The campaign for freedom

The British slave trade was ended in 1807. This meant that the actual buying of slaves from Africa was no longer allowed. However, Africans and their descendants were still held as slaves, working on plantations in the British-owned Caribbean islands. Slaves could buy their freedom or be freed by their owner, a legal process called ‘manumission’. Shown here is a letter about the manumission (or freeing) of Mary Ellis, in 1819. Mary was a slave on a plantation on the island of Jamaica in the Caribbean. In the letter a Bristol woman gives a female slave on the Lodge Estate in Jamaica her freedom (her brother deals with the matter on her behalf). Limited numbers of slaves were given their freedom, probably few could afford to buy it. By the 1820s the anti-slavery campaigners turned their attention to ‘emancipation’, that is, the actual freedom of slaves.

Plantation owners were sure that their property would be ruined once slaves were freed. They feared widespread violence and a severe shortage of workers for the plantations. Pro-slavery campaigners argued that their opponents, the anti-slavery campaigners, exaggerated the conditions on the plantations, making them sound worse than they really were. They claimed that the anti-slavery campaigners showed only punishments, whilst in fact the slaves on the plantations were happy, well-fed and contented. They denied that slavery was particularly cruel. Pro-slavery activists compared the situation of the slaves to that of the poor at home in England and Ireland. They said that slaves could expect food, shelter and medical care all their lives from their masters. The English and Irish poor could not expect anyone to provide for them. This made the poor at home seem worse off than the slaves, according to the campaign by those who did not want slavery to end.