THE HISTORY OF THE BRITISH ABOLITION MOVEMENT

"On the part of Somerset, the case which we gave notice should be decided, this day, the Court now proceeds to give its opinion….The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it's so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged."

William Murray, Lord Mansfield June 22, 1772

"England is a soil whose air is deemed too pure for slaves to breathe in."-Lord Mansfield

When the case of James Somerset vs. his master, Mr. Stewart of Virginia came before the British court on May 14th, 1772, it is doubtful that anybody present fully realized the consequences of the case and the eventual ruling of William Murray, Lord Mansfield. Different forms of slavery had been present in Great Britain for thousands of years. In one day Lord Mansfield's decision guaranteed that there would never again be slavery on British soil.

Although slavery had been outlawed on British "soil", if the sun never set on the British Empire, then the sun never set on British slaves. Mansfield's decision did nothing to prevent the extremely profitable slave trade or slavery in British colonies such as the West Indies, from continuing to prosper.

Mansfield's decision did have an incredible impact on the British movement towards the abolition of the slave trade. Along with The French Revolution, the abolition movement was one of the leading, most widely debated and important events of it's time. Leading abolitionists fought Parliament and wealthy merchants, ship captains and slave owners for decades before they could achieve their goals. In 1778 Prime Minister William Pitt introduced the first bill attempting to regulate the slave trade. William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharpe, three of the more prominent leaders of the movement, fought the government and wrote constantly, while attempting to abolish the slave trade. In 1792 Wilberforce and Pitt brought a motion before the House of Commons calling for the gradual abolition of the slave trade. Due to the collective strength of the West Indian lobby, this motion was denied. In 1799, 1801 and 1802, more attempts led by Pitt, Wilberforce and Clarkson to have the government regulate the slave trade were failures.

Finally in 1804, a general abolition bill was passed and then tabled. This was a devastating setback; however, victory was imminent. In 1805 the House of Commons barely defeated yet another bill calling for abolition. At last, in 1807, thirty-five years after Mansfield's ruling Parliament formally abolished the slave trade.

Although the trading of slaves was now against the law , and soon to be punishable by death, hundreds of thousands of slaves were still in bondage on British soil. To the abolitionists and the increasingly larger following they had, this was completely unacceptable. At first, progress was dreadfully slow; however, help came when the soon to be quite powerful British Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1823. Featuring the slogan "Am I Not a Man and a Brother" (see art) the British Anti-Slavery society would petition and fight indefatigably until there were no British slaves anywhere in the world. Without the efforts of women, writers and non-writers alike, emancipation might never have been obtained. In 1832, the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society submitted a petition to Parliament-with 187,000 names on it. It could have been this petition that secured Th. passing of the Great Emancipation Act of 1833. Gradually, to prevent economic disaster, slaves were freed. Slavery and the slave-trade for Great Britain, and a great deal of the countries Great Britain traded with, was now a thing of the past.