Women and the British Anti-Slavery Campaigns

William Wilberforce’s name is perhaps the most well-known in discussions on the history of Britain’s abolitionist movement. His devoted work to the campaign helped Parliament to pass the Abolition of Slave Trade Act 1807, which although did not make slavery itself illegal, made the act of trading in slaves a punishable offence. However, whilst the British abolitionist movement was largely dominated by men, there were many women who were active campaigners, with Lady Middleton actually persuading Wilberforce to take up the cause.

In 1823, the first official British society which devoted itself to the abolition of slavery  abroad  was founded. The Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions’s members included William Wilberforce and they were united in their attempts to pressure Parliament into introducing the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. However, whilst Wilberforce was content with attempts to gradually phase out slavery, Elizabeth Heyrick, a political campaigner from Leicester, published a pamphlet in 1824 entitled “Immediate, not Gradual Abolition”.

She called for a boycott of companies which sold sugar from slavery plantations, and encouraged women to embrace their position of power when purchasing food to follow this boycott. She went so far as to claim that the companies who sold produce made by slavery were thieves, and British people who bought these items were receiving stolen goods.

Elizabeth Heyrick was not alone in her calls for an immediate end to slavery, with the Female Society of Birmingham visiting almost 80% of homes in the area, hoping to persuade the people of Birmingham to join their cause. However, the women’s groups who campaigned against slavery were becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of change, with the male dominated Anti-Slavery Society still championing a gradual end to slavery. Elizabeth Heyrick and the Female Society of Birmingham threatened to withdraw its funding to the National Anti-Slavery Society unless they removed their dedication to gradual change and supported an immediate end to slavery. Other female societies across the country joined suit, and with the threat of losing one fifth of its funding, in May 1830 the Anti-Slavery Society removed the term ‘gradual’ from its demands and adopted the more radical stance of the female societies.

by Benjamin Robert Haydon, oil on canvas, 1841
by Benjamin Robert Haydon, oil on canvas, 1841

In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, with the exception of the territories under the possession of the East Indian company, the island of St Helena, and the Island of Ceylon. In 1839, following on from the Anti-Slavery Society, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery society was formed with a view to ending slavery internationally. The society, today known as Anti-Slavery International, changed its name in 1990 and is still campaigning to eradicate slavery at home and abroad.

Traditional ideas of abolitionism focus on William Wilberforce and the parliamentary procedure behind the pivotal acts in anti-slavery history. However without the tireless work of the female campaigners, who at the time were yet to be granted the vote, the pace of abolitionism would have been much slower.

Links and further reading

“Women and Women’s Groups” from The Abolition Project website, http://abolition.e2bn.org/people_38.html

Slavery Trade and Abolition of Slavery, from Black History 4 Schools website, http://www.blackhistory4schools.com/slavetrade/

Teachers’ notes from the National Portrait Gallery’s Anti-Slavery Society Convention portrait, http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/migrated_assets/docs/learning/digital/NPGTeachersNotes_AntiSlaver.pdf

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