Anti slavery

Resistance to Slavery in AfricaHawkins’s second voyage in 1564 was attacked by Africans. There were hundreds of campaigns against slavery along the African coast between the 1500s and 1800s. Some of the lasting figureheads of African resistance are Kaipukire of the Herero people in South West Africa, Queen Nzingha in Angola, and King Mbembe also led resistance against Portuguese slaving in the area.

In 1712, escaped Africans beheaded the governor of the Royal African Company fort at Sekondi on the Gold Coast. By the same year, 382 slave ship revolts had been recorded. Punishment was certain death and often resulted in the brutal massacre of the Africans.


Anti rebel poster

Letter to “Rebellious Slaves” of Jamaica

This document was issued from Montego Bay as a result of the great slave rebellion of 1831 - 1832 in Jamaica. Although the rebellion was brutally suppressed, it drew more attention to the issue of slavery. It was not until 1834 that slavery was abolished in the British West Indies.

Image courtesy of The National Archives



Uprisings in the Caribbean

In 1649, on the island of Barbados, the Africans planned to free themselves and establish an independent African territory by killing the white population of the island. The plot failed and the ringleaders were executed.

By 1700 the African population had grown in the colonies by 80%. This also meant an increase in uprisings. In 1739, British soldiers were defeated in the Jamaican hills by a settlement of independent Africans whose leaders were said to be from the Ashanti people in modern Ghana. An agreement was signed and the victorious ‘Maroons’, led by ‘Queen Nanny’, were officially granted independent land.

A pattern of rebellion and resistance continued in the West Indies, South America, and along the east coast of North America. In 1767, a group of enslaved Ashanti cut their own throats following their sale. There were many methods of resistance, including working slowly as a method of sabotaging the production levels of the plantation.

The most large scale and successful act of African resistance in the West was the uprising in Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti), led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. The enslaved Africans on the French territory aggressively seized the island and expelled the French. After defeating a British invasion in 1798 aimed at recapturing the island and re-enslaving the inhabitants, L’Ouverture’s successor, Jean Jacques Dessalines, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s army and established the Independent Republic of Haiti in 1804.


Marron with a gun

Leonard Parkinson, Maroon Leader, Jamaica, 1796

"Leonard Parkinson, a captain of Maroons, taken from the Life." Parkinson was the "most obdurate and skilful of the young Maroon captains... With his small band [he] held out for more than six months.”
Image courtesy of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and University of Virginia

Toussaint L’ouverture

Toussaint L’Ouverture

This image was based on an oral description of the first leader of sovereign Black Haiti. Toussaint was kidnapped and taken to France, where he was interrogated and tortured. He died in Paris of pneumonia in 1802. He was succeeded in leadership of Haiti by Jean Jacques Dessalines.

Image courtesy of The Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia



Quakers in Philadelphia organised the very first Anti-Slavery Society in 1775, after making the first written protest against slavery in North America.

In 1774, the English Methodist Minister John Wesley published his Thoughts on Slavery as some sections of society were beginning to consider that slavery could not be reconciled with Christian values.

Seven years earlier, Olaudah Equiano purchased his freedom from his former owner, Quaker merchant Robert King, and travelled to London. He published an ‘interesting narrative’ of his own life in 1789 and embarked on a public anti-slavery political campaign, arriving in the Midlands to speak to the region’s anti-slavery societies in 1790.

The educated African presence in England encouraged anti-slavery sentiment. The distinguished image of these Africans provided a stark contrast to common myths of the time that Africans were less than human.

In 1787 James Phillips, another Quaker, founded the Committee for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. Members included Thomas Wedgewood. In 1788, Thomas Clarkson founded a group that was to become the British Anti-Slavery Society, with members including Granville Sharp, a member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, and Hull MP William Wilberforce.

The majority of public anti-slavery feeling took shape after the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, in the years leading up to the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1838. The 1807 Act stopped the capture and transport of Africans, but did not free the Africans already enslaved on the plantations.

During this period, women’s anti-slavery societies were active in encouraging the boycotting of slave-produced products such as sugar, coffee and tobacco. They produced and circulated anti-slavery literature highlighting the grim realities of free-labour economics. Their door-to-door campaign efforts resulted in public petitions to Parliament signed by large sections of the public.



Olaudah Equiano

Title Page of 'The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself', 6th Edition, 1793

Image courtesy of Connecting Histories at Birmingham City Archives


Granville Sharp

Granville Sharpe, 1794

Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

Anti-Slavery Sugar Pot, c. 1825

After the Abolition Act was passed in 1807, attention was drawn to the lives and conditions of the existing slaves in British colonies with the use of ‘anti-slavery’ brand products. The promotion of the image of helpless slaves pleading for mercy has since caused problems for those who sought freedom as a human right and not as something to be made grateful for.

Image courtesy of Museum of London