What was the slave trade?
It seems hard to imagine now but since about 1500 there was a lot of money to be made buying and selling people as slaves.Companies would go to Africa and capture men, women and children to be taken in horrific conditions on ships and destined for a cruel life in slavery.
Cities such as Bristol, London and Liverpool grew rich off the trade.
It’s thought about 24 million Africans were sold to slave traders.
The slaves were usually sent to work in the sugar cane fields on plantations – giant farms – in the Caribbean, North America and South America where the work was really hard and dangerous. Many were left disabled by work accidents.
Other slaves were used as personal servants in polite society in cities such as London and Edinburgh.
How were slaves treated?
It was a very hard life as a slave and very difficult to imagine now.
Whole families would be taken from their homes in Africa against their will and moved in dreadful cramped, diseased conditions on ships. Many died during the voyage.
The people would then be sold as slaves – separated from their family – and become the property of someone, just like you would own a bicycle or a car. They had no rights at all.
This would mean they might have to change their name to that of their owner, and work really hard for up to 18 hours a day in terrible conditions.
They had a poor diet and no care for their health, often walking for miles in the hot sun and living in rough huts and sleeping on a dirt floor.
Masters would control their slaves by whipping them.
Once a slave started work on a plantation they usually only lived for about seven years because they were worked so hard. If the plantation was run by a church they usually died after three years.
Being a slave was a hard, miserable life.
How was it abolished?
In the late 18th century, an anti-slavery movement began to get a lot of backing in Britain, firstly by some religious groups, such as the Quakers.People began to stop using sugar as they didn’t want to be seen to be supporting the use of slaves on the big sugar plantations.
Thomas Clarkson spent seven years riding 35,000 miles on horseback across Britain, getting support for the anti-slavery campaign and in 1787 persuaded the MP William Wilberforce to take the fight into Parliament.
At the same time, slaves were protesting about how they were being abused. One of these was Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who bought his own freedom and published a best-selling book.
The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by the British Parliament on 25 March 1807.
This law included a fine of £100 for every slave found aboard a British ship – at that time the fine was so high it probably would have put the ship owner out of business.
Slavery was then wiped out slowly – with slaves first being freed but signed up to work in “an apprenticeship” for their masters for five years.By 1838 all slaves in the British Empire were formally set free.
Slaves didn’t get any money for all the work they had done, but slave owners were given money for the loss of the slaves! One example was the Bishop of Exeter who gave up 665 slaves so got £12,700 (around £750,000 today).
Is there still slavery today?
Modern slavery is different from historical slavery because although today people may live in awful conditions and be forced to do things, they still have human rights.
So for example if a young girl was kidnapped today and made to work as a servant, but then managed to escape, then the police would protect her.
In the old days, if she was a slave and escaped she would be returned to her master by the police and probably whipped for being a disobedient slave.
One in six people who are forced to work are victims of what’s called human trafficking, a business that makes huge amounts of money for those who run it.
It’s thought there are about 5 or 6 million children who are forced to work. Some of them are born into slavery, others are sold by their parents or stolen – they work in farming, factories and for richer people.