Slavery in Britain and Ireland

Slavery in Britain and Ireland

Slavery in Britain and Ireland dated back to the times of Roman occupation. It was finally abolished by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, with some exceptions for part of the British Empire. The prohibition on slavery and servitude is codified under Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

Before 1066

During and after Roman times, the practice of slavery was common in England. Anglo-Saxons continued and expanded their slave system, sometimes in league with Norse traders. [ [ Slave Trading in Anglo-Saxon and Viking England] ] Chattel slavery of English Christians was discontinued when William of Normandy conquered England in 1066. [Cite web| title = William the Conqueror| accessdate = 2007-05-20| url =] [Cite web | title = A Brief History of Slavery, note organizer| accessdate = 2007-05-20 | url =,,,]

Middle Ages

According to the Domesday Book census in 1086, 10% of England's population was enslaved. [ [ Domesday Book Slave] ] The trade in serfs and slaves in England was abolished in 1102. [ [ British History Freedom – Timeline – 12th Century] ] [ [ House of Commons Hansard Debates for 20 Mar 2007] ] The legal force of the event is actually open to question. The Council of Westminster, a collection of nobles, issued a decree: "Let no one hereafter presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were usually sold like brute animals." However, the Council had no legislative powers, and no act of law was valid unless signed by the monarch. Fact|date=February 2007 The last form of enforced servitude (villeinage) had disappeared in Britain by the beginning of the 17th century.


Slavery resurfaced in that century as a form of punishment against Catholics. As many as 100,000 Irish men, women and children were forcibly taken to the colonies in the British West Indies and British North America as indentured servants after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. [ [ BBC The curse of Cromwell] ] In the 17th century, slavery was used as punishment by conquering English Parliament armies against native Catholics in Ireland. Between the years 1659 and 1663, during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland by the New Model Army, under the command of Oliver Cromwell, thousands of Irish Catholics were forced into servitude. Cromwell had a deep dislike of the Catholic religion, and many Irish Catholics who had participated in Confederate Ireland had all their land confiscated and were transported to the British West Indies as indentured servants.

It was uncommon for Scottish Highlanders and other Scotsmen to be forcibly taken and transported abroad at this time. The need for labour in the Virginia plantations and West Indies allowed unscrupulous individuals to "press gang" unwary or naïve locals onto ships, bound for the Americas. Once at their destination, these people were indentured to plantation owners against their will. They were released eventually, unlike Africans similarly employed. Many made enough money to buy passage back to Scotland, whence they had come. These actions were justified because the persons in question were labelled as indigent, and under a 1652 law such people could be deported to overseas colonies. [ [ White Slavery, what the Scots already know ] ] .

Furthermore, long before the Highland Clearances, it was not unknown for some unscrupulous chiefs eg Ewan Cameron of Lochiel (The Gentle Lochiel), having the power of life and death over their clan, to unemotionally sell off some his own clan into virtual slavery in America, to alleviate over-population and lack of food resources in his glens.

It is also on record that a considerable number of Highland Jacobite supporters, who had been captured in the aftermath of Culloden and subsequently the rigorous Government sweeps of the Highlands to root out Jacobite fugitives and transgressors of the new laws against Highland culture itself, lanquished in foetid prison hulks on the River Thames for months, until sentenced to transportation to the Carolinas as indentured servants/slaves. [(John Prebble: Culloden 1963)]

Workhouse slavery

From the 17th century to the 19th century workhouses took in people whose poverty left them no other alternative, and they were employed under slave conditions. Workhouses took in abandoned babies, usually presumed to be illegitimate, and when they grew old enough, they were used as child labour; children famously exploited in the workhouse include Charles Dickens's fictional Oliver Twist and real life Henry Morton Stanley. Only in 1833 and 1844 were the first general laws against child labour, the Factory Acts, passed in England. [ [ The Life of the Industrial Worker in 19th-Century Britain] ]

Barbary pirates

On June 20, 1631, in an event known as the Sack of Baltimore, the village of Baltimore in County Cork, Ireland was attacked by Algerian pirates from the North African Barbary Coast. The pirates killed two villagers and captured almost the whole population of over 100 people, who were put in irons and taken to a life of slavery in North Africa.

