Pictures Of Abolishing Slavery Essay

Lincoln's visit to the conquered Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., where he was met by jubilant freed slaves

FEBRUARY 12 marks 200 years since Abraham Lincoln was born, and that's probably not news to you. It seems like every institution of American society and every voice of the political establishment is "honoring" the Great Emancipator on his 200th birthday.

But this is only a concentrated whiff of the legends about Lincoln that every one of us heard from our first days in school--a selfless leader, honest to a fault, the president who saved the union, the man who freed the slaves.

This sanctification--and, oftentimes, sanitizing--of past figures is typical. One result is that the ways history is shaped not mostly by individuals, but by the actions of much larger numbers of people, is obscured. Lincoln, for example, couldn't have freed a single slave without the 2.5 million soldiers who served in the Union Army--or without the self-activity of the slaves themselves, struggling for their freedom.

On the other hand, from some on the left, you get a quite different picture of Lincoln, and it's one that people angered by the corruption and hypocrisy of political leaders today find easy to believe: Lincoln the racist, who thought whites were the natural superior of Blacks, and who cared nothing about the question of slavery except how it could help him win a war fought for the profits of northern manufacturers.

That isn't the right picture either. Lincoln didn't "free the slaves" by himself, but he did play an important part in the struggle to end slavery.

Lincoln's importance in history wasn't as an abolitionist thinker--he did, indeed, hold backward ideas about race compared to other opponents of slavery--or as an organizer for the cause, but in the role he played in a specific historical situation.

Lincoln was the political leader representing the ruling class of Northern capitalists at one of the last points in world history where the interests of that class coincided with an expansion of democracy and freedom. And Lincoln's greatness in this context is that he didn't shrink or retreat from that role--as others around him did--but rather rose to the challenge at each link in the chain of events.

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THE CIVIL War is rightly called the "second American Revolution," because its roots lie in the first revolution of 1776 against the rule of the British monarchy--and the contradiction at the heart of the new United States.

On the one hand, the new government represented the most advanced form of democracy in the world at the time, based on the high ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, such as "all men are created equal."

But, of course, all men weren't equal in America. At the time of the revolution, there were 1 million African slaves in the colonies, and the most prosperous part of the economy--the agricultural system in the Southern states--was dependent on their labor.

To the extent that this glaring contradiction troubled some early leaders of the U.S., they nevertheless accepted the situation because they expected slavery to die out. But they were wrong in this expectation, and the reason why can be summed up in one word: cotton.

Between 1793 and 1815, cotton exports from the U.S. grew from 500,000 pounds to more than 80 million pounds. Cotton from the U.S. was the fuel for the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the development of capitalism--and slavery was the key to producing cotton. As Karl Marx wrote from his vantage point in Britain, "Without slavery, there would be no cotton, without cotton, there would be no modern industry."

Slavery not only didn't die out--it thrived. Under the South's oligarchy of big plantation owners, all the horrors of the slave system were intensified.

Meanwhile, the northern U.S. was developing in a very different direction. Small-scale farming continued to remain significant, but more and more, Northern society became organized around industry, built up in the urban centers. By 1850, the Northern system had been transformed by innovations in transportation, technology and communications.

The two systems, North and South, were pulling in opposite directions and increasingly coming into conflict, in battles played out in the federal government--over trade policy (Southern plantation owners wanted free trade; Northern industrialists wanted tariffs to protect their new enterprises), government investment (the North wanted the government to spur innovation; Southerners wanted it to keep out of the economy) and other issues.

The biggest battles of all were over the addition of new states to the Union--because whether slavery was legal or not could tip the balance of power in the federal government between slave states and free states that allowed the South to block the more rapidly developing North.

Alongside the economic conflict was a political one: deepening anti-slavery sentiment in the North versus the hardening of the South in defense of its system, with every new political compromise to paper over the conflict driving the two sides further apart.

An abolitionist movement dedicated to ending slavery had existed in the U.S. from the start--with Blacks themselves among its most powerful voices--but it became more outspoken and radical as the 19th century progressed.

By the 1850s, the intensification of the conflict undermined the moderate Whig Party in the North, which tolerated the North's junior-partner status in the federal government. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 as a third-party challenge--under the influence of the abolitionists, but also a range of other forces that were more hostile to the power of the slave South than to the institution of slavery itself.

Abraham Lincoln became the Republican presidential candidate in 1860 precisely because he represented the middle point among these different forces.

