raise a subscription to publish some of his poems. The publication and success of the Kilmarnock edition changed his mind about leaving.

He became affected by the abolitionist cause. The circles he mixed in, especially after the publication of his first book of poetry, would have opened him to abolitionist messages. A number of writers refer to Burns' personal dislike of anyone being treated in a servile manner, and his interest in social injustice issues. In 1792 he published 'The Slave's Lament', based on the stories he heard coming from the Scottish estates in Virginia (see inside back cover for text).

Zachary Macauley (1768 - 1838)

Zachary Macauley, from Argyll, went to Jamaica in 1784 as a book keeper or overseer on a sugar plantation. Initially he was appalled at the conditions meted out to the enslaved, but eventually became, as he described it, "callous and indifferent". He returned to Britain in 1789 and visited his sister who had married Thomas Babington, a close friend of William Wilberforce. There he became a convert to the abolitionist cause and in 1790 he went to Sierra Leone, the settlement established for ex-slaves in West Africa6. He became Governor of the colony in 1794. Living in an area surrounded by hostile slave ships further convinced Macauley of the need to end the trade. He collected evidence for the London committee by travelling on a slave ship to the West Indies whilst on home leave in 1795. He recorded his thoughts and findings in classical Greek to keep them secret from the crew.

His major contribution was to work on the collection and collating of the huge volume of evidence and drafting of reports. In the 1820s he campaigned tirelessly for the total abolition of slavery and went on to establish the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823 and edit the Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter.

Thomas Clarkson (1760 - 1846)

Credit: Reverend Thomas Clarkson, M.A. (1760-1846) engraved by John Young (1755-1825) 1789 (engraving) by Breda. Carl Frederik van (1759-1818) (after) © Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status:

Credit: Reverend Thomas Clarkson, M.A. (1760-1846) engraved by John Young (1755-1825) 1789 (engraving) by Breda. Carl Frederik van (1759-1818) (after) © Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: Swedish / out of copyright

The Reverend Thomas Clarkson was a leading abolition campaigner. He collected information about the horror and injustice of the slave trade, which would convince people to support its abolition. He rode around the country on horseback for two years, interviewing 20,000 sailors and obtaining equipment used on slave ships.

Clarkson was often in danger when he visited ports like Liverpool and Bristol where there were economic interests in continuing the slave trade. In Bristol, he interviewed sailors and discovered a lot about the poor conditions and abuse that European sailors as well as enslaved Africans had to endure on these voyages.

Thomas Clarkson collected objects which he used in campaigning lectures against the slave trade. The items were kept in a chest equipped with trays and boxes. There were objects that display the skill and talent of African craftspeople, such as dyed cloth. There were also samples of natural products such African ivory, gum, rice, two kinds of pepper and rare and beautiful woods.

Clarkson carried his 'collection of African productions' everywhere to prove that Britain could carry on a profitable trade with Africa without slavery or the slave trade. Clarkson's arguments for trading with Africa had a major impact on the later European explorers and anti-slavery campaigners in Africa, like David Livingstone.

William Dickson (published work 1789 - 1815)

William Dickson of Moffat, Dumfriesshire, was the Secretary to the Governor of Barbados from 1783 to 1786. Whilst there he became very opposed to slavery and on his return in 1789 he wrote the book 'Letters on Slavery'. His book was considered too radical by those focusing on ending only the trade but Thomas Clarkson saw Dickson's value and sent him to Scotland to gather support for the end of the trade.

During the early months of 1792 Dickson travelled around Scotland presenting evidence to church groups and meeting with local committees to raise their awareness. It was on his instigation that Scotland became a hotbed of petition-signing. Due to his endeavours in Scotland Dickson was awarded an honorary doctorate by Aberdeen University.

As well as raising awareness Dickson also collected evidence from people about the trade.

"Mr McNeill mentioned…a Scotsman in Jamaica…who when his slaves were worn out and judged by the Doctor on the estate to be capable of no more work, had them carried to what he called the 'launch' which consisted of a few boards whose ends inclined over a great precipice and from thence he had them launched into eternity."

(Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (London, 2005), 227)

The Grass Roots and Women

Success depended on mobilising public opinion on a scale never seen before in Britain. The techniques used by the abolitionists laid the ground for modern campaigning.

