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The Abolitionists
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White opposition to the slave trade was growing throughout the second half of the 18 th century. A group of Quakers formed a committee against the trade in 1783; presented a petition to Parliament and distributed anti-slavery leaflets. Quakers also made up the majority of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, set up in 1787 and chaired by Granville Sharpe. They were supported by a number of influential men, among them the Prime Minister William Pitt, and the MP William Wilberforce. The Society's aim at this time was not to get rid of all slavery but to end the practice of trading in slaves, and to draw the public's attention to the cruelty involved in the trade. (Some black and radical campaigners were already going further: see Ottobah Cugoano .)

One of the Society's members, Thomas Clarkson was given the responsibility of collecting information to support their campaign. He spent several years travelling the country and interviewing 20,000 sailors, often suffering death-threats in the process. The information he collected about the brutality of life on the slave-ships was a valuable tool in the abolitionists' arguments especially when supported by the samples of slavers' equipment he collected such as leg-shackles, branding irons and instruments for forcing open slaves' mouths when they would not eat.

Debates on the slavery question became common, and Parliament was deluged with anti-slavery petitions from all over the country. In 1791, Wilberforce put forward his first bill against slavery: it failed, and he put it forward again in 1792. For the next fourteen years he raised “an annual motion to abolish the trade”, producing more evidence and petitions each time, until the bill was finally passed in 1807.

Sharp , Clarkson and others went on to form the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which in 1823 became the Anti-Slavery Society. This society, like the previous ones, excluded women, and separate women's anti-slavery groups grew up at this time. The women's groups were often more radical in their aims than the Anti-Slavery Society, which still saw abolition as a gradual process: in 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick, one of the women's leaders, published her pamphlet Immediate not Gradual Abolition , which argued passionately for the immediate freeing of the slaves in the British colonies. The women's groups, some of them major financial contributors to the Anti-Slavery Society, campaigned fiercely to change the male leadership's minds, and at its conference in May 1830, the Anti-Slavery Society agreed to campaign for immediate abolition. The following year the Society presented a petition to the House of Commons calling for the "immediate freeing of newborn children of slaves".

The Anti-Slavery Society was disbanded after the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in 1833.




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