You are currently viewing A Struggle for Freedom: Why Did Britain Abolish Slavery?

A Struggle for Freedom: Why Did Britain Abolish Slavery?

The abolition of slavery signified a moral awakening as well as significant political, economic, and social changes during an important period in British history. After playing a major role in the transatlantic slave trade, Britain finally took the lead in the struggle to abolish slavery.

Historical Background of Slavery in Britain

Slavery has a long and intricate history dating back several centuries in Britain. Over time, the system of slavery changed, taking on many forms and customs that influenced the social, economic, and cultural makeup of the country.

The transatlantic slave trade was not the same as slavery in medieval Britain. It was more of a condition placed on people as a result of debt, their legal position, or their status as prisoners of war than it was solely based on race. The organization was closely linked to the feudal system and, in certain instances, bore similarities to serfdom, a kind of land ownership for people.

A new phase in Britain’s relationship with slavery began with the introduction of the transatlantic slave trade in the late 16th century. African slaves were transported to the American colonies via British ships, where they were made to perform grueling labor on plantations and in other businesses. Economic factors drove the slave trade since it was very profitable and contributed to the expansion of the British Empire.

The British abolitionist movement began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Prominent individuals like Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce actively pushed to abolish the slave trade. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, was the result of their combined efforts.

Slavery was not immediately abolished as a result of the historic law; it was a major step in that direction. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which demanded the total freedom of all slaves inside the British Empire, came afterwards, but there was a catch to this emancipation: before being fully released, former slaves had to serve as “apprentices” for a certain number of years. Due to controversy, the “apprenticeship” system was finally outlawed in 1838.

A controversial feature of the Slavery Abolition Act was compensating slave owners for the loss of their “property.” Thousands of people received this significant compensation, which has since become the subject of debate and controversy.

Ex-slaves in Britain and her colonies faced several difficulties in their lives following freedom. In addition to having few economic possibilities, they experienced prejudice and discrimination. Even now, injustice and inequality endure in many forms.

The United Kingdom and its former colonies have been profoundly and permanently impacted by the history of slavery in the nation. Complex racial and socioeconomic inequality legacies have been left behind by it. This history and its ramifications have become increasingly apparent in recent years. Discussions concerning efforts to honor the victims of the slave trade, restitution for descendants of enslaved individuals, and public education campaigns regarding this unpleasant period in British history have been spurred by this.

Human Rights Onslaught Affect

The Enlightenment had a significant influence on political philosophy at this time due to its emphasis on reason, equality, and individual rights. More people started to identify with the Enlightenment principles of liberty and human rights. Scholars like John Locke and Thomas Paine helped to foster a growing conversation about how these ideals and slavery are incompatible. The ideals upheld throughout the Enlightenment were in sharp contrast to the atrocities of slavery.

The argument of Locke, which was most famously presented in his “Two Treatises of Government,” maintained that people have inherent rights to life, liberty, and property, stating that the government was in place to protect these basic liberties. As it became clear that enslaving people was a clear violation of their inalienable rights, Locke’s ideas provided the foundation for the movement to challenge slavery.

Thomas Paine, a proponent of American independence who wrote “Common Sense,” agreed with Locke’s Enlightenment ideas. Paine’s defense of individual rights and self-governance served as a focal point for the American Revolution. He also saw how these principles were at odds with slavery. Paine angrily denounced slavery in his later theory, “African Slavery in America,” calling it a breach of human rights and an insult to the fundamental ideas that drove the revolution.

The institutions of slavery were opposed by the ideologies of Locke and Paine, which emphasized the value of individual rights and the necessity of defending them against capricious power. The political discourse of the time was influenced by their beliefs, which shaped abolitionists’ arguments.

Read More: 8 Different Ways to Combat Human Trafficking

Financial Reasoning

A complicated combination of political processes, moral concerns, and economic interests led to the abolition of slavery in Britain. In the drive for abolition, moral and humanitarian grounds were crucial, but economic concerns also had a part to play.

1. Economic Amendments

The economic climate in Britain was shifting by the late 18th century. The country was moving from an agrarian-based economy to one centered on industry and commerce as industrialization gained speed. Even if slavery was profitable in some ways, it was becoming less and less important to the British economy, which was concentrating more on industrial output and technical advancement.

2. New Sectors of Industry

Iron, coal mining, and textiles were among the new sectors that were expanding quickly. These sectors gave the working class job options. They believed that ending slavery served their economic interests by assisting in the redress of the unfair labor practices and economic disparities they had experienced.

3. Business Interests of Abolitionists

Abolition was favored by several British companies and people engaged in commerce, banking, and industry for both strategic and ethical grounds. They understood that keeping slaves would be bad for Britain’s standing abroad and for its connections with other countries, which might jeopardize its commercial interests in international trade.

4. Competition and Human Capital

Britain did not spread the benefits from the transatlantic slave trade and plantation economy equally. While most people in the nation did not benefit greatly, a small number of affluent plantation owners and slave dealers did. Some believed that the continuation of slavery stunted economic growth because it kept money from being more fairly dispersed over a wider range of businesses and geographical areas but instead concentrated it in the hands of a small number of people.

5. World Economic Situations

Britain was becoming a major player in the world economy and possessed a vast colonial empire. Upholding slavery went against the nation’s reputation as a defender of justice and liberty. The abolition of slavery promoted international collaboration and commerce while also assisting Britain in adjusting to global economic changes.

6. Public Opinion and Political Influence

Political dynamics were impacted by the abolitionist movement. Abolitionist sentiment was becoming more and more popular in Parliament, and public pressure to act came mostly from moral and financial considerations.