Lincoln, who had been a member of Congress from Illinois, was morally opposed to slavery and expected to see it ended over time. But Lincoln denied that he favored "the social and political equality of the white and black races," as he put it in one political debate. "I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Moreover, while Lincoln wanted to see slavery die out, he opposed taking action in the name of abolition--for example, challenging the Fugitive Slave Law that put the power of the federal government behind the slave-catchers who kidnapped free Blacks to "return" them to the South.

The central plank of Lincoln's 1860 campaign for president was the one issue that all the different forces in the Republican Party could agree on--that slavery couldn't be allowed to expand into the Western territories.

Many abolitionists thought this was far too timid, and called for a boycott of the election. The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass was more supportive of the Republicans, but still critical. As he put it:

The Republican opposed to the political power of slavery, rather than to slavery itself. It would arrest the spread of the slave system...and defeat all plans for giving slavery any further guarantee of permanence. This is very desirable, but it leaves the great work of abolishing slavery...still to be accomplished. The triumph of the Republican Party will only open the way for this great work.

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DOUGLASS' COMMENT was prophetic. The victory of Lincoln and the Republicans in 1860, against a divided pro-slavery opposition, did open the way for the struggle to come.

How? Because restrictions on the expansion of slavery--the one key plank in the Republican platform--would inevitably undermine the South's dominant position in the federal government, and that would be the beginning of the end for the slaveocracy.

Certainly, that's how the South viewed Lincoln's election. In his inaugural speech, Lincoln pledged, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists." But before he took the oath of office, seven of the 11 states that would make up the Southern Confederacy had already seceded from the U.S.

This sent a panic through ruling circles in the North. Various business and political figures, including fellow leaders among the Republican Party, urged Lincoln to accept a compromise that essentially would have scrapped the party's program on slavery.

But on this score, Lincoln the moderate passed his first big test--by not bending. As he wrote in a letter to one of the Republican advocates of compromise:

We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten...If we surrender, it is the end of us. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.

Yet as the Civil War began following the Confederate bombardment of the Union's Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., Lincoln was the opposite of his resolve on the question of the expansion of slavery.

The North barely mobilized for the first battles of the war. Lincoln assumed that the Southern rebels would be put down with a minimal effort, and that a "silent majority" of Southern Unionists would emerge to challenge the secessionists. Short of allowing the expansion of slavery, he was willing to make all sorts of concessions guaranteeing slavery where it already existed.

In August 1861, the Northern Gen. John Frémont imposed martial law in Missouri and began freeing slaves as a military measure against Southern forces. But Lincoln modified Frémont's order and ultimately removed him from command--out of fear that the general's action would tip more states into the Confederacy.

This shows that Lincoln still didn't understand the central dynamic of the Civil War--the struggle over slavery. As an infuriated Douglass wrote: "To fight against slaveholders without fighting against slavery is but a half-hearted business and paralyzes the hands engaged in it...Fire must be met with water. War for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery."

Douglass was right again. The war went badly for the North because of the half-hearted commitment to waging it in Lincoln's government--and especially among the generals in charge of the Northern Army.

For example, George McClellan, the top commander of the Northern forces, had been appointed to appease pro-slavery Democrats in the North, and the so-called Border States that hadn't joined the Confederacy. Because he favored a compromise that insured the continued existence of slavery, he hesitated to use the full force of his army against the South.

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BY THE middle of 1862, the Southern armies were winning in virtually every theater of the war. Watching from Britain as an avid supporter of the North and abolition, Frederick Engels wrote to his friend Karl Marx that the war looked to be over, and the South had prevailed.

But Marx disagreed. "So far," Marx wrote, "we have only witnessed the first act of the Civil War--the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand."

The North had crucial advantages that were necessary for victory--greater numbers, a stronger transportation network, developed industry. But by themselves, these weren't enough. The North also needed the political will to prevail--because the Civil War was bound to be a political war.

Both North and South, the armies of the Civil War were made up of volunteers--to a much larger extent than any other U.S. war. So these armies needed to know what they were fighting for and why.

To the Confederacy, the Civil War was about the survival of its political and social system. But in the North, the political aims of the war had to be made central. Above all others was Douglass' argument--to make war on slaveowners, the North would have make war on slavery.

This first became clear for the North as a matter of military necessity. Slaves themselves forced the issue by escaping to Union lines whenever the Northern armies approached. The practical question arose for Northern officers: Should the slaveowners' "property" be returned to them, thus adding to the enemy's military advantage--or should the escaped slaves be defended?

