BLACK HISTORY: London Slavery and Abolition

It is impossible to conceive of the modern city of London without considering its involvement with the enslavement and trafficking of African captives. Modern London grew rich and prospered as a result of Britain’s involvement in what is referred to as the trans-Atlantic slave trade from its earliest beginnings in the 16th century.

All the major institutions in London from the Bank of England to the National Gallery and British Museum are intimately connected with the money generated by this great crime against humanity.

But London was also a centre of the demands for abolition which grew throughout the late 18th century. In particular it was a centre of the mass popular movement against the enslavement of Africans, one of the earliest and largest political campaigns in Britain’s history, but which hitherto has largely been ignored.

That London played a central role in establishing Britain as the world’s greatest slave trafficking power is well documented.

It was from London that some of the earliest slave traffickers, such as John Hawkins set out in the mid 16th century. In the early 17th century the monopoly companies established by royal charter to engage in this trade, the Guinea Company, the Royal Adventurers into Africa and the Royal Africa Company, were all based in London.

Indeed every monarch and their family from Elizabeth Tudor onwards were financiers and beneficiaries of this trade in human flesh. So too were many of London’s lord mayors, sheriffs and aldermen. Owning an African slave was the height of fashion in London during the late 17th and 18th centuries.

London was a major port sending slave ships to Africa and the Americas and handling and processing most of the sugar and other slave-produced goods imported into the country.

It was for this purpose that the West India docks were constructed. It was also the financial centre of the trade and the economies it supported in the Americas.

Banking and insurance in London, the genesis of the fortunes of the Barclays and Barings was based on slavery, as was the development of Lloyds and the Bank of England.

In the 18th century wealthy Londoners, such as the major slave owners William Codrington and William Beckford, were able to buy their way into high office and control of parliament.

But it should not be forgotten that although trafficking in human flesh brought massive profits to the rich and powerful, this was at the expense of the lives of African men, women and children.

Enslaved Africans were bought and sold throughout London in the 17th and 18th centuries, at the Royal Exchange, in coffee houses in the City, in ships berthed in the Thames and at inns throughout the capital.

Resistance to slavery was also common in London and grew throughout the 18th century.

Enslaved Africans, especially young men, liberated themselves by running away from their owners or in some cases demanding wages. Owners posted rewards for their ‘lost property,’ while Africans helped each other to escape and were aided by the ordinary people of London.

It was through meeting one of these Africans, Jonathan Strong, in his brother’s surgery in Mincing Lane, that Granville Sharp first became involved in the abolitionist movement.

The campaign against enslavement and trafficking was initiated by Africans and their supporters in London.

In 1772 the famous judgement of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield was celebrated by over 200 Africans in a Westminster public house, it was reported in The London Packet.

By the 1780s Africans in London including the famous writers Olaudah Equiano and Ottabah Cugoano, had formed their own political organisation, the Sons of Africa, which lobbied in London’s daily papers, such as The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, and collaborated with other abolitionists

All sections of the abolitionist campaign were active in London. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, led by Thomas Clarkson, was established in the city in 1787 and printed and distributed thousands of copies of anti-slavery literature from its publishing house in George Yard.

But perhaps most importantly the mass popular campaigns of the 1780 and early 1790s too were strongly supported in London, where the radical London Corresponding Society linked the struggle against slavery with the fight for political rights for working people in Britain.

Regular public debates, sometimes addressed by Africans, and involving the participation of women, were also held in London at the Lyceum in the Strand and the Coach-makers’ Hall Society near St Pauls.

Such activities, and other such the participation of Londoners in boycotting slave produced sugar and petitioning parliament in the late 18th century, demonstrated widespread popular support in London for an end to slavery and the trafficking of Africans.

About Dr Hakim Adi
Dr Hakim Adi (Ph.D SOAS, London University) is Reader in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at Middlesex University, London, UK.

He is a founder member and currently chairs the Black and Asian Studies Association. Hakim is the author of West Africans in Britain 1900-60: Nationalism, Pan-Africanism and Communism (Lawrence and Wishart, 1998) and (with M. Sherwood) The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited (New Beacon, 1995) and Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787 (Routledge, 2003).

He has appeared in television documentaries and radio programmes, and has written widely on the history of Pan-Africanism, the African Diaspora, and Africans in Britain, including three history books for children.