The abolition of slavery: Britain’s first mass working-class campaign

Submitted by Anon on 17 March, 2007 - 11:45

By James McKinney

On 25 March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed, which began to put an end to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Socialists should too should be celebrating this bicentenary because of the black slave resistance which accompanied the abolition and the opening it provided for the growth of mass working class campaigning in Britain.

Britain began trading in slaves in the mid-16th century. The Elizabethan state pirate Jack Hawkins had a crest with a trussed up black slave on it. For over 250 years the British state and its accomplices tore African people from their societies and turned them into expendable labour. And the best Blair can do is express “deep sorrow”!

As for the architect of aboliton, William Wilberforce, he was one of the architects of the first anti-union laws in Britain. The Combination Act of 1799 banned meetings to discuss wages and conditions and a second Act in 1800 banned strikes, union meetings or the collection of union subscriptions.

As AL Morton put it in his book, A People’s History of England: “These laws were the work of [prime minister] Pitt and of his sanctimonious friend Wilberforce, whose well known sympathy for the black slave never prevented him from being the foremost apologist and champion of every act of tyranny in England, from the employment of Oliver the Spy or the illegal detention of poor prisoners in Cold Bath Fields gaol to the Peterloo massacre and the suspension of the habeas corpus.”

There are plenty of positive reasons for celebrating the bicentenary. For one thing, abolition took place because of the fight waged by the slaves themselves for freedom. For example Toussaint L’Ouverture led a fantastic struggle for freedom in Saint Domingue from the early 1790s, his slave army defeating French, British and Spanish forces to end slavery. It became Haiti in 1804. From then on it was clear that slaves had fought for their own liberty and slave owners could never again guarantee their oppression.

The anti-slave trade campaign is important in working class history in Britain too. It was the first mass political campaign in British history with the active involvement of workers. In his brilliant book Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Peter Fryer describes the campaign. In 1794 a huge public meeting took place in Sheffield: where thousands of metal workers unanimously endorsed freedom for the slaves, to “avenge peacefully ages of wrongs done to our Negro brethren”.

The chair of the meeting, Henry Redhead Yorke” had called on demonstrators to “let the African, the Asiatic, the European, burst asunder their chains, and raise a pious war against tyranny”.

From the mid-1780s, agitators toured Britain arguing against the slave trade. Workers expressed their support by signing petitions. In 1792 over 500 petitions were sent to support Wilberforce’s abolition bill. Even in ports like Bristol and Liverpool, where the economy was bound up with the slave trade, workers backed the campaign. Other mass campaign tactics were employed. Sugar, the main export from the slave plantations, and which made tea the “blood sweetened beverage” - was boycotted.

The struggle against the slave trade did not end in 1807. But working class campaigners used similar tactics to fight the anti-union laws, to campaign for the vote and to build a labour movement.

Many trade unions are using the bicentenary to organise meetings and conferences on slavery and modern racism. Socialists should take part and explain the history of the abolition of the slave trade and the lessons we can learn from it today.

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