How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery





At its peak in the late 18th century, the transatlantic slave trade enriched British planters. In their cocked hats and fashionably buckled shoes they built elegant town houses for themselves in the Marylebone district of London (Wimpole Street was especially coveted by “West Indians”, as white planters were then known). George III, the story goes, was peeved to encounter a planter whose coach was more resplendent than his own. “Sugar, eh?” the king loudly proclaimed.


Behind this immodest wealth lay the so-called “triangle merchants” who motivated the slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. A typical triangle voyage carried trading goods from England to Africa, then slaves from Africa to the West Indies, and finally sugar on the home stretch to England. The Atlantic crossing – the feared Middle Passage – foreshadowed the greater cruelties of the plantations, as Africans were flogged, branded with irons and ferried in stinking holds to the imperial sugar fields.


Few in Britain acknowledged that each sweet teaspoonful dissolved in an infusion of tea was an added measure of black mortality. The misery of untold numbers of Africans barely registered in pre-abolition Britain: slavery was, quite simply, an unquestioned, widely accepted, morally neutral trade.



How the British establishment tried to resist abolition is the subject of Michael Taylor’s riveting history, The Interest. After years of lobbying by William Wilberforce and other enlightened Britons, the slave trade finally was abolished in 1807. However, abolition did nothing for the 800,000 people enslaved throughout the British Empire. Systematically bred on the plantations like livestock, they were still worked almost to death.



In well-written pages, Taylor relates how slavery remained central to Britain’s economic and strategic interests. For fifteen years after 1807 almost no one campaigned to end it. The sinister-sounding West India Interest – a powerful lobby of merchants, civil servants, judges, writers, publicists, clergymen and politicians – worked hard to withhold freedom from the enslaved Africans. Fearing that abolition would precipitate the collapse of the British Empire (and loss of profit for them), they burned Wilberforce in effigy.


Among these pro-slavery diehards was the Reverend George Wilson Bridges. An Anglican eminence, Bridges blamed “do-gooder” missionaries for the Christmas 1831-32 uprising in Jamaica led by the Baptist preacher and former slave Samuel Sharpe. Sharpe was convinced that George III had declared full freedom for his enslaved subjects and that the time had come for them to “cast off the chains”. A total of 340 rebels were hanged (among them Sharpe).  The Reverend Bridges called for all Baptists to be beaten and tarred.



The Christmas uprising finally convinced Britain that the price for maintaining slavery was too high. In the summer of 1833, fearing further unrest, Westminster passed the Emancipation Bill, which ameliorated the condition of black people but still fell short of what the abolitionists had hoped for. As the price of their freedom, slaves were now obligated to work full time (and without pay) as “apprentices” for their masters. It was still a form of slavery. Victory at last came four years later, on 1 August 1838, when parliament officially declared that “apprenticed” men, women and children in Britain’s former slave-driver colonies truly were free. On paper at least, slavery was dead. Taylor’s magnificent book opens a window onto a most shameful commerce.


This review first appeared in the London Evening Standard on 6 Noember 2020