Pamphlets describing the horrors of slavery and life for the enslaved were published. Poetry was also used as a way to spread the message. All levels of society were involved, but only men could sign petitions, and furthermore, only a privileged few of those could vote. Women and children expressed their support by reading abolitionist literature and singing abolitionist songs. Rallies, or public readings of abolitionist pamphlets were a popular and successful way of spreading the message. Women wore jewellery that advertised their support for abolition and wrote poetry. Women also usually managed household spending and chose not to buy goods produced by enslaved people.

The efforts of women are all the more remarkable because at the time they had very few rights of their own and were considered the property of their husbands or fathers. This explains why so little is known about who they were. After 1807, 73 female Anti Slavery Societies were established across Britain. The Quakers Jane Smeal, from Glasgow, and Eliza Wigham, from Edinburgh, were key in helping to lead the way. These groups were the first to demand the immediate emancipation of the enslaved, and both these women went on to be involved with other human rights and emancipation work.

The Wedgwood pottery company played an important role in the Abolition movement through its owner Thomas Wedgwood. He commissioned and had designed and made ornamental goods and pottery bearing the logo of the kneeling enslaved African with the statement 'Am I not a Man, Am I not a Brother'.


In the 18th century very few men were permitted to vote in Britain, less than half a million people in a population of over 20 million. The most popular and important way for people to express their opinions, therefore, was through the signing of petitions that were presented to Parliament. Between 1787 - 1792 approximately 13% of the adult male population signed a petition against the slave trade. The quotation below reflects the extent of the petition movement and the cynicism with which it was viewed by some:

"Petitions have been pouring in from every part of the Island, and a great number indeed from Scotland, some of them from the Highland Parishes where the Fools who sign the petitions at the Black Smith's shop, which is the Country Coffee House, never saw the Face of a Black, and there is not one of the parishes from whence there are not some of the better farmer's Sons sent to the West Indies and employed in the different plantations as overseers."

General James Grant of Ballindalloch, Banff (Governor of East Florida) to Lord Cornwallis, 22 April 1792, PRO 30/11/270, fo. 95

In Edinburgh in 1792, at a massive public meeting supporting abolition, 3,685 men signed a petition on the spot. When unrolled the petition stretched the entire length of the House of Commons floor. In Glasgow a further 13,000 signed. That year Scotland sent 185 petitions out of a British and Irish total of 519.

Scottish Churches

The Scottish churches and theologians were some of the main drivers of the abolition movement in Scotland. As in England and elsewhere the argument about justification of the trade through biblical quotations was under dispute. The quotation below is an extract from the Glasgow Courier in March 1792, where a series of letters began to explore and argue for and against the trade and slavery. The opponent of slavery quoted called himself 'A Friend of Mankind', and disputed the use of a Biblical quotation.

"And ye shall take them…to inherit them for a possession, they shall be your bond-men for ever" THUS SAITH THE LORD! The Slave Trade is founded in cruelty and injustice. THUS SAITH THE Presbytery of Glasgow."

The 'Friend' argued, along with James Ramsey of Fraserburgh, a former ship's surgeon, that the conditions of the capture and experiences of the Middle Passage differentiated the trade from that of slavery in the Bible. William Robertson the historian argued simply that the trade stood against "the spirit and genius of the Christian Religion".

Various groups from the Christian church spoke out against the trade from their pulpits, with a number also publishing theological pamphlets against the trade. Divine vengeance was a common theme, and was often used in the petitions of 1788 and 1792. One minister from Dundee wrote a poem on the theme of divine vengeance on those who took part in the trade to spread the cause. John Erskine, Scotland's leading evangelical, and the Reverend Robert Balfour of Glasgow argued that the trade was damaging to the missionary activities in Africa.

The Relief Presbytery of Hamilton declined to petition but did declare "the African slave trade in its present mode of existence and throughout all stages" was "a direct violation of all Jehovah's righteous laws that positively require every man to love his neighbour as himself" which had a huge impact on many followers.

Although the Church was a key driver in the Abolitionist movement, the Church of Scotland did not petition Parliament to end the Slave Trade or Slavery.