Bitter Sweet History - aspects of the British Slave Trade

The Abolition Movement: The local perspective

In Britain, at the end of the 18th century something unprecedented happened. Large numbers of people organised themselves and campaigned, not on their own behalf, but for the rights of others; others of a different race and colour, in a different part of the world.


Those who campaigned included ordinary working people as well as the educated and influential. Abolition became one of the first real 'grass roots' movements, and many of the mechanisms we use today in popular protest were pioneered then. The campaigners formed regional networks, organised petitions and boycotts of slave-produced goods. They even adopted a logo with the widespread use of the image of the kneeling slave.


Some of the earliest opponents to slavery were the Quakers. In 1761 they resolved that any of their community involved in the slave trade should be expelled and in 1763 this was extended to include anyone who assisted the trade indirectly.


The City of York with its influential Quaker community was active in the abolition movement. It had an anti-slavery committee who organised meetings and petitions. John Woolman, a prominent American Quaker and anti-slavery campaigner, visited York in 1772. He had contracted smallpox during his stay in England and was cared for by his fellow Quakers in York until his death.


In the city, men such as the printer William Alexander and the businessman William Tuke supported the abolition movement both practically and financially. William Tuke was a tea merchant and member of one of the leading Quaker families in York. He co-wrote an open letter addressed to fellow Quakers urging them to vote for William Wilberforce in the election of 1807. Tuke & Co. also gave £50 towards Wilberforce’s election expenses in that year.

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