Britain’s transatlantic slave trade spanned three centuries, reaching its height in the 18th century. Rebellions and resistance by enslaved Africans, and the abolition movement in Britain, led to Acts of Parliament that abolished the trade in 1807 and enslaved labour in the colonies from 1833. The Parliamentary Art Collection holds many artworks and artifacts depicting this time, and through them we can see how Parliament acted – first supporting slavery and the trade, and later abolishing it.
The height of the slave trade
British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade began in 1562, and by the 1730s Britain was the world’s biggest slave-trading nation. The triangular route from Europe to Africa, to the Americas and back to Europe was highly lucrative. London was the financial heart of the system, and ships from Liverpool, London and Bristol dominated the slave routes, supported by Glasgow and Lancaster.
On the first leg, ships leaving Britain were filled with goods, which were exchanged for enslaved Africans on the west African coast. These people were then transported across the Atlantic to be sold as slaves to work on plantations. British ships transported more than three million Africans, mainly to its Caribbean and North American colonies.
The same ships then returned to Britain carrying ‘slave grown’ produce, notably sugar, tobacco and cotton. These products were consumed in huge volumes in Britain. The slave trade benefited many parts of British life and its economy, from the businessmen, financiers and landowners who ran and profited from the trade, to businesses, workers and consumers. The trade involved thousands of slave ships, tens of thousands of sailors, and armies of British workers.
The rewards of the transatlantic slave system were everywhere. From the urban fabric of slave ports, to the grand homes of those made wealthy, to the jobs created in industrial cities, to the coffee and tobacco shops dotting British cities. At first, few people raised moral or religious doubts about the slave trade and slavery.
This political caricature from 1792 by James Gillray shows George III and Queen Charlotte encouraging their daughters to give up sugar from the West Indies as a gesture of protest against the slave trade. The irony of the satire is that George III was opposed to abolition – instead he is motivated by the expense of sugar. Click the image to see it in more detail.
Parliament and the slave trade
Over many years, Parliament, with royal support and backing, had facilitated the development of a large and growing enslaved African population in the British colonies. The slave trade generated immense wealth for plantation owners, financial backers and traders.
Parliament passed more than one hundred acts supporting and protecting the slave trade. Many politicians and others had business interests in the plantations, slave trading companies, and slave-produced commodities such as cotton and sugar. These exotic commodities and the riches they created proved irresistible, and the slave trade continued to make Britain wealthier.
William Ewart Gladstone is represented over a hundred times in the Parliamentary Art Collection. He served as Prime Minister four separate times between 1868 and 1894 – more than any other prime minister. His family made its vast wealth through the sugar trade, with his father, John Gladstone, owning many slaves and several plantations in the West Indies. John Gladstone and William’s brothers made compensation claims following the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act and John received the largest payout of more than £100,000, which is £12 million in today’s money. Although William Gladstone did not own slaves personally, he benefited hugely from his family’s wealth. It supported his parliamentary career, and he inherited a fortune when his father died.
The Abolition Movement
By the late 18th century, popular attitudes to slavery began to change. Acts of rebellion in the colonies by enslaved peoples were increasing, and in Britain, voices that opposed slavery were getting louder. But the abolition of the slave trade was not simple. After centuries of slavery, the trade was bound into Britain’s economy and society.
After the American War (1776-1783), and the emergence of a community of black refugees in London, abolition finally became a major political issue. The Quakers were the first religious group to condemn slavery – their members were not allowed to own slaves. They organised political groups and petitions, and they delivered the first anti-slavery petition to Parliament in 1783.
The abolitionist movement gained momentum as former slaves told their stories and opened the eyes of wider society to the realities of slavery. Hundreds of petitions for the abolition of the trade were signed by huge numbers of men and women, and politicians at Westminster began to debate the topic, pushing for reform and the end of slavery.
Tokens like these were often used during political campaigns in this period. This token features one of the most enduring symbols from the abolition campaign – the image of the kneeling man. This image was produced by entrepreneur, business man and abolitionist Josiah Wedgewood. It was used throughout the campaign to represent enslaved people. Another figure, an enslaved woman in the same pose, and also with chained wrists, could be found on tokens and other abolitionist materials. The kneeling figure was used on brooches, hatpins, and inlaid into objects such as snuffboxes.
In the late eighteenth century Olaudah Equiano (c.1745–1797) became one of the most prominent and influential black voices of the abolition movement in Britain. He published his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in 1789, which described his experience of enslavement and freedom. The book helped to change public attitudes about slavery and the slave trade. Equiano wrote: “The abolition of slavery would be in reality an universal good. Tortures, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity, are practiced upon the poor slaves with impunity. I hope the slave-trade will be abolished. I pray it may be an event at hand.”
In 1788 Equiano attended debates in the House of Commons on slavery and the abolition of the slave trade, and addressed the government directly through published letters on the subject. He corresponded with parliamentarians and one of his letters to Lord Hawkesbury was presented to a Parliamentary Committee as evidence in 1789. He toured the country to discuss his book and raise awareness of the abolition cause.
This bust is the first depiction of a black abolitionist to enter the Parliamentary Art Collection. It was created by artist Christy Symington in 2006, and was purchased for the Parliamentary Art Collection in 2019. Engraved into the base of the bust is the plan of a ship – the Brookes Slave Ship. These cruel ships were designed to maximise capacity of the number of slaves that could be transported at one time. We also see the suggestion of chains in the base of the sculpture, and another detail depicting an enslaved female figure. Find more details about this sculpture here.
Other prominent opponents of slavery included Ottobah Cugoano (c1757–1791), and Mary Prince (1788–1833), who were both former slaves living in Britain. Like Equiano, they were vocal abolitionists, and published autobiographies that described the realities of enslavement.
Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, 1807
In 1805 an abolition bill failed in Parliament, for the 11th time in 15 years. Abolitionists inside Parliament, led by MP William Wilberforce, and outside Parliament including Britain’s black community, quickly focused on their next effort – the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill of 1806. This would prevent the import of slaves by British traders into territories belonging to foreign powers. When the Bill passed in May 1806, the stage was set for full abolition of the British slave trade.
In 1807 Prime Minister Lord Grenville, introduced the Slave Trade Abolition Bill. Although it was met with resistance from the Duke of Clarence (the future king William IV) and other peers with West Indian interests, the House of Commons voted in favour of the bill by 283 votes to 16 – a victory that passed all expectations.
The fight continues
While the act of 1807 was a major victory for the abolitionists, it was not the end of slavery. Although it had ended the legal trade of enslaved people, it did not abolish the continued enslavement of those already brought to the colonies. An illicit slave trade also continued across the Atlantic, and more than a million Africans were transported to the Americas (mainly Cuba and Brazil) after 1807.
Slavery Abolition Act, 1833
The abolitionists continued to campaign and pushed for the complete and total abolition of all slavery in the British empire. In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by Parliament. It dictated that all slaves in British dominions, excluding the East India Company territories, would be freed on 1 August 1834.
Despite the political significance of this victory, the terms of the act were unfavourable. It included clauses to pay compensation of £20 million to slave owners, and to keep freed slaves in an ‘apprenticeship’ scheme until 1840. Some of the people who benefited from the compensation scheme were parliamentarians or their families.
William Wilberforce MP
In the late 1700s, the parliamentary anti-slavery campaign was led by William Wilberforce (1759-1833), MP for Hull. From 1791, Wilberforce brought annual abolition motions to the House of Commons, but each was defeated.
After 18 years of campaigning for abolition, Wilberforce received a standing ovation during the key Commons debate on the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Tradebill.
This white metal election medal from 1807 features an oak wreath and is inscribed ’Wilberforce For Ever’. On the back are the words ‘Humanity Is The Cause of The People’, surrounded by a wreath. The medal is 39mm in diameter.
Thomas Fowell Buxton MP
Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) was another leading abolitionist politician. He joined parliament in 1818 and was quickly recruited to the cause by Wilberforce. Buxton published his thoughts on the trade in 1840 in The African slave trade and its remedy. Buxton expressed his concern that political reform alone had not eliminated the slave trade or slavery. For Buxton the question of slavery was a moral one which could not be ignored.
However, in 1833 Buxton supported the compensation and apprenticeship schemes. He believed that they were necessary means to achieve abolition, but he was strongly criticised by other abolitionists. After abolition Buxton continued to argue for further action to ensure the rights of freed slaves, joining the campaign to end the apprenticeship scheme. He continued to campaign after losing his seat in 1837, and in 1838 watched from the Strangers Gallery in the House of Commons as the scheme was finally abolished.
