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Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas

Captive Passage
has been made
possible in part by:
National Endowment for the Humanities
Recognition of
additional sponsors
for this exhibition
can be found by
clicking on
ExhibitionSponsors.

AbolitionOutlawing the Trade: Fighting Illegal Slave Trading
A Growing Hunger for FreedomThe Struggle for Emancipation: Africans Becoming American

Outlawing the Trade: Fighting Illegal Slave Trading

An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Propriety of Abstaining from West India Sugar and Rum
An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Propriety of Abstaining from West India Sugar and Rum

...can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just...

Thomas Jefferson, 1782

By the 18thcentury, Britain had become the largest slave-trading nation in the world, but change was in the air. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed in 1787. Making their case before the British public and Parliament, the reformers called on slave ship captains and other witnesses who had firsthand knowledge of the trade's horrors.

Capture of Two Top Sail Slave Schooner Bolodora
Capture of Two Top Sail Slave Schooner Bolodora

Reform came slowly. Despite the efforts of powerful pro-slave trade interest groups, Parliament limited the number of captive Africans allowed on ships. In 1807, Britain outlawed the international slave trade all together. From 1815 to 1865, the British Royal Navy undertook anti-slavery patrols off the coast of West Africa, seizing hundreds of vessels. Britain was forced to pay compensation for seized ships even as it encouraged countries to abolish slaving.

Capture of the Slave Ship Dolores
Capture of the Slave Ship Dolores

Other countries followed Great Britain, but only slowly; illegal trading flourished until the 1860s. About one-quarter of all Africans who were enslaved between 1500 and 1870 were transported across the Atlantic in the years after 1807. Much of this illegal trade was to the sugar plantations of Cuba and Brazil.