From its beginnings, black slavery in the Americas proved remarkably durable. There were early religious protests against the pioneering use of slaves in the Americas, most notably by Bartolome de las Casas (1474-1566), but the economic benefits that soon flowed from the work of African slaves, especially after the formation of plantation societies, overcame most moral or theological complaints. Though slavery was most dominant in key areas of staple production (sugar, tobacco, rice, and later cotton), it also seeped into most corners of the colonial Americas. Domestic and urban slavery, maritime slavery, artisanal slavery, and slavery on the rural frontiers all existed, though all were economically marginal compared to plantation slavery. In Brazil, the Caribbean, the Chesapeake, and later in the U.S. South black slavery held sway, its economic centrality apparently impervious to complaints about its ethical or religious problems. Moreover, the economic benefits of slavery seemed indispensable. Although the precise accountancy of the major slave systems was unusually complex, few contemporaries doubted that here was a form of labor that defied its critics via the manifest prosperity it yielded (to everyone except the slaves of course). But all that began to change in the mid-eighteenth century.

Although early complaints were directed at the use of slave labor in the Spanish Americas, the major starting point for the antislavery movement was the Atlantic slave trade. The enforced movement of millions of Africans across the Atlantic was vast and prolonged. Over four centuries, some twelve million Africans were loaded onto ships, and more than ten million were landed in the Americas. In addition, millions of Africans were also transported north, overland, and east into an Indian Ocean slave trade. But it was the Atlantic trade that caught the eye. It lasted from the late fifteenth century until the 1860s. The huge numbers involved, and the squalid inhumanity of the prolonged oceanic crossings, inevitably attracted attention. Tens of thousands of Europeans and Americans were involved in the trade— on the ships and in European and American ports—and the grim facts of the slave ships and their human cargoes were widely known. But the commonplace horrors on the ships, which were periodically given wide publicity by news of the latest outrage or disaster, tended not to make much political or social impact until the mid-eighteenth century onward. By then there was a growing body of opposition, in North America and Britain, against the trade.

The legal abolition of the slave trade






Great Britain


The United States




The Netherlands














Opposition effectively began among American and British Quakers. Though George Fox had taken a fundamental stand against slavery as early as the 1670s, it was not until the 1770s that Quaker outrage, expressed at meetings and in print, began to register. Quaker influence in the English-speaking world was out of all proportion to their numbers.But they were also able to tap into a more broadly based theological unease about slavery, which was grounded in the newly emergent nonconformist churches, notably the Methodists and Baptists. By the last years of the eighteenth century, they were joined by a small band of Evangelicals, led most famously by William Wilberforce, within the established Anglican Church. By the late 1780s there was a broad religious dislike of slavery in Britain and North America. But in Britain it focused on (and campaigned against) the Atlantic slave trade, largely from a belief that this was the most practical of tactics. Ending the slave trade seemed more manageable than ending slavery itself.

This dissenting attack merged with a more inchoate, but no less influential body of thought that slowly emerged from the writings of Enlightenment thinkers in both France and Scotland. Montesquieu’s L’esprit des lois (1748) proved most influential, with its deeply ironic attack on slavery, which he considered contrary both to natural law and the public good. Though the debate about slavery was continued by the Encyclopedists, Montesquieu’s writing remained the major influence on subsequent English-language abolitionists, notably Granville Sharpe (1735-1813), William Blackstone (1723-1780), William Paley (1743-1805), and Edmund Burke (1729-1797). But theoretical discussions about slavery were overshadowed by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), which, for the first time, challenged the universally held belief that slavery was the most economically productive form of labor. Thereafter, the intellectual foundations of antislavery were secure. It was possible to attack slavery on both ethical and economic grounds. At the same time, a growing band of activists attacked slavery on religious grounds. Slavery (via the slave trade) was, by 1789, under attack from all angles.

The revolution in France in 1789 transformed everything. Firstly, it instantly sowed ideas of equality—belief in ”the Rights of Man”—that utterly recast the whole debate. It also created the seismic waves that inspired the successful slave revolt in Saint Domingue, and the creation of an independent black republic in Haiti. Slavery throughout the Americas was threatened by events in Haiti, as thousands, black and white, fled to neighboring islands and to North America. Slaves themselves had, of course, been a critical element throughout the abolition debates. Slave cases in British courts, slave unrest in the islands, and the latent threat of slave unrest everywhere (confirmed by events in Haiti) was the backdrop against which abolitionist debates were played out. To add to the confusion, more and more slaves were being converted to Christianity, mainly by dissenting missionaries. Thus, by the early nineteenth century both black and white Christians had raised their voices against slavery.

The slave trade itself was ended by both Americans and the British in 1807, thereby cutting off supplies of fresh Africans flowing to the Americas. Despite this abolition, some three million Africans were shipped into the Americas after 1807, mainly to Brazil and Cuba (to man their expanding tobacco and coffee plantations). The British and the Americans, however, no longer needed the Atlantic slave trade. And when, after 1800, slaves began to be moved to the new cotton plantations in the U.S. South, they came not across the Atlantic from Africa, but from the buoyant black populations of the old slave societies in the United States. Here was an irony: at the very time slavery had come under fierce attack, and when the slave trade had been abolished, black slavery experienced a revival (in the United States, Brazil, and Cuba).

