Timeline of Parliamentary Activity
|1787:||The Middle Passage Act|
|1788:||103 petitions are handed into Parliament.|
|1792:||310 petitions are handed into Parliament, the greatest number submitted about one subject, totalling over 400,000 names. The debate rages.|
|1776:||David Hartley proposes the first bill to the House of Commons - that the Slave Trade is contrary to the laws of God and the rights of man. It is defeated.|
|1790:||William Wilberforce presents the first abolition Bill to the House of Commons, but it does not pass.|
|1792:||House of Commons votes in favour of the abolition of the trade but the Bill is rejected by the House of Lords.|
|1807:||The Bill is passed in February and becomes law on 25 March.|
Chapter 6: Parliamentary Process
The Parliamentary process leading to abolition was a difficult one. Many of those who sat in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords had connections to some aspect of the Triangular Trade. Even if they had no direct relationship, as men of power and wealth they usually had other business interests that required the British economy to be successful. It was no great surprise that the first bill introduced in 1776 to abolish the trade failed.
John Anderson, the nephew of Richard Oswald, the Scottish merchant and slave trader, sat in Parliament as an MP. John Anderson had inherited part of his uncle's empire, and had also been a slave ship captain. He was determined to continue with the practice of the trade. He spoke out against abolition and voted to keep the trade alongside MPs representing Liverpool.
The fight was difficult, with many influential people from across Britain writing and campaigning on the issue. The events of the French revolution frightened some politicians out of challenging the status quo. However after much lobbying the tide began to turn.
In 1792, after receiving 519 petitions, Parliament debated whether to abolish the Slave Trade. The Scottish MP Henry Dundas proposed an amendment which inserted the word "gradually" in the motion. So the House of Commons pledged to "gradually abolish" the British Slave Trade.
"How Sir! Is this enormous evil ever to be eradicated, if every nation waits till the agreement of all the world shall have been obtained? There is no nation in Europe that has, on the one hand, plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain, or that is so likely, on the other, to be looked up to as an example."
William Pitt, Prime Minister, 1792
In 1806 Wilberforce called upon his brother-in-law and fellow abolitionist James Stephen to help him with the legal arguments for drafting a bill. Stephen had spent much of his youth in Aberdeenshire with his Scottish born parents and grandparents; he had attended Aberdeen University and was greatly influenced by his Scottish lecturer James Beattie, the evangelical academic and opponent of the trade and slavery. As a lawyer associated with Parliament he had been posted to St Kitts in the Caribbean in an official post. He was horrified by the treatment of the enslaved and described a slave trial as violating 'every principle' of law. On his return he wrote abolitionist pamphlets. It was his careful legal drafting and the closing of potential loopholes in the legislation that went to Parliament that helped to make the 1807 Bill a success when it was finally passed in Parliament in February 1807.
Credit: Image of the sale of estates, pictures and slaves in the Rotunda, New Orleans, from A Tribute for the Negro, by William Armistead. A copy of the book is held by Glasgow City Libraries.