Opposition to the Slave Trade in North America

Opposition to the Slave Trade in North America. Slavery was not universally approved of in British North America nor accepted by the slaves themselves. Opposition to the practise of owning Slaves was heard within the North American colonies from an early stage. Quakers, themselves the victims of persecution, spoke out from the 17th century and continued to do so until abolition. The most important form of opposition to the slave trade came from slaves themselves.

Slaves own opposition to the trade in North America

The most significant opposition to Slavery in British North America was of course that from the Slaves themselves. The Stono Rebellion in 1739 saw a large number of Slaves break free in South Carolina. They decapitated two shopkeepers before rampaging southwards towards Spanish held Florida where they believed they would be free. On route they killed at least 20 men, women and children. By the time a sizeable force was raised to address the Slave Rebellion it was large and dangerous.

Phillis Wheatley, freed slave who became a writer

The Slave of the Stono rebellion were forced to flee into the hills. Some were killed making their escape, the remainder became fugitives. Some were found, others either survived in the hills or perished. This rebellion led to the introduction of stringent measures to ensure no such rebellion would happen again. Laws were already fixed in many colonies about the rights, or lack of, based on race.

In New England there were several examples of Slaves becoming involved in debates and political correspondence relating to freedoms, liberties and the rights of man. The governor and general court of Massachusetts received petitions in 1774/5 requesting that one day per week be set aside to allow enslaved peoples to work for themselves. The purpose of this was so that they could earn money to save and buy their freedom with. Essentially the slaves are attempting to work with the system to gain the results that they wanted. The petitions were not heard prior to the American Revolution beginning.

Quaker opposition to the Slave Trade in British North America

Quakers such as Fox and Lay preached about Slavery. These two founders of the Quaker Sect were followed by others. The Quakers in Pennsylvania voiced their opposition to all forms of Slavery in 1696. Later the issue of Slavery became a standing item at the Quakers annual meetings in Philadelphia and London. Quaker Literature on the topic became influential, particularly Some Historical Account of Guinea by Anthony Benezet.

Quaker opposition included petitioning and lobbying. Their opposition was not wholly agreed within the movement: Quaker services are known to have refused to allow Blacks within their congregation. One Quaker tactic that had results was that of disowning friends who had slaves. Starting in 1758 the Quakers of Pennsylvania began doing this. The idea spread to the New England Colonies in the 1770s. The inability of slave owning Quakers elsewhere to trade with these areas led to many of them giving up their own practise of owning slaves. It was a highly effective method of passively making a point.

Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania became the first colony to end the Slave Trade. It did so largely due to the work of Dr Benjamin Rush. He had embraced ideas from the French Enlightenment. His preaching and lobbying became well known and influential. He stated of Slavery, “national crimes require national punishments”. In 1773 the Pennsylvania legislature ended Slavery in the colony. The political movement towards freedoms and liberties for the colonies led to the view that it was logical to extend such freedoms to all, ie ending Slavery. “Would it not be astonishing to hear that a people who are contending so earnestly for liberty are not willing to allow liberty to others?”Reverend Jeremy Belknap of New Hampshire, 1774.

The expansion of Slavery also drew some criticism from people not on moral grounds but due to concerns. News of Slave rebellions fuelled fears os similar happening on a grander scale, in important cities. One example of this type of fear is the Great Negro Plot of 1741. Officials heard rumours that slaves were going to burn down New York City. As 20% of the population was slaves, this was a worry. They rounded up 154 slaves and 24 whites on charges of conspiracy.

Slave ship diagram by Brooks. This, after the revolution, showed the conditions on Slave ships to North America. Such findings influenced attitudes toward slavery.

Anti-Slavery in Canada

British Canada also had Slaves. John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada passed a law in 1793 preventing Slaves being brought into the province. Another law was passed that granted freedom to Slaves born in Upper Canada on their 25th birthday. As a result, there were virtually no slaves in the Canadian provinces when the British government abolished Slavery altogether in 1834.


Myblackhistory.net – history of Slavery in British North America
Sentiments on Slavery from Edward Ayres, a specialist in the History of Jamestown.
Collections Canada – narrative of the ending of Slavery in Upper Canada.

The British Empire – Making of the United Kingdom – Economic Consequences of the British Empire– How did the Empire affect Great Britain? – Society changes: Political Thought and the British Empire – Questions about the British Empire – British Empire Teaching Resources

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