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The Slave Trade Act (citation 47 Geo III Sess. 1 c. 36) was an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdommarker passed on 25 March 1807, with the long title "An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade". The original act is in the Parliamentary Archivesmarker. The act abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, but not slavery itself; that remained legal until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. The British trade in slaves began in 1562, during the reign of Elizabeth I, when John Hawkins led the first slaving expedition.

The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed in 1787, which led the campaign that pushed the act through, was a group of Evangelical English Protestants allied with Quakers and united in their opposition to slavery and the slave trade. The Quakers had long viewed slavery as immoral, a blight upon humanity. By 1807 the abolitionist groups had a very sizable faction of like-minded members in the United Kingdom Parliamentmarker. At their height they controlled 35-40 seats.

Known as the "saints", the alliance was led by William Wilberforce, the most well known of the anti-slave trade campaigners who had taken on the cause of abolition in 1787 after having read the evidence which Thomas Clarkson had amassed against the trade. These parliamentarians had access to the legal draughtsmanship of James Stephen, Wilberforce's brother-in-law, and were extremely dedicated. They often saw their personal battle against slavery as a divinely ordained crusade. In addition, many who were formerly neutral on the slavery question were swayed to the abolitionist side from security concerns after the successful slave revolt leading to the Haitian Revolution in 1804.

Their numbers were magnified by the precarious position of the government under Lord Grenville (his short term as Prime Minister was known as Ministry of All the Talents). Grenville himself led the fight to pass the Bill in the House of Lordsmarker, while in the Commons the Bill was led by the Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox, who died before it was finally signed into law. Not long after the act was passed, Grenville's government lost power to the Duke of Portland. Despite this change, the later British governments continued to support the policy of ending the slave trade.

After the British ended their own slave trade, they pressed other nations to do the same. This reflected both a moral sense that the trade should be stopped everywhere and fear the British colonies would become uncompetitive. The British campaign against the slave trade by other nations was an unprecedented foreign policy effort. The United Statesmarker acted to abolish its African slave trade the same year (but not its internal slave trade until 1850), and like Britain, it did not abolish slavery at that time. In Britain the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was passed, whereas slavery continued on a large scale in the United States of Americamarker, which had become independent of Britain in 1783, and slavery in the United States wasn't outlawed until the suppression of the rebellion of its southern, slave-holding states under the name the Confederate States of America was defeated in the American Civil War in 1865.

Both the British and American laws were enacted in March 1807, the British law coming into force on May 1, 1807 and the American on January 1, 1808, as permitted in the U.S. Constitution. Small trading nations that did not have a great deal to give up, such as Swedenmarker, quickly followed suit, as did the Dutchmarker, also by then a minor player. The Royal Navy declared that ships transporting slaves were the same as pirates, and so ships carrying slaves were subject to destruction and any men captured were potentially subject to execution. Enforcement of the US law was less effective, and the US government refused to comply with joint enforcement, partly because of concern over British press gangs.

Between 1808 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard. Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example against "the usurping King of Lagosmarker", deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers.

In the 1860s, David Livingstone's reports of atrocities within the Arab slave trade in Africa stirred up the interest of the British public, reviving the flagging abolitionist movement. The Royal Navy throughout the 1870s attempted to suppress "this abominable Eastern trade", at Zanzibarmarker in particular. In 1890 Britain handed control of the strategically important island of Heligolandmarker in the North Sea to Germany in return for control of Zanzibar to help enforce the ban on slave trading.


  1. William Wilberforce (1759-1833)
  2. Sailing against slavery. By Jo Loosemore BBC
  3. The West African Squadron and slave trade
  4. Welcome to Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Black History
  5. The Blood of a Nation of Slaves in Stone Town

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