Scotlands History

The abolition of slavery

Abolitionism was the name of the movement to end the slave trade.

In 1777 in a famous Scottish legal case, Joseph Knight, an African slave sold in Jamaica to a Scottish owner, John Wedderburn, claimed his wages then escaped when payment was refused. A Scottish judge upheld Knight’s freedom at law. By 1779 no bonds of slavery were allowed in Scotland.

Religious groups condemned slavery as un-Christian, and there were campaigns of every description - from mass petitions to sugar boycotts. After 20 years of pressuring Parliament, the Slave Trade Abolition Act of 1807 banned the trading of African slaves throughout the British Empire.

The Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823, led to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which abolished slavery in the Empire. By 1834 all slaves were legally emancipated.

Two Scotswomen campaigned against slavery. Mary Slessor (1845-1915) went to Nigeria as a missionary to reform tribal chiefs’ treatment of their wives, slaves and children. Frances Wright (1795-1852), born in Dundee, was a reformer and abolitionist who resettled freed slaves in America.

The words about slavery on David Livingstone’s tombstone in Westminster Abbey are: ‘May Heaven’s rich blessing come down on everyone - American, English and Turk - who will help to heal this open sore of the world.’

  • A photograph of a boy looking through a gap in a piece of wood.
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Photo of a small African boy peeking through a gap in a wooden fence

Scotland and the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Find out about Scotland's role in the slave trade and in its abolition.