Haitian Revolutionary Movement

The events of the Haitian Revolution had a deep and enduring influence on Britain, despite being far removed from the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti). This revolution, which resulted in the creation of the independent nation of Haiti in 1804, had a variety of effects on Britain, from societal shifts and cultural influences to political and diplomatic issues. 

The Haitian Revolution brought up significant issues regarding slavery and its effects on the British Empire. Reports and stories of the revolt made the cruel and terrible character of slavery in the Caribbean, especially in Saint-Domingue, more evident to the British audience. The public’s perception of the atrocities of the slave system was greatly influenced by these tales.

The Haitian Revolution added impetus to the British abolitionist movement, which had been gathering strength for years. William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Granville Sharp were among the British abolitionists who spoke out against slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, highlighting the brutality and injustices of the Caribbean slave system and utilizing the Haitian Revolution as a compelling argument against it.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was approved by the British Parliament in 1807 as a result of growing pressure from abolitionists and a public that was becoming more conscious of the cruelty of slavery. Following the passage of this Act, which outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, Britain’s role in the trade underwent a dramatic sea change. This legislative amendment was greatly influenced by the triumph of the Haitian Revolution.

The Haitian Revolution affected Britain on a diplomatic and global level. It upended long-standing colonial powers and commercial routes throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean regions. Navigating its connections with the fledgling nation of Haiti and its European equivalents was a challenge for Britain, a powerful naval and colonial force. The Haitian Revolution had an impact on Britain’s foreign policy choices and its place in the world’s geopolitics.

It also had an intellectual and cultural impact. Many British poets, intellectuals, and artists found inspiration in the idea of oppressed people effectively rising up against their rulers. It served as an inspiration for creative and literary works that emphasized themes of resistance and independence. It added to the expanding conversation in British society about colonialism, racism, and human rights.

The free and enslaved black people in Britain saw the Haitian Revolution as a sign of hope and emancipation. They felt empowered, and their own attempts to combat racism and injustice were strengthened by it.

The effects of the Haitian Revolution extended beyond the spheres of politics and academia. Being a major player in the world economy, Britain was crucial to the transatlantic slave trade. The nation’s labor arrangements and trading patterns were drastically altered by the abolition of the slave trade and the subsequent freeing of enslaved individuals inside the British Empire. 

The moral case for abolition prevailed, despite the fact that many British colonial and commercial interests suffered economically.

Global Pressure

Britain’s position on slavery was impacted by events happening around the world, and it was not insulated from them. The United States and France, among other countries, put pressure on the British government to deal with the slavery issue. The British government decided to outlaw the transatlantic slave trade and, eventually, slavery itself due to international treaties and diplomatic reasons.

Major world powers France and the United States had crucial ties with Britain. Each country has a unique history with slavery. When it came to domestic slavery, the United States was heavily influenced by the abolitionist movement. Slavery was outlawed in France during the French Revolution, but it persisted in its foreign possessions. 

Britain was required to take these nations’ positions into account when deciding how to handle its own participation in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery.

The international abolitionist movement was not limited by national borders. British abolitionists worked along with those in the US, France, and other countries. These global networks contributed to increasing the pressure on the British government to deal with the slavery issue. The worldwide abolitionist movement was able to effect change collectively because of the exchange of ideas and coordinated tactics.

The transatlantic slave trade and colonial economies dependent on slave labor constituted economic interests for the United States and France, as well as for Britain. The need to preserve economic competitiveness contributed to the difficulty of putting an end to the slave trade. Countries’ diplomatic relations with Britain were impacted by their apprehension about taking unilateral action against slavery because of the possible economic fallout.


Economic, political, social, moral, and ethical considerations all played a significant role in the difficult process of ending slavery in Britain. It was an expression of the moral and ethical awakening of the moment, a victory for human rights, and a reaction to shifting economic realities. Making it a turning point in the history of the struggle for freedom and human rights, the British movement to outlaw slavery not only helped put an end to the transatlantic slave trade but also served as an inspiration for succeeding worldwide campaigns to accomplish the same.


Why Was Slavery Abolished in Britain?

A confluence of political, economic, and moral considerations led to the abolition of slavery in Britain. Abolitionist groups, spearheaded by individuals such as William Wilberforce and motivated by Enlightenment principles, were essential in bringing attention to the cruel nature of slavery. Significant public pressure and a change in political mood resulted from this. In addition, as industry advanced in Britain, the country’s economic interests shifted, diminishing the necessity of the system of slavery.

When Was Slavery Abolished in Britain?

Slavery was gradually phased out across the British Empire. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which was passed in 1807, ended the transatlantic slave trade. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally outlawed slavery across the British Empire, although enslaved people were nevertheless required to serve as apprentices for a period of time that ended in 1838.

Did the British Government Pay Slave Owners?

Yes, the British government paid slave owners compensation for the loss of their “property” throughout the liberation process. Instead of compensating the enslaved people who had suffered for years, the government gave slave owners a total of £20 million (billions in today’s currency). In the present era, there has been debate and controversy around this recompense.

Did the Haitian Revolution Have Impact on Britain’s Decision To Outlaw Slavery?

Britain’s decision to outlaw slavery was influenced in part by the Haitian Revolution, which created Haiti as the first sovereign black republic in history. It proved that slaves might effectively rebel against oppressive regimes, which sparked more conversations about the negative effects of slavery.

Was It Britain That Outlawed Slavery First?

The United Kingdom was not the first country to outlaw slavery. Motivated by the Enlightenment and under the leadership of abolitionist Governor Peter von Scholten, Denmark-Norway ended slavery in its colonies in 1848 and the slave trade in 1792. In 1804, Haiti likewise gained independence and officially outlawed slavery, preceding the actual abolition of slavery by the British Empire.

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

Leave a Reply