Villagers along the south coast of England petitioned the king to protect them from abduction by Barbary pirates. Item 20 of The Grand Remonstrance, [ [ "The Grand Remonstrance, with the Petition accompanying it"] , "Constitution Society", URL last accessed 2006-12-06.] a list of grievances against Charles I and presented to him in 1641, contains the following complaint about Barbary pirates of the Ottoman Empire abducting English people into slavery:

:"20. And although all this was taken upon pretense of guarding the seas, yet a new unheard-of tax of ship-money was devised, and upon the same pretense, by both which there was charged upon the subject near £700,000 some years, and yet the merchants have been left so naked to the violence of the Turkish pirates, that many great ships of value and thousands of His Majesty's subjects have been taken by them, and do still remain in miserable slavery."

African slaves

The first Englishman recorded to have taken slaves from Africa was John Lok, a London trader who, in 1555, brought to England five slaves from Guinea. There have been rumours that he was assisted by a man called James Gray. A second London trader taking slaves at that time was William Towerson whose fleet sailed into Plymouth following his 1556 voyage to Africa and from Plymouth on his 1557 voyage.

Despite the exploits of Lok and Towerson, Admiral Sir John Hawkins of Plymouth, one of most well known of the Elizabethan seafarers, is widely acknowledged to be "the Pioneer of the English Slave Trade", a respectable title in his time and centuries afterwards, but nowadays a badge of infamy. In 1554–1555, Hawkins formed a slave trading syndicate of wealthy merchants, sailed with three ships for the Caribbean via Sierra Leone, hijacked a Portuguese slave ship and sold the 300 slaves from it in Santo Domingo — making a profit despite having two ships seized by the Spanish authorities. A second voyage in 1564 involved the kidnapping of about 400 Africans and selling them at Rio de la Hacha, despite the strong opposition of the local Spanish authorities (who did not object to slave trading as such, but to an Englishman breaking into the market), thus making a 60% profit for his financiers. A third voyage involved both buying slaves directly in Africa and again capturing a Portuguese ship with its cargo. On his return, he published a book entitled "An Alliance to Raid for Slaves" — in effect, a kind of "how to" manual for slave traders following him.

Triangular trade

By the 18th century, the slave trade became a major economic mainstay for such cities as Bristol and Liverpool, engaged in the so-called "Triangular trade". The ships set out from England, loaded with trade goods which were exchanged on the West African shores for slaves captured by local rulers from deeper inland; the slaves were transported, in conditions of inhuman crowding, through the infamous "middle passage" across the Atlantic, and were sold a considerable profit for labor in plantations; and there the ship loaded with the product of slave labour, such as sugar and rum, on their way back to England.

Judicial decisions

John Locke, the philosophical champion of the Glorious Revolution though he did not practice as he preached, argued against slavery (Ch.IV) and asserted that ‘every man has property in his own person’ (§27, Ch.V). By the 18th century African slaves began to be brought into London and Edinburgh as personal servants. In a number of judicial decisions between slave merchants, it was tacitly accepted that slavery of Africans was legalFact|date=August 2008. In "Butts v. Peny" (1677) 2 Lev 201, 3 Keb 785, an action was brought to recover possession of 100 slaves. The court held that slavery was legal in England in relation to infidels and that an action for trover would lie. [See also "Gelly v. Cleve" (1694) 1 Ld Raym 147; later applying different reasoning "Chamberlain v. Harvey" (1697) 1 Ld Raym 146 and "Smith v Gould" (1705-07) 2 Salk 666]

But agitation saw a series of judgments repulse the tide of slavery. In Smith v. Gould (1705-07) 2 Salk 666, Holt CJ stated that by

‘the common law no man can have a property in another.’

