The British West Indies were islands that were colonized by Great Britain, stretching across the Caribbean from Jamaica through the Lesser Antilles to British Guiana. The colonies became important to Britain as sugar became king and in order for sugar production to be successful slaves were essential. The abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in the 19 century came about largely through the influence and work of individuals and groups who held strong religious convictions.
One of the first groups to engage in anti-slavery activities was the Quakers .Founded in 1652 by George Fox, under the official name Religious Society of Friends, but nicknamed the Quakers by their detractors, they were against the ill-treatment of slaves. In 1671 Fox encouraged his followers in Barbados to treat their slaves well and free them after years of servitude. Seventeen years later, the Quakers decided it was equally wrong owning and trading slaves and as a result encouraged members to stop owning slaves.
The Quakers were apart of the committee for the abolition of the slave trade which also included Baptists, Methodists Moravian, and other evangelical Christians. One of the most dynamic leaders in the early stage of the campaign was Granville Sharp. He was an early activist for the abolition of slavery; he aided Jonathon strong and James Somerset, both slaves who had been ill-treated by their respective masters, to obtain their freedom in England. He was an abolitionist who was instrumental in getting the Mansfield Judgment of 1772, which settled the question of slavery in England and therefore abolitionist could focus their attention on the abolition of slavery in the British colonies.
The Clapham Sect was a group of Christian abolitionists who met at the church of the Rev. John Venn at Clapham in South England and their opponents disrespectfully referred to them as ‘Saints’. The Clapham Sect represented men and women who came from different social, economic and political backgrounds but who were united by their religious convictions. Their major contribution was to advance the arguments that all men are created equal in the sight of God. This inspired one of the motto’s of the anti-slavery campaign: ‘AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER’.
Persons such as John Newton who had been a slave captain until he had been converted to Christianity and became a clergyman. Newton also provided evidence against slavery, this was when he joined Wilberforce in the campaign for abolition .In 1871 he wrote a tract supporting the campaign,” thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. Among his greatest contribution to history was encouraging Wilberforce to stay in parliament and serve God where he was rather than enter the ministry. He wrote the hymns Amazing Grace among others. James Ramsey , a medical doctor served on a warship bound for St .Kitts, on one voyage he was called to an epidemic on the slave ship and never forgot the horrors he saw in the middle decks .He became an Anglican priest and served in St Kitts for fourteen years, making outspoken attacks on slavery. In 1781 he returned to England and joined the abolitionist movement. He provided information about the mortality occasioned by the slave trade among the sailors and also the mortality occasioned among the slaves being overworked on the plantations. In addition to providing information for the abolitionist he also provided evidence to the British government relating to the treatment of the slaves on the middle passage and on the plantation and the mortality of white sailors .William Wilberforce, also a convert of the religious revival, a wealthy politician and vocal abolitionist , used his position as a member of the British Parliament to get support for the campaign against slavery. Because of his conversion to Christianity this helped him to see how immoral slavery really was. Through the work of Granville Sharp the abolitionists achieved a major victory in 1772 when the Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield gave a ruling in the Somerset Case which stated that their was no law supporting slavery in England . This in effect meant the end of slavery in England. Encouraged by this ruling, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade turned its attention to the fight against the Atlantic slave trade. Using the evidence collected by Thomas Clarkson from slave ships and crew members.
The anti-slavery group used many methods to win the support of the British population. These included official protests in the House of Commons, public meetings, poetry and illustrations, Anti-slavery leaflets in which it spread information about the slavers and the trade. Gradually the movement gained support within British society, including the sympathy of Prime Minister, William Pitt who was also a good friend of William Wilberforce and who had encouraged Wilberforce to become involved in the abolition movement.
A great deal of the fight against slavery had a lot to do with religion; at the root of it, people against slavery thought that the practice of slavery was contrary to the will of God that suppression and enslavement of one race by another violated the principle of the equality of man. Another reason for the fight against slavery was that when the missionaries tried to expose the slaves to Christianity, they were discouraged and also endured being harassed for what they were doing by the slave owners.
The anti-slavery movement also had allies in the form of non-conformist missionaries. They represented Christian denominations which emerged from the religious revival which swept Britain in late 18century. They broke away from the Anglican Church’s modes and methods of worship in the late 18th century and included the Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists (Wesleyans). They came to the West Indies as missionaries to teach the gospel to the slave population. These missionaries were victimized by the planters who recognized that their message of equality and brotherly love was essentially discouraging the slave society and the basis of slavery. Most missionaries discouraged their congregation from rebelling against slavery by violent means; they instead encouraged patient endurance while they waited for God’s deliverance, mainly through the work of abolitionists in Britain.
The work of the missionaries was hostilely disregarded by the planters. The missionaries were seen as outsiders because they did not have the same status as the planter even though they were of the same race still the planters gave them a hard time because the planters thought the missionaries were undermining authority. Access was a problem for missionaries not just getting to the slave s but the missionaries also had to get licenses which were sometimes practically useless because of the stringent conditions attached in order to set up on the planter’s private property or use estate building. Also they would have to get planter’s permission for slaves to congregate as this was against the law in British colonies. One of the main reasons missionaries were persecuted and blamed by the planters was because they thought the missionaries were aids in the revolts against the planters. The actions planters took against the missionaries were by: A. not permitting any communication between the slaves and missionaries B. wrongfully accusing and incarcerating them C. burning down their churches / chapels Two Examples of missionaries who were victims of planter injustice were: John Smith the Congregationalist missionary in Demerara was implicated in a case of slave protest and imprisoned on a charge of inciting slaves to rebel. Even though he was found not guilty he was kept in prison. While in prison, he died. The Society for Effecting the Abolition of The Slave Trade and the missionaries were outraged at what happened and used this incident to prove that slavery could not be reformed but had to be abolished.
William Shrewsbury was a missionary in Barbados who was accused of being an accessory to the revolt and was punished by burning down his church and running him out of the country.
Their message of salvation was accepted by many slaves who converted to Christianity. One example of such slave was Samuel Sharpe who was a Baptist deacon and who was motivated by his religious convictions that slavery was a sin against God. One eyewitness at his trial after the Christmas Revolt of 1831 describes Sharpe’s performance: “He referred to the manifold evils and injustice of slavery; asserted the natural equality of man with regard to freedom; and referring to the Holy scriptures as his authority, denied that the white man had any more right to hold the blacks in bondage than the blacks had to enslave the whites………” 1. Hart, R. (1985) , p.253.
Although the missionaries tried to dissuade slaves from resorting to violence they became victims of violence and resentment on the part of the planter .the slave- owners considered them as enemies of the existing social order and a threat to the economic stability of the colonies. After the Sam Sharpe rebellion in 1831 planters in Jamaica formed the colonial church union, this was formed to defend the Anglican Church and the institute of slavery. When reports reached England about the abuse of the missionaries, the parent –missionaries spoke out.
This helped in strengthening the movement. It was in fact the persecution of the missionaries which made the abolitionists turn their efforts towards the abolition of slavery in 1823.
The early abolitionists were largely inspired by their religious convictions, but as the fight against slavery progressed, they were joined by humanitarians who had different views but were fighting for the same cause. The slaves themselves by their refusal to accept slavery played a major part in their own emancipation. The changing economic situation in which slave labour was no longer seen as a profitable way of producing sugar helped to convince industrialists and other business men to join the fight against slavery. All these factors combined to end slavery in 1834.