Slavery Timeline 1701-1800
A Chronology of Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation in the Eighteenth Century
This page offers a detailed timeline of the main historical, literary, and cultural events connected with British slavery, abolition, and emancipation between 1701 and 1800. It also includes references to the most significant events taking place outside of the British zone of influence.
In the eighteenth century, an informal British Empire was established in competition with the other major European powers and Britain became the foremost slave-trading nation. By the end of the century, however, doubts about slavery at home and the loss of the North American colonies had significantly altered both Britain's imperial and slave-trading roles. A vigorous public debate about the slave trade took place between 1785 and 1795, but the opportunity to abolish either slavery or the slave trade was lost.
While there is plenty of detail in this timeline, and I regularly add more information, it is of course impossible to record every event related to slavery and abolition in this period. This timeline is therefore only intended to provide an overview of the topic. If there is something I have left out that you think should be included, please let me know.
Click on a date in the list below, or scroll down the page, for information. Links are given to pages on this website only. For my sources and for further reading, look at the page Further Reading: Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation.
- April 1712: an uprising of enslaved people takes place in New York. Eight white colonists are killed and many buildings burned down.
- 7 June 1712: The Pennsylvania Assembly passes An Act to prevent the importation of Negroes, arguably the first piece of antislavery legislation in the British Empire. It is overturned by the Privy Council the following year.
- 31 January 1713: Birth of Anthony Benezet in St. Quentin, France. Benezet would go on to be one of the most important Quaker abolitionists of the mid-eighteenth century.
- 1 May 1713: Spain awards the British South Sea Company the Asiento de Negros for thirty years - effectively giving Britain control of the Atlantic slave trade. The South Sea Company works with the Royal African Company to tranport tens of thousands of enslaved people across the Atlantic in the coming decades.
- 12 August 1713: The Quaker Yearly Meeting in London writes to Friends in Pennsylvania telling them that slave trading 'is not a Commendable nor allowed Practice', but little action follows.
- 1715: John Hepburn, a Quaker from New Jersey, publishes The American Defence of the Christian Golden Rule, or, An Essay to prove the Unlawfulness of making Slaves of Men. Although it did not circulate widely, it contained almost every argument against slavery used by abolitionists over the coming century.
- 19 October 1720: Birth of John Woolman in New Jersey. Woolman would go on to be one of the most important Quaker abolitionists of the mid-eighteenth century.
- 27 June 1727: The Quaker Yearly Meeting in London again writes to Friends in Pennsylvania telling them that slave trading 'is not a Commendable nor allowed Practice'. This provokes debate among Friends in Philadephia.
- September 1728: Increased conflict between British troops and the maroon community in Jamaica leads to the start of the First Maroon War. The maroons - former slaves living in independent communities - would conduct a guerilla war against the British for over a decade.
- 1729: According to his biographer Joseph Jekyll, Ignatius Sancho is born aboard a ship in mid-Atlantic.
- 1 February 1729: In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin publishes A brief examination of the practise of the times, an antislavery tract written by the Pennsylvanian Quaker Ralph Sandiford.
- October 1730: The 'Chesapeake Rebellion', an uprising of several hundred enslaved people in Virginia, ends with the brutal supression of the rebels.
- 1733: In Rhode Island, the Nantucket Quaker Elihu Coleman publishes A testimony against that antichristian practice of making slaves of men. Although this does not circulate widely, it is nonetheless the first officially sanctioned antislavery text in the Quaker tradition.
- 25 July 1733: Birth of James Ramsay, who would go on to be an important early abolitionist.
- 23 November 1733: A group of at least 150 enslaved Africans on the Danish Caribbean island of St. John take control of the colony's sugar plantations. The Danish authorities take almost a year to regain control of the island, making the event one of the longest uprisings of the eighteenth century.
- 10 November 1735: Birth of Granville Sharp in Durham. Sharp would go on to be one of the earliest British abolitionists.
- Spring 1737: In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin publishes All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, an antislavery tract written by the Pennsylvanian Quaker Benjamin Lay.
- September 1738: Benjamin Lay performs his famous 'bladder of blood' protest at the Philadephia Yearly Meeting of Quakers in which he likens slave trading to stabbing the Bible. The stunt spatters those present with fake blood (hidden inside a bladder in a hollowed-out Bible, which he stabbed with a sword), and was successful in drawing attention to cruelty of slavery, but Lay was swiftly disowned by the Quakers.
- 9 September 1739: In South Carolina, a group of enslaved Africans led by a slave called Jemmy, or Cato, take up arms against their enslavers. The Stono Rebellion, also known as Cato's Rebellion, leads to the death of 25 colonists and up to 50 slaves.
- 1740: The Jamaican maroon communities under Nanny of the Maroons and others sign a peace treaty with the British, ending the First Maroon War. The British recognise the maroons, but the maroons are forced to accept the slavery system on the island.
- 10 May 1740: In response to the 1739 Stono Rebellion, the South Carolina Assembly passes the Negro Act 1740, which introduces harsh new restrictions and punishments for the colony's enslaved population. The Act remains in force until 1865.
- March 1741: A series of fires in New York City leads to a mass panic among the colonists who come to belive in a conspiracy by enslaved people. Although historians are unsure whether such a conspiracy in fact existed, hundreds of slaves are arrested and, by the late summer, dozens had been convicted and hanged and hundreds transported out of the colony.
- September 1743: Philadelphia Quakers add the question 'do Friends observe the former advice of our Yearly Meeting, not to Encourage the Importation of Negroes not to buy them after imported' to the 'Queries' which all Quakers in the colony were required to answer.
- February 1754: John Woolman publishes Some Considerations on the keeping of Negroes in Phildelphia. This re-opens the debate about slavery among Pennsylvania Quakers.
- September 1754: Anthony Benezet, working with John Woolman, publishes An Epistle of Caution and Advice Concerning the Buying and Keeping of Slaves in Phildelphia. This pamphlet, sanctioned by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, would begin the work of formally turning Quakers away from slave trading.
- 1755: By his own account, Olaudah Equiano is born in present-day Nigeria, although there is now a debate over whether he may in fact have been born in South Carolina.
- September 1758: After several days of debate, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers expresses 'an Unanimous Concern prevailing to put a stop to the Increase of the Practice of Importing buying selling or keeping Slaves for term of Life' and advises that the Christian Golden Rule should 'induce such Friends who have any Slaves to sett them at Liberty'.
- 24 August 1759: Birth of William Wilberforce in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire. Wilberforce would go on to be one of the most important British abolitionists.
- 28 March 1760: Birth of Thomas Clarkson in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. Clarkson would go on to be one of the most important British abolitionists.
- 7 April 1760: In Jamaica, a large number of enslaved Africans led by Tacky rise up with the intention of creating an independent Black state. The uprising is quickly put down, and Tacky killed, but the event inspires further rebellions across the island. By the end of 'Tacky's War' later in the year, about 60 colonists and 400 slaves had been killed. The war profoundly disturbed public opinion in Britain and while some urged harsher discipline, others began to question whether the slavery system could be sustained.
- 14 May 1761: The London Yearly Meeting of Quakers issue what they call 'a strong minute' on slavery in which they 'recommend it earnestly to the care of Friends every where to discourage as much as in them lies a practice so repugnant to our Christian profession and to deal with all such as shall persevere in a Conduct so reproachful to the Society & disown them if they desist not therefrom'. This effectively makes the Society of Friends the world's first antislavery organisation.
- 1764: The former slave trader John Newton is ordained into the Church of England and publishes An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable And Interesting Particulars in which he expresses few reservations about his former career.
- 1767: Anthony Benezet publishes A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies, in a short representation of the calamitous state of the enslaved negroes in the British Dominions in Phildelphia. The pamphlet would inspire Granville Sharp and others to take action against the slave trade.
- 1769: Granville Sharp publishes A Representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of admitting the least claim of private property in the persons of men, in England, etc in London, the first major work of antislavery by a British author.
- May 1770: The Scottish philosopher James Beattie publishes An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth which contains important arguments against racism.
- October 1771: Anthony Benezet publishes Some Historical Account of Guinea in Phildelphia. This comprehensive exposé of the slave trade would inspire a generation of antislavery campaigners.
- 26 November 1771: James Somerset, a fugitive enslaved African man in London, is recaptured by his owner, Charles Stewart of Boston, who plans to send him to the West Indies. Granville Sharp intervenes and Somerset is ordered to be brought before the court of King's Bench to determine his legal position. This begins the legal battle known as 'the Somerset Case'.
- May 1772: The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield hears arguments on both sides of the Somerset Case in London. The case attracts widespread public attention.
- 22 June 1772: Lord Mansfield reaches judgement in the Somerset Case. He rules that no person, whether a slave or otherwise, can be compelled to leave the country against their will. Although this does not in fact make slavery illegal in England, it makes it more difficult to enforce and the judgement is therfore widely interpreted as ending slavery in England.
- 7 October 1772: Death of American antislavery Quaker John Woolman in York. He died from smallpox while on an antislavery mission to England.
- December 1772: James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw becomes the first published black author in Britain when his autobiography, A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, An African Prince is published in Bath.
- 5 June 1773: John Bicknell and Thomas Day publish The Dying Negro. The poem, which went into several editions, was important in drawing public attention to the slave trade.
- January 1774: The Methodist leader John Wesley publishes Thoughts Upon Slavery. The pamphlet, which went into several editions, was important in turning Methodists against the slave trade.
- 14 April 1775: The first American abolition society, The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, is founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Seventeen of the 24 founders are Quakers.
- 19 April 1775: Years of rising discontent in the British North-American colonies boil over into open war with the battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. The battles mark the start of the American Revolutionary War, also known as the American War of Independence.
- 28 June 1776: Thomas Jefferson presents a draft declaration of independence to the American Continental Congress. The draft includes an antislavery passage accusing the British King George III of waging 'a cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither'.
- 4 July 1776: The American Continental Congress ratifies its declaration of independence, but omits the antislavery passages that had been included in earlier drafts.
- 8 July 1777: In its newly ratified constitution, the Vermont Republic becomes the first territory that is now part of the United States to outlaw slavery.
- 1 March 1780: The Pennsylvania General Assembly passes An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, one of the earliest laws enacted by an elected body to abolish slavery.
- 14 December 1780: Ignatius Sancho dies at his home and shop in Charles Street, Westminster
- 17 October 1781: British forces surrender to American forces at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending the American Revolutionary War.
- 29 November 1781: Luke Collingwood, the master of the slave ship Zong, which was running short of water and provisions, murders 132 enslaved people by throwing them alive into the sea. Collingwood believes that the massacre will allow him to claim their value on the ship's insurance. He himself dies shortly from an unknown illness after committing mass murder and does not face justice.
- August 1782. Publication of The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African.
- 23 February 1783: The Bishop of Chester, Beilby Porteus, preaches a sermon before the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts urging the Church of England to treat the the slaves the church held in the West Indies more humanely and to offer them religious instruction.
- 6 March 1783: Lord Chief Justice Mansfield rules in court that insurers are liable to pay compensation for the 132 people murdered on the slave ship Zong. The ship's owners are not charged with murder. Olaudah Equiano hears about the judgement and takes the news to legal campaigner Granville Sharp who initiates a public campaign.
- 22 May 1783: in a second trial in the Zong case, Lord Mansfield overturns his earlier decision and rules that the owners of the ship should not be compensated for the death of the 132 enslaved people that Collingwood had murdered. No further action is taken, but the event outrages public opinion.
- 3 September 1783: The Treaty of Paris formally ends the war between Great Britain and its former North American colonies, now recognised in international law as the independent United States of America.
- 3 May 1784: Death of Anthony Benezet in Philadelphia.
- August 1784: James Ramsay publishes An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies which, although not condemning slavery outright, provokes a vicious response from West-Indian slaveholders, thereby opening a public debate about slavery and the slave trade.
- 1 April 1786: Birth of Thomas Fowell Buxton at Castle Hedingham, Essex. Buxton would go on to lead the Anti-Slavery Society in the early nineteenth century.
- 1 June 1786: Thomas Clarkson publishes An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation. The book, often reprinted, was one of the most influential antislavery texts of the decade.
- 1787: Ottobah Cugoano publishes Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Commerce of the Human Species, the first dedicated abolitionist publication in English by an African.
- 22 May 1787: The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade is founded in London by twelve men, including Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp. At their instigation, the following five years would see a surge in abolitionist activity in Great Britain and around the world.
- January 1788: The former slave trader John Newton publishes Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade in which he denounces his former career.
- February 1788: The abolitionist Société des amis des Noirs (Society of Friends of the Blacks) is founded in Paris by Jacques Pierre Brissot. The Society remains active in the early years of the French Revolution, but ceases to function in 1793.
- February 1788: Hannah More publishes Slavery, A Poem at the request of the Abolition Society. Shortly after, Ann Yearsley publishes her rival Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade
- 10 July 1788: After several months of debate, Sir William Dolben's Slave Trade Bill becomes law. The Slave Trade Act limits the number of enslaved people that any single ship can carry. It is renewed annually until 1799 when it becomes permanent.
- 24 March 1789: Olaudah Equiano publishes The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African.
- April 1789: The Privy Council publishes its review of the slave trade.
- 12 May 1789: William Wilberforce delivers the first major abolition speech before the House of Commons. It is widely reported in the newspapers and initiates a parliamentary debate that would run for several years.
- June 1789: The Swedish explorer Carl Bernhard Wadström publishes Observations on the Slave Trade, and a Description of some part of the Coast of Guinea in London. The work excited much interest and William Wilberforce drew upon it in his parliamentary speeches.
- 23 June 1789: Parliament adjourns debate on the slave trade.
- 14 July 1789: In Paris, the storming of the Bastille marks a new radical phase in the ongoing French Revolution. The revolutionaries' demand for 'Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity' would be taken up by enslaved people throughout France's colonies and beyond.
- 20 July 1789: Death of James Ramsay in London, reportedly from illness brought on by exhaustion caused by attacks on his reputation from slaveholders.
- January 1790: A parliamentary select committee begins to consider the mass of evidence about the slave trade.
- January 1791: An uprising among the enslaved population of the British Caribbean colony of Dominica is brutally surpressed by the authorities. When news of the uprising reaches London in March, proslavery lobbyists use the news to put public pressure on abolitionists as they draw up legislation to abolish the slave trade.
- 18 April 1791: William Wilberforce introduces the first parliamentary bill to abolish the slave trade. It was defeated the following evening by 163 votes to 88.
- May 1791: In protest at the event, Anna Laetitia Barbauld writes a poetic Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade, 1791.
- August 1791: Working closely with Martha Gurney, the bookseller William Fox publishes An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Propriety of Abstaining from West India Sugar and Rum. The pamphlet urged British consumers to boycott West-Indian produce, especially sugar.
- 21 August 1791: The enslaved people of the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue rise up in revolt. Over the coming months, more than 4000 white colonists are killed and hundreds of sugar plantations destroyed. The uprising marks the beginning of the 13-year-long Haitian Revolution, which culminates in the creation of the independent nation of Haiti in 1804.
- 16 March 1792: The Danish government passes the Forordning om Negerhandelen (Ordinance on the Negro Trade), making Denmark the first nation to outlaw the slave trade. The law, however, only applies from 1 January 1803, and over the next ten years Danish slave-trading activity actually increases.
- April 1792: Mary Birkett, a Dublin Quaker, publishes A Poem on the African Slave Trade. Addressed to her own Sex in two parts in April and June.
- 2 April 1792: William Wilberforce introduces the second parliamentary bill to abolish the slave trade. It passes by by 230 votes to 85, but only after Henry Dundas adds the word 'gradual' to the bill. Gradual rather than immediate abolition becomes law. A final abolition date is later fixed at 1796, but this is not put into effect.
- 1793: Birth of Joseph Sturge to a Quaker family in Elberton, Gloucestershire. Sturge would go on to be an important abolitionist camapaigner in the 1830s and 40s.
- 1 February 1793: France declares war on Great Britain, commencing the Revolutionary Wars that would continue, in various forms, until 1815. As well as land conflict in Europe, the wars extended across both countries' colonies, with serious implications for enslaved people.
- 26 February 1793: A third parliamentary bill to immediately abolish the slave trade is narrowly defeated by eight votes.
- 4 February 1794: In Paris, 'La Convention Nationale déclare que l'Esclavage des Negres dans toutes les Colonies est aboli' ('The National Convention declares that the slavery of the Negroes is abolished in all the colonies'). The Convention's Emancipation Declaration was short lived: Napoleon Bonaparte re-established slavery in France's colonies in 1802.
- July 1794: Carl Bernhard Wadström publishes the first volume of his Essay on Colonization, particularly applied to the Western Coast of Africa, with some Free Thoughts on Cultivation and Commerce which strongly criticised the slave trade but also advocated European colonisation of Africa. A second volume appeared in 1795.
- 1 January 1796: John Gabriel Stedman publishes The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. The book includes depictions of the cruelty of slavery, vividly illustrated by William Blake, but is not an avowedly abolitionist text.
- 31 March 1797: Olaudah Equiano dies at his home in Paddington Street, Middlesex (close to Marylebone High Street).