The abolitionist movement was also known as the anti-slavery movement and took shape during the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe. The main aim of the movement was to end the prevalent slavery that persisted and also to put an end to free labour, human trafficking, sexual and wage slavery.
In the year 1542, in the North, the Dominican priest Bartolome de las Casas was shocked to see the treatment that the natives received in the New World which was founded by Columbus. People were bought and sold and kept in terrible conditions, and thus, under the Priest’s request, a new law banishing colonial slavery was put to rule however, its implementation was not carried out in a proper manner. With time however, the movement gained a great amount of importance all over the world as people began to realise the concept and value of human rights. Thus, gradually, the abolitionist movement came into power and slavery was abolished almost in all parts of the world.
In the 17th century, it was under the patronage of Quaker and other evangelical persons, slavery was deemed to be un-Christian and thus religious people began to stay away from it. In the 18th century, philosophical and rationalist thinkers criticized slavery for violating human rights as they began to understand the concept of the provision of free and fair living for each man for himself. No man could be bought and sold by people and treated like dirt because every man had a right to live as he pleased, earn for himself and be entitled to food, shelter and clothing. However, despite such a revelation, slavery still prevailed in most parts of West Indies, South America as well as the United States of America.
In the year 1772, the English Court under the benefaction of Lord Mansfield, held that slavery was unsupported by the law in England and Wales in respect to Somersett’s Case. This famous case helped to pave the way for the anti slavery or abolitionist movement in most of Europe as well as the rest of the world. In this case, the slave, James Somersett had escaped from his master’s property following which he was recaptured and imprisoned on the ship Ann Mary. However, his relatives filed a writ of habeas corpus pleading illegal detention in front of the Court and the slave was freed and helped to set an example for other slaves all over. (Mowat, Robert Balmain)
In Pennsylvania, an act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was passed in 1780 following which both Britain and the US banned the importation of African slaves with respective Slavery Abolition Acts. Soon slaves began to gain freedom in parts of West Indies and South America as well. In the modern day and age, child and adult slavery is illegal and against international law as well. However, in many remote areas, slavery is still practised and under the purview of feudalism in Russian countries, serfs still exist. In parts of India, forced labour is still being practised too. (MacEwen, Martin)
Scotland has witnessed some of the most challenging cases for the purpose of bringing about a legalization in the act of practising slavery, for example in the cases of Montgomery v. Sheddan (1756) and Spens v. Dalrympls (1769). In the year 1787 the North faced a vast amount of changes as a Committee for the Abolition of Slave Trade was formulated by William Wilberforce and this helped to campaign against slavery in the British Empire, against the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Wilberforce put in a great amount of effort into bringing about the anti slavery movement and fortunately, he was alive to see the inception of the Slavery Abolition Act which came into existence in 1833.
Even though slavery had almost disappeared from the scene in the 17th and 18th centuries, a number of African and East Indian servants were imported and brought into Britain to work in the domestic environments of people. These people were different from slaves as they were not bought or sold from each other and they achieved an ascribed legal status within society after Somersett’s case came into being. In the year 1785, the famous English poet William Cowper said, “We have no slaves at home – then why abroad? Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs receive our air then that moment they are free. They touch our country and their shackles fall. That’s noble and bespeaks a nation proud… and the jealous of the blessing. Spread it then and let it circulate through every vein.” (Rhodes, Nick)
In conclusion, the anti slavery movement was a very strong movement against the existence of slavery because of rationalist thinkers who began to understand the concept of human rights and the reasons and causes of their violation. Under the Common law in England, slavery was abolished completely with time and it was only a matter of time before it was done so in almost all parts of the world. Various philanthropists from all sections of society came together in order to help people understand the importance of not indulging in human trafficking because of the sheer concept of equality among the people. With the strength of parliamentary democracy in most countries around the world, this movement came into being a very strong one and slavery today is against international law itself.
Rhodes, Nick (2003). Oate’s William Cowper Selected Poems. Routledge: 84.
MacEwen, Martin (2002). Housing, Race and Law: The British Experience. Routledge: 39.
Mowat, Robert Balmain. (1943). History of the English Speaking Peoples. Oxford University Press: 162