But in 1729 the then-Attorney General and Solicitor General of England signed the Yorke-Talbot slavery opinion expressing their view (and, by implication, that of the Government) that slavery of Africans was lawful in England. At this time slaves were openly bought and sold on markets at London and Liverpool. Slavery was also accepted in England's many colonies.

Lord Henley LC said in "Shanley v. Harvey" (1763) 2 Eden 126, 127 that as

‘soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free.’

But it was not until "R v. Knowles, ex parte Somersett" (1772) 20 State Tr 1 the law was settled. A man called James Somersett was the slave of a Boston customs officer. They came to England, and Somersett escaped. Captain Knowles captured him and took him on his boat, Jamaica bound. Three abolitionists, saying they were his ‘godparents’, applied for a writ of "habeas corpus". One of Somerset's lawyers, Francis Hargrave, stated "In 1569, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a lawsuit was brought against a man for beating another man he had bought as a slave overseas. The record states, 'That in the 11th [year] of Elizabeth [1569] , one Cartwright brought a slave from Russia and would scourge him; for which he was questioned; and it was resolved, that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in.'" He argued that the court had ruled in Cartwright's case that English Common Law made no provision for slavery, and without a basis for its legality, slavery would otherwise be unlawful as false imprisonment and/or assault. ["Matter of Cartwright", 11 Elizabeth; 2 Rushworth's Coll 468 (1569) [] ] In his judgment of 22 June 1772, Lord Chief Justice William Murray, Lord Mansfield, of the Court of King's Bench, started by talking about the capture and forcible detention of Somersett.

‘So high an act of dominion must derive its authority, if any such it has, from the law of the kingdom where executed. A foreigner cannot be imprisoned here on the authority of any law existing in his own country: the power of a master over his servant is different in all countries, more or less limited or extensive; the exercise of it therefore must always be regulated by the laws of the place where exercised. The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of now being introduced by Courts of Justice upon mere reasoning or inferences from any principles, natural or political; it must take its rise from positive law; the origin of it can in no country or age be traced back to any other source: immemorial usage preserves the memory of positive law long after all traces of the occasion; reason, authority, and time of its introduction are lost; and in a case so odious as the condition of slaves must be taken strictly, the power claimed by this return was never in use here; no master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever; we cannot say the cause set forth by this return is allowed or approved of by the laws of this kingdom, therefore the man must be discharged.’ [The last sentence is also quoted as, "Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged."]

Several different reports of Mansfield's long deliberated, but ultimately very short, decision appeared, and most disagree as to what was actually said. The decision was only given orally, and so no formal written record of it was issued by the court. Abolitionists widely circulated the view that it was declared that the condition of slavery did not exist under English law, although Mansfield himself later said that all that he actually decided was that a slave could not be forcibly removed from England against his will. [See generally, S.M.Wise, "Though the Heavens May Fall", Pimlico (2005)] Mansfield had in his household and family someone who would have been covered by this ruling; his marriage was childless, and he and his wife were raising Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed race daughter of his late nephew, a Navy man, and an unknown enslaved African woman.


The Church of England was later implicated in slavery. Slaves owned by the Anglican Church's Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts on its sugar plantations in the West Indies had the word "society" branded on their chests with red-hot irons. When slaves were emancipated by Act of the British Parliament in 1834 the British government paid compensation to slave owners. In one case the Bishop of Exeter and three business colleagues received compensation for the 665 slaves they had to set free.

It was not until William Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the trade in the British Empire, and not until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that it was abolished "per se", but even then were exceptions for possessions of the East India Company, in Ceylon and on St. Helena.

Modern evaluation

Southwark Bishop Thomas Butler, at the Anglican Church's General Synod in 2006 stated "The profits from the slave trade were part of the bedrock of our country's industrial development". While the profits of the slave trade and of West Indian plantations amounted to less than 5% of the British economy at the time of the Industrial Revolution, slave labour did produce the major consumer goods that were the basis of world trade during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: coffee, cotton, rum, sugar, and tobacco. [ [ Was slavery the engine of economic growth?] ]

ee also

* Slavery at common law


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