This became the reality along all the battle lines, with escaped slaves becoming a volunteer labor force accompanying the Union Army. Lincoln at first hesitated to embrace this policy of military emancipation. But once he became convinced of its necessity in order to win the war, it became a cornerstone of his strategy.

By mid-1862, he had decided on issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, though he waited for a Union victory at the Battle of Antietam to make it public. The Emancipation Proclamation was a calculated half-measure. It only freed slaves in the states that had joined the Confederacy, not in the Border States that remained part of the Union, but where slavery remained legal.

But the effect, as Lincoln knew, was unambiguous. It was a further step toward making the Civil War into a war of abolition--and turning the Union Army into an army of liberation, whose physical presence enforced the Emancipation Proclamation in the Southern states.

In early 1863, Lincoln again hesitated at another measure proposed by abolitionists, but was won over--for the formation of Black regiments to fight in the war. In bringing together soldiers who were fighting for their own liberation, this policy had an enormous effect. By the end of the war, one in 10 soldiers in the Union Army were Black.

The growing importance of emancipation as a war aim had an effect on white Northerners, especially the white soldiers of the Union Army. Few started out the war as ardent abolitionists, but many became so in the course of it. As one Michigan sergeant wrote in a letter to his wife:

The more I learn of the cursed institution of slavery, the more I feel willing to endure for its final destruction...After this war is over, this whole country will undergo a change for the better...Abolishing slavery will dignify labor; that fact, of itself, will revolutionize everything.

This kind of deepening political commitment made the soldiers of the Union Army willing to endure harsh sacrifices--including, like the Michigan sergeant, who was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter near Atlanta in 1864, the ultimate sacrifice.

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THE TRANSFORMATION of Union soldiers, like Lincoln's stubborn commitment to resist compromises, is all the more impressive considering the pressures in the other direction.

The pro-slavery northern Democrats--known as the Copperheads, after the snake--organized around every military failure, including those caused by the incompetence of their hero, Gen. McClellen. They stoked a racist backlash against the Emancipation Proclamation, which created the climate for the deadly New York Draft Riots in 1863.

With each new crisis caused by military defeats and the agitating of pro-slavery forces, Lincoln was urged by leading political figures to compromise--even to offer "peace" on the South's terms.

Among the compromisers were prominent Republicans with a stronger record in favor of abolition than Lincoln before the war. But Lincoln distinguished himself for his refusal to give in. And eventually, he found a group of generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, who were prepared to wage an all-out war aimed at destroying the slave power.

Lincoln hadn't thought this out in advance. "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me," he wrote in one letter. But his shift over the course of the war is unmistakable.

Thus, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln said he had "no interfere with the institution of slavery" where it existed. By his second inaugural speech, he took an altogether more uncompromising and radical position:

Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

As for his own attitudes about slavery and race, Lincoln was transformed by events. One famous story describes his visit to the Confederate capital of Richmond after the Union Army conquered it. As historian James McPherson wrote:

[Lincoln] was soon surrounded by an impenetrable cordon of Black people shouting, "Glory to God!" "Glory! Glory! Glory!" "Bless the Lord!"...Several freed slaves touched Lincoln to make sure he was real. "I know I am free," shouted an old woman, "for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him."

Overwhelmed by rare emotions, Lincoln said to one Black man who fell on his knees in front of him: "Don't kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter."

Lincoln didn't "free the slaves." Slavery was abolished because of the sacrifices and struggles of millions of people--Blacks as well as whites. But Lincoln did play an important role. He deserves to be remembered, not for all the trivia that will be wheeled out at celebrations supposedly in his honor today, but as a participant in one of the great struggles for freedom in history.

The Abolition of the British Slave Trade

By Andrew Hutchinson, University of Missouri, Columbia, April 25, 2017.

The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed in 1787 in Britain and was one of the first truly humanitarian campaigns. The majority of the society’s members could not even cast votes for members of Parliament and many could not legally sign the petitions that they distributed on behalf of the society. This was a band of people from many walks of life with a wide variety of social disadvantages included but not limited to class and gender. These activists were united with the common goal of abolishing the slave trade in favor of humanitarian justice. They were a diverse group from multiple social classes, from the aristocratic member of Parliament William Wilberforce to the autonomous groups of women who organized abstention and petitioning campaigns despite their inability to sign the petitions that they distributed. Thomas Clarkson, who at personal risk organized sailor narratives to illustrate the inhumanity of the slave trade, William Wilberforce, the parliamentarian who pushed his initiatives into legislation, nor the grassroots activists had any immediate economic or personal benefit as they worked to abolish the slave trade.

Quakers had been actively engaