The Ending of Atlantic Slavery

Slaves working in a gold mine in Brazil
“The slave trade was abolished in 1807 thanks to William Wilberforce.” Right? If only it was...

In fact, Africans continued to be shipped across the Atlantic until the 1860s. The numbers involved were staggering: 431,000 were landed in the 1820s in Brazil alone. People trafficking continued on this epic scale because slavery as an institution continued to flourish far into the nineteenth century. Slavery persisted in the British and French empires until 1833 and 1848 respectively, and in some parts of the Americas – like Cuba, Brazil and the United States – it expanded enormously.

The ending of Atlantic slavery was neither quick, nor easy, nor straightforward. As late as the 1850s slavery seemed an inevitable part of life in the New World. Yet slavery did perish. Sometimes it did so because of humanitarian campaigning and international agreement between the major European powers. More often though, slavery was ended through violence: by rebellions of the enslaved themselves – like that in Haiti in the 1790s – or through wars brought about disputes over slavery – like the Civil War that broke out in the United States in 1861.

Slavery’s downfall raises fundamental questions about how historical change comes about. Was slavery becoming economically redundant in the nineteenth century? Or was it being undermined by changes in religious belief?

We’ll study these problems using a variety of sources: from eye-witness accounts of the slave trade, to poems and broadsides urging consumer boycotts of slave-produced goods, to government reports on the process of emancipation in the West Indies. We’ll also look at how slavery and abolition are remembered today at places like the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.

Reading list
We always recommend that students read widely around their subject, deepening their knowledge and understanding, and some suggested reading is listed below:

Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History and Slavery and Anti Slavery (2009).

Chris Evans, Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery 1660-1850 (2010).