Abolition of slave trade

Canon John Clarkson

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, has promoted the bicentenary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.

The event will be marked by elements of penance on March 24th this year on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the passing of the act that ended the trade.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York are to lead a walk of witness through London, accompanied by an African drummer. Churches are encouraged to send supporters to the march. The English General Synod voted last year to apologize for the church’s involvement with the trade from which bishops, clergy and lay people benefited.

For instance, the USPG, a missionary society, owned a sugar plantation in the West Indies worked by slaves A number of stamps will be produced depicting evangelical Christians who were involved in the abolition movement, such as a distant ancestor of mine,
Thomas Clarkson.

Estimates vary that between 10 and 28 million Africans were sent to the Americas and sold into slavery between 1450 and the early 19th century. By then Britain was the dominant trader transporting more than 300,000 slaves a year in shackles on disease ridden boats. William Wilberforce was the politician who, unremittingly, drove the legislation through Parliament against much opposition, especially from vested interests such as plantation owners and slave traders. The fruits of slavery were a major player in the British economy. The Churches were benign towards the issue, as St Paul did not seem to be against it.

The success of
Wilberforce's campaign was very much dependant upon the evidence that Thomas Clarkson discovered, such as torture instruments and his infamous picture of the way slaves were packed into the boats. Clarkson produced a drawing of the inside of a slave ship in 1789 where 480 slaves were packed in, lying flat on their backs, in space less the size of a coffin for a voyage that lasted six to eight weeks.

For 48 years he campaigned up and down Britain and put himself at considerable risks when he visited the docks such as Bristol and saw the ships for himself.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said in his Christmas message:

“the abolition of slavery was achieved by Christian people who were passionately persuaded of the dignity of man, touched by the incarnate Word of God; people who knew that slavery was both a terrible affront to the dignity of the slave — and a terrible wound to the spiritual health and integrity of those who owned slaves and who in virtue of that, fact, were more deeply enslaved themselves by sin and greed”.

John Newton, the author of that famous hymn 'Amazing Grace', was a slave owner before his conversion. The Archbishop also in his message posed the question, “Where, are the slaves today?”  Child soldiers, victims of sex trafficking, people who live with violence, especially abused women and children. Indigenous housing needs urgent attention.

I would hope that the dedication and perseverance of the abolitionists will inspire us all to show courage and witness to our faith by social action today wherever we come up against the injustice of inequality, dispossession and marginalization.

John Clarkson


Canon John Clarkson is a descendant of the abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson.  He is a member of the Society's Board of Governors.

This address was originally published in an Anglican Church diocesan paper in February 2007.




Last Updated April 14, 2008









  2007 by the Anti-Slavery Society. The text on any page may be reproduced provided that the source is acknowledged.  This does not apply to photos.