*** abolitionist movements

The African Slave Trade: Abolitionist Movements

Figure 1.--Important abolitionist movements developed in Christian countries, especially Britain and America. No comparable movement developed in the Arab and larger Islamic world. Here we see a 'Harpers' illustration depicting an Arab slave dhow in the Mediterranean Sea. The caption read, "The Slave-Ship—Sighting an English Cruiser”. We see the deck of a dhow with captive Africans aboard. 'Harpers' offers no information on the source of this image. In the text of the accompanying article we are told, “This sketch represents a slave ship in the Mediterranean, near the coast of Africa, where a large cargo of slaves has been taken on board. In the distance an English cruiser is sighted, and the officers of the slave ship are preparing to hoist sale (sic) and try to make their escape.” Source: 'Harper’s Weekly', Vol. 18 (April 25, 1874).

The role of religion in the African slave trade is mixed. Christian rulers and the Vatican had no moral quams about enslaving Africans and Nuslims, although Native Americans wre a different matter. The matter was debated at great length in the Spanish court. Islamic rulers also had no quams about enslabing Africans as well as Christians. It was, however, Christian Churches that proved to be the core od the abolitinist movement--primarily Protestant churches. And the Protestant churches in two countries were at the heart of the abolitionist movement--Britain and America. This was critical. Britain with its powerful Royal Navy was the only country capable of stoping the shipment of Africans by sea. Abolitionist movements in other countries would have had only a minor impact on the slave trade. America was key because as long slavery continued in America, slavery contined as a Western institution. American Abolitionists could not end slavery in America because of constitutional guarantees of state's rights. What the abolitionist movement did was to essentially create a movement in the south to secceed from the Union. Unlike the Christian West there never was an abolitionist movement within Islam which is why Islamic slavery continurf into the 20th century.

Christian Movement

A key role in ending the African slave trade was the development of an abolition movement in Britain. Here Christians played a cerntral role. The movement might be dated from the publication of John Wesley's Thought upon Slavery (1774). Wilberforce and Clarkson were two other key figures. The movement founded the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787). Debates in Parliament commenced shortly afterwards (1789). The abolitionists managed to get a bill committing Britain to ending the slave trade (1792). The insertion of the world "gradual" and the lack of a time table meant that little was done. Opponents claimed thst it would put Britain at a disadvantage to other countries. Another bill failed narowly (1796) and Britain's attention turned increasingly to Revolutionary France. Several parlimentarians played an important role. The Whig Party played an important role. Several parlimentarians played important roles. One was Henry Peter Brougham. The abolitionists after several years of work suceeding in passing a bill in ablolishing the slave trade in conquered territories (1805). This was finally followed with the passage of the bill outlawing the slave trade in the British Empire (1807). [Pollock] This was a major step because Britain with its powerful Royal Navy after Trafalgur (1805) dominated the world's oceans. Britain was the only country with the capability of ending the slave trade. The abolitionist movement in America was much weaker than in Britain. And as it developed it was highly sectional. The Abolitionist movement in America was built around Protestant churches in the northern states. At first Quakers were the most prominent voice, but other religious groups in the North also began to question slavery. Southern churches, however, saw no religious problem with slavery. Southern slaves, however, saw considerable paralells with the bondage of the people of Israel in Egypt and their plight. Some authors insist that political and ecomomic factors are nore important than moral issues. These are factors which should not be ignored, but it is interesting to note that many countries did not have abolitionist movements of importance and there was no abolitionist movement at all in the Muslim world.

Muslim World

I know of no abolitionist movement in the Arab or wider Islamic world. There is nothing in the Arab or Muslim world comparable to the largely Christan-based Abolitionist Movement in England and America that brought about an end to slave trade and slavery itself. We are not sure why there was no Islamic abolitionist movement. I assume it was because the Holy Koran clearly scantions slavery. Thus Islamic clerics and theologians, unlike their Christian counterparts, never challenged an institution so clearly scantioned by the Koran. Hopefully our Muslim readers can provide us more information about this. As a result, the British had to work with an Arab world that was not morally outraged by slavery. In fact, the Arab world generally saw religion scanction for slavery in the Koran itself. And there was considerable resistance to British efforts to end the slave trade. The Madhist rebellion in the Sudan in which General Gordon was killed is a prime example. Slavery was gradually abolished in the Middle East, almost entirelky because of British and other Europen actions. And as a result, aolition was not always fully observed by the Arabs. Abolition in many countries was taken under pressure from European countries (mostly the British) or after the creation of European protectorates and colonies.


Jennings, Lawrence C. French Anti-Slavery: The Movement for the Abolition of Slavery in France, 1802-1848 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 320 p.

Pollock, John. Wilberforce: God’s Statesman (1977, 2001).


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Created: 2:27 AM 4/12/2010
Last updated: 5:19 AM 12/10/2013