As soon as Europeans began to settle in America, in the early 16th century, they imported enslaved Africans to work for them. As European settlement grew, so did the demand for enslaved people. Over the next 300 years more than 11 million enslaved people were transported across the Atlantic from Africa to America and the West Indies, and Britain led this trade from the mid-17th century onwards. Ports such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow sent out many slaving ships each year, bringing great prosperity to their owners. Many other cities also grew rich on the profits of industries which depended on slave-produced materials such as cotton, sugar and tobacco.
The campaign in Britain to abolish slavery began in the 1760s, supported by both black and white abolitionists. The battle was long and hard-fought, with pro-slavery campaigners arguing that the slave trade was important for the British economy and claiming that enslaved Africans were happy and well-treated. However the frequent rebellions by enslaved Africans and evidence of the appalling conditions endured by them during and after transportation led to growing support for the demands to abolish the slave trade. Eventually, in 1807, Parliament passed an Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which abolished the trade by Britain in enslaved peoples between Africa, the West Indies and America.
The pro-slavery campaigners had argued that with no new enslaved Africans being traded slave-owners would treat their existing slaves better. However, it was clear that enslaved people were still harshly treated and many continued to resist and rebel against their enslavement. In 1833 Parliament passed a further act to abolish slavery in the British West Indies, Canada and the Cape of Good Hope (southern Africa), meaning that it was now illegal to buy or own a person. However, slavery continued in other areas of the British Empire including the territories run by the East India Company, Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and St Helena. Between 1808 and 1869 the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron seized over 1,600 slave ships and freed about 150,000 Africans but, despite this, it is estimated that a further 1 million people were enslaved and transported throughout the 19th Century. (source: UK Government National Archives)