5 Unsung Heroes of the Anti-Slavery Campaign in Britain | History Hit

5 Unsung Heroes of the Anti-Slavery Campaign in Britain

Luke Tomes

04 Feb 2021
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Elizabeth Heyrick. Image Credit: Public Domain

The aboltion of the slave trade in 1807 and subsequently the passing of the Emancipation Act of 1833 were both momentous occassions in British history. Both abolition acts seem increasingly extraordinary the more one considers the context in which they were ratified.

While an argument can be made that by 1833 the economic benefits of slavery had dwindled, it was still a fundamental institution bringing millions to the UK treasury each year. In 1807, the trade was arguably at its zenith in terms of economic value to Britain, employing half the nation’s long-distance shipping and supplying an eighth of Exchequer revenue.

And so, quite rightly, many notable figures have been celebrated and commemorated for their tireless efforts, in the face of such fierce opposition, to see aboltion occur cross Britain’s Empire. Men such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson have become icon’s of this triumph of philanthropy over national and economic interest.

Yet the campaign was not won because of these men alone. Here are a list of five men and women who were equally influential in the anti-slavery cause, yet have so often been forgotten.

1. Henry Brougham

Henry Brougham in 1825. Image Credit: Public Domain

Often overshadowed by more notable MP’s and radical anti-slavery campaigners, the Edinburgh-born (1742) abolitionist Henry Brougham became a hugely important figure in both the cause to see the termination of Britain’s slave trade and the campaign to see the full emancipation of slaves in the British Dominions in 1833.

Brougham began attacking the slave trade in articles he was writing for the Edinburgh Review, a journal he and some of his closest friends had established in 1802. In the next two years he wrote up to forty articles condemning the traffic’s brutality and the lack of social reform in Britain.

The journal was a great success and quickly became one of the most influential political publications of the 19th century. Brougham gained stature within Parliament, befriending Lord Grey and other leading Whig Politicians.

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Brougham also wrote a hugely successful book entitled An Inquiry Into the Colonial Policy of the European Powers, published in 1803, and a widely-read pamphlet entitled A Concise Statement of the Question regarding the Abolition of the Slave Trade, published a year later, both of which criticised the slave trade for its immorality and its danger to the safety of Britain’s dominions.

It was with this latter point that Brougham made such an impact on abolition proceedings. With a revolution still raging on in the French slave colony of St. Domingue, Brougham questioned whether it was the “proper time” to continue importing Africans into the British West Indian colonies – seeing as the rapid expansion of the French slave trade that had preceded the revolution was clearly a contributing factor to its birth.

“When the fire is raging to Windward, is it the proper time for stirring up everything that is combustible in your warehouses, and throwing the new loads of material still more prone to explosion?” – Henry Brougham

Brougham soon established himself as one of the leading radicals in Parliament. His first great parliamentary speech was on the issue of slavery. In June 1810 he complained that the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was ineffective. Brougham argued that Britain was doing nothing to end “this abominable commerce”.

In March 1811 Brougham introduced a bill (which passed) to make it a felony to trade in slaves. Yet this would not be his lasting contribution to the anti-slavery cause. Under the Whig administration led by his friend Lord Grey, Brougham became Lord Chancellor.

During his time in government, Brougham saw the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832 and subsequently the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

2. Elizabeth Heyrick

Elizabeth Heyrick. Image Credit: Public Domain

Born in Leicester in 1789, Elizabeth Heyrick (born Elizabeth Coltman) became a devout social reformer and eventually a dedicated abolitionist. As well as becoming a prison visitor, she wrote numerous political pamphlets about a range of issues, from the Corn Laws to the harsh treatment of homeless beggars in Britain.

Nonetheless, the issue which by far concerned Heyrick the most was abolition of slavery in Britain’s colonies. Heyrick was frustrated with the British government’s seeming reluctance to take any calls for immediate emancipation of all slaves in the colonies seriously. Ever since Britain had abolished its slave trade in 1807, parliament had steered clear of progressing toward abolishing the institution as a whole.

Heyrick judged this inaction to be a result of the deep vested interest of parliamentary members in protecting the institution which they themselves profited from. With this in mind, Heyrick turned to the public and began campaigning for new West Indian sugar boycotts in the city of Leicester.

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Heyrick visited all of the city’s grocers to urge them not to stock slave-grown goods. She described the West India planters as being like thieves and those who bought their produce, like receivers of stolen goods. She criticised the mainstream anti-slavery figures for being slow, cautious and accommodating.

Heyrick even critiqued William Wilberforce’s appeal for ‘gradual abolition’ which she considered to be a betrayal of the anti-slavery cause and an opportunity for the West India Interest to continue to delay emancipation. She called for Immediate, not gradual abolition, in a pamphlet published in 1824, and blamed the cautious approach of anti-slavery campaigners such as Wilberforce for the lack of momentum in the movement.

Whilst one could argue that Heyrick was not a pragmatist, she saw no reason to consider planters’ interests any more.

“With the interest of the planters, the question of emancipation has nothing to do.” – Elizabeth Heyrick

This more radical approach certainly sprung a new lease of life into the abolition campaign and the new Anti-Slavery Society, formed a year earlier. Regrettably, Elizabeth Heyrick died in 1831 and therefore did not live to see the passing of the 1833 Emancipation Act.

3. Zachary Macauley

Zachary Macauley (b. 1768) was a Scottish, former plantation manager who became a slavery abolitionist and campaigner. Similar to the former slave trader John Newton, Macauley, despite having worked as a manager on numerous plantations in Jamaica, found himself despising the institution and devoting his life to a campaign to end it.

Zachary Macaulay. Image Credit: Public Domain

After he met William Wilberforce on his return to Britain from the West Indies, Macauley joined the Abolition Society (founded by Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson) and eventually held the post of Governor of Sierra Leone, a British colony that provided a sanctuary for freed slaves.

Macauley proved extremely valuable to the campaign by immersing himself in the horrific conditions endured by Africans aboard slave vessels and collecting evidence to be used when lobbying in Parliament. His impressive knack for collating data and figures made him an invaluable member of the abolition society, especially when dealing with such large amounts of evidence.

After the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, he continued to work hard on securing the total abolition of slavery in the British Colonies. He helped to set up the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later known as the ‘Anti-Slavery Society’) in 1823 and edited the society’s publication, Anti-Slavery Reporter.

Macauley also made a series of strong, pragmatic arguments for the abolition camp with the publication of a pamphlet entitled East and West India Sugar in 1823. Macauley proved that East Indian sugar, cultivated by wage labourers, was actually produced at a more efficient rate than West Indian sugar. Here he ingeniously used Adam Smith’s free labour ideology to endorse abolition – a case that was put forward to Parliament on numerous occasions.

4. Mary Prince

As an enslaved woman born in 1788 in Bermuda, it was not likely that Mary Prince would ever find herself in a position to become the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition in Parliament, yet this is exactly what she did in 1829.

From the time she was a young child, Prince was sold to a number of extremely brutal plantation owners who treated her awfully. She was worked hard, beaten, man-handled and exploited. Her marriage to a former slave in Antigua who had bought his freedom infuriated her master who severely beat her.

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Prince’s opportunity to escape her master came when she travelled with them to England in 1828. She eventually ran way from them and found freedom, however in England, she would be unable to return to her husband in Antigua without becoming re-enslaved.

Nonetheless, after the 1772 Somerset vs Stewart trial, it was ruled that it was illegal to transport slaves out of England. Secure in this knowledge, Prince soon searched and found employment with Thomas Pringle, an abolitionist writer and Secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society. From this moment forward, she became a passionate campaigner against slavery.

Prince would become the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament and the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography, entitled The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, published in 1831.

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Similar to Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, Prince’s book played a pivotal role in the success of the anti-slavery campaign by making those in Britain aware of the horrors of life on the plantations that continued despite the abolition of the slave trade.

5. Thomas Fowell Buxton

Thomas Fowell Buxton. Image Credit: Public Domain

Although his name may be slightly more recognisable, Thomas Fowell Buxton (b. 1786) is a man who often gets overshadowed by the likes of William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson when considering the most influential abolitionists of the 19th century.

From an early age, Buxton became heavily influenced by his mother, who was a Quaker. He attended regular Quaker meetings and soon found himself a committed social reformer. In 1818 he became the MP for Weymouth, a position he would hold until 1837.

Buxton was a fierce advocate of abolition and, in 1823, became a founding member of the Anti-Slavery Society, the committee that co-ordinated the campaign for total abolition. In 1825, he succeeded William Wilberforce as the figurehead of the anti-slavery movement in Parliament, continuing the struggle until the Slavery Abolition Act, in 1833, freed all enslaved people in the British Empire.

Anti-Slavery Convention, 1840. Buxton can be seen to the far left of the picture. Image Credit: Public Domain

Yet Buxton’s philanthropic efforts did not stop there. In the late 1830s Buxton continued to urge the British government to make treaties with African leaders to abolish the slave trade. The government subsequently backed the Niger expedition of 1841 put together by missionary organisations, which was also going to work on trade.

Buxton’s legacy would live on well beyond his death in 1845. David Livingstone was strongly influenced by Buxton’s arguments that the African slave trade might be destroyed through the influence of “legitimate trade” (in goods and services) and the spread of Christianity.

Luke Tomes