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Abolition: Morals and money

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which banned the sale of slaves in the British Empire, was passed in 1807. Plantation owners could no longer work enslaved people to death and then buy more. Some slaving ships continued to trade illegally and the British Navy began to police the seas.

The supporters of Abolition then campaigned against slavery and, in 1833, it was declared illegal in the British Empire. In the end, moral beliefs and financial considerations brought about the end of the Slave Trade.

For and Against in Scotland

The issue of slavery divided Scots. There were debates, newspaper articles and petitions for both sides. Powerful companies such as Glasgow's West India Association supported the slave owners.

In 1788 Reverend Walker of Edinburgh organised one of the first anti-slave trade petitions in Britain. (His portrait is in the National Galleries of Scotland: Skating on Duddingston Loch by Raeburn.) The doctor, James Ramsay, and William Dickson and Zachary Macaulay were all leading campaigners, using their experience of plantation life to argue against slavery. People from all walks of life supported Abolition, including ministers, lairds, weavers and miners.

African campaigners

Legal challenges by the enslaved Africans David Spens and Joseph Knight (who were each brought to Scotland from the West Indies) led to a ruling, in 1778, that slavery could not exist in Scotland and therefore all people on Scottish soil were free. But the slave trade continued.

Across Britain freed slaves spoke about the cruelty of the slave trade system. Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano wrote influential books, and both toured Britain giving lectures. Equiano worked with Wilberforce and Clarkson – and should be portrayed alongside them.

African slaves on the plantations also fought for their freedom using passive resistance (working slowly) and planned rebellion. They risked reprisals of torture and death. Some plantations were destroyed and people killed. Groups of escaped slaves lived in inaccessible areas. The constant unrest meant fewer profits for the owners.

Women campaigners

Many women joined the campaign – even though they couldn't vote. They used their influence rather than political clout. Lady Margaret Middleton talked to her powerful political friends, and supported Wilberforce. Some wrote stories and poems. The novelist Hannah More, in England, published 'Slavery, A Poem' in 1788, about an enslaved woman who was separated from her children.

Women and their families boycotted sugar from the West Indies (using sugar from the East Indies instead) – over a quarter of a million British people joined the boycott.

Women also took to wearing Wedgwood jewellery depicting a kneeling slave, with the inscription 'Am I not a man and a brother?' (or, less known, 'Am I not a woman and a sister?'). During the second campaign between 1807 and 1833, more women started their own abolition groups.

Click here to find out more about Scotland and the slave trade