Stephen Lushington MP
Stephen Lushington was an MP between 1806-8 and 1820-41. Lushington, like many MPs, was a member of a slave owning family. However, he was committed to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, and was an active supporter of Wilberforce. He spoke for the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Tradebill as it was debated in Parliament.
In 1787 Thomas Clarkson, a committed abolitionist, became one of the original 12 members of the influential London Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Clarkson was responsible for researching evidence to present to Parliament, and also promoted the abolitionist cause nationwide.
He travelled across Britain to campaign for abolition, including to all major ports, and was supported by local Quaker groups. His research was crucial to Wilberforce’s subsequent work in the House of Commons.
The Somerset Case
Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster used to be home to the country’s Law Courts. In 1772, a pivotal case was heard there which had a huge impact on the progress towards abolition, and which brought the injustice of the slave trade and slavery to the attention of the British public. Lord Mansfield presided over the case in his role as Lord Chief Justice, he was a member of the House of Lords.
James Somerset, an enslaved African, had been brought to England in 1769 by his ‘owner’. Somerset had run away and was living independently when he was recaptured and put on a ship destined for the Americas. The case was brought on the grounds that Somerset’s former ‘owner’ had no right to force Somerset to return to the Americas because it was the constitutional right of every man in England to have the liberty of his person.
Mansfield ruled that Somerset should be freed. However, he was careful not to suggest that enslaved Africans in Britain were automatically free. Despite this, the case was seen as a substantial victory, and the black community in London, many of whom had attended Westminster Hall, celebrated in style.
As the Public Advertiser newspaper reported on 27 June 1772: “On Monday nearly 200 Blacks, with their Ladies, had an Entertainment at a Public House in Westminster, to celebrate the Triumph which their Brother Somerset had obtained over Mr Stuart his Master. Lord Mansfield’s Health was echoed round the Room; and the Evening was concluded with a Ball. The Tickets for Admittance to the black Assembly were 5s each” (about £25 today).
In the 1700s Westminster Hall was freely open to the public to enter, and people would often gather to be the first to hear the outcome of trials. In big cases, crowds would gather, with people waiting outside the Hall to receive updates from someone inside. We can imagine that the area surrounding the Hall would have been full of campaigners, members of the black community and other supporters.
Lord Mansfield is best known for his judgment in the Somerset Case (1772), where he held that slavery had no basis in common law and had never been established by positive law in England. Mansfield is also known for raising his great niece, Dido, who was mixed race and the daughter of an enslaved woman and Mansfield’s nephew, a naval officer who served in the West Indies. When Dido’s mother died, she was brought to England and raised alongside her cousin Elizabeth. A portrait of Dido and Elizabeth is on display at Scone Palace in Scotland. Read more about Dido and Lord Mansfield on the English Heritage Website.
Find out more
The transatlantic slave trade and its abolition is the subject of much ongoing research. Read more about this important national history with the following links.
We are reviewing the Parliamentary Art Collection to identify depictions of people and activities related to the British slave trade, and the use of forced labour of enslaved Africans and others in British colonies and beyond. As we undertake research, we are constantly examining the interpretation of these artworks, and we continue to explore ways to better explain and contextualise works in our collection.
The Parliamentary Art Collection documents the history and work of Parliament, and includes works featuring 17th, 18th and 19th century parliamentarians. As many were wealthy landowners and businessmen, they or their families were often directly involved in, and profited from, the forced labour and trade of enslaved people. Today we recognise this as abhorrent. The intention of the Parliamentary Art Collection is not to venerate people who have supported and committed acts of atrocity, but to truthfully reflect the history of Parliament, our democracy and the people who have played a part in it.
Our Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts Collection holds pieces made from early 19th century mahogany. Mahogany was imported from the West Indies, and was a highly valued material. It is likely that much of the mahogany arriving in the UK at this time was produced using enslaved or indentured laborers.
The collection also includes pieces created by furniture makers Gillows of Lancaster and London. This firm has also been linked to the slave trade. Its founder, Robert Gillow, profited from imports of rum, sugar and mahogany from the West Indies due to Lancaster’s proximity to the west coast of Britain. This income funded his furniture-making business. It also provided materials, as Gillows commonly used mahogany to make furniture in their workshops. By the time Gillows was producing furniture for the Palace, the company’s involvement in the slave trade had stopped, and from 1813 the company was no longer owned by any members of the Gillows family – though the new owners continued to use the name. The firm created some of the furniture designed by A.W.N Pugin for the Palace of Westminster.