The British maintained their own Caribbean slave system after 1807. Because they wanted to understand what effect the abolition of the slave trade was having on that system, they introduced slave ”registration” (a census) to check for illegal slave importations. Abolitionists, for their part, hoped that stemming the flow of new slaves would force planters to treat their existing slaves better. Despite this attempt to regulate it, slavery in the Caribbean was to be characterized by successive, and ever more violent slave revolts (Barbados, 1816; Demerara, 182; and, most violent of all, Jamaica, 1831-1832). The revolts clearly showed that slavery would not die of its own accord. Indeed, its problems seemed to get worse. Hence, from the mid-1820s abolitionists began to press for full emancipation. Using the old, tested methods of widespread public lectures, tract-publishing, and massive petitions to Parliament, abolitionists won over more and more Members of Parliament (MPs) and Ministers. The British campaign for full black freedom also thrived on the broader domestic campaign for reform, especially for parliamentary reform. When Parliament was reformed in 1832, slavery was doomed, for many of its former supporters had lost their seats to newly elected MPs.

British Abolitionist Emblem. This image of a kneeling slave in shackles became the familiar emblem of the abolitionist movement in England. The first versions of the design appeared in the 1780s.

British Abolitionist Emblem. This image of a kneeling slave in shackles became the familiar emblem of the abolitionist movement in England. The first versions of the design appeared in the 1780s.

Thereafter, the British transmuted themselves into a fiercely abolitionist nation, demanding an end of slavery and slave trading worldwide. Using the growing power of the Royal Navy, and the influence of the Foreign Office, the British tried to win over the world to abolition. Many other nations, however, were not attracted to the idea, not least because slave trading and slavery continued to offer scope for profitable trade and business. Sweden, Denmark, and Holland had ended their slave trades by 1815. France, however, persisted until 1830, the Brazilians/Portuguese until 1850, and Spain until as late as 1867. As with Britain, slavery in the Europeans’ colonies survived longer than their Atlantic slave trades. Although revolutionary France had abolished slavery in 1794, France actually reintroduced slavery in 1802, and then did not finally emancipate its slaves until 1848.

Sweden emancipated its slaves in 1848, Denmark a year later, and the Netherlands as late as 1863. Spain, wrestling with the independence movements in its various American settlements, clung to slavery until between 1870 and 1873 in Puerto Rico and until 1886 in Cuba. Brazil finally ended slavery in 1888, although it had been long in decline there, and most slaves had been freed long before then. Of course slavery was not equally important throughout the Americas. Where it had been marginal, it was quickly ended (Chile, 1823; Mexico, 1829). In the short period between 1842 and 1855, slaves were emancipated in Uruguay, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Venezuela, and Peru.

Slavery in the United States survived (thrived, really) until destroyed in the violence of the Civil War. The rise of Northern abolition, the pressure from abroad (notably from Britain), and the remarkable Underground Railroad did little to deflate the success of Southern slavery, which was buoyed by the global demand for cotton (channeled mainly through the mills of industrial Lancashire). There is little reason to doubt that without the Civil War, U.S. slavery would have continued.

It took a relatively short time for British and American abolitionists to end their respective slave trades, which they both did in 1807. Yet it was to take another century before slavery itself was finally ended throughout the Americas. And even then, slavery lived on, if not in the Americas, then in many other regions of the world. For their part, the British turned from slavery to a revival of indentured labor (from India) to fill the demand for labor throughout the far-flung British Empire. By 1914 the British had shipped almost 1.5 million Indians into indentured servitude.

Throughout much of the Americas, slavery was undermined by a complex mix of cultural and political forces. A transformation in cultural values was set in motion by Enlightenment thinkers, the seismic impact of the French Revolution, and above all by the Haitian revolt—and, of course, by slaves everywhere, who added their voices and actions to demands for freedom. British abolitionists, as well, exerted a remarkable and persistent pressure. Another wider, less easily defined influence was the modernizing of Western society, notably the impact of industrialization, with its emphasis on economic freedom. The precepts of Adam Smith converged with the examples of British industrial power to prove that wage labor was more efficient than slavery and unfree labor. It seemed indisputable, by the mid-nineteenth century, that free labor was more profitable (and ethically more acceptable) than slavery. Yet this did not seem true in the U.S. South. Moreover the cotton grown by American slaves in the first half of the nineteenth century made possible the rise and power of Britain’s major industry—the cotton industry of the northwest. Thus, even in this, its last phase, black slavery continued to make economic sense in certain regions and under certain circumstances. Though U.S. slavery was Southern, it lay at the heart of American economic power. Slave-grown cotton provided the nation with its largest export by far; it steered profits, investment, and business back to Northern cities and institutions. U.S. slavery held within its powerful gravitational pull a host of other major industries and economic institutions. On the eve of the Civil War, there was little reason to feel that U.S. slavery had had its day.

Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies, 23rd April 1848. (1849).

Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies, 23rd April 1848. (1849).

In the half-century between British and Brazilian emancipation, the Americas were purged of colonial slavery. Britain, the major slave power of the eighteenth century, had become the major abolitionist power of the nineteenth century. Yet slavery had proved a really durable system (though in truth it was a series of slave systems—it varied greatly), simply because it yielded such material benefits. Moreover, once slavery took root, it could not easily be displaced, even under changed economic circumstances. Slavery tended to take on a life of its own, and slave owners became attached to the broader culture of slave-ownership and could not imagine life without slavery. Slaves, on the other hand, derived little from the system and struggled, throughout, to escape from it, alleviate it, or bring it to an end. Across the Americas slavery had started slowly and unpredictably. It was finally brought to an end in an equally piecemeal fashion.

Next post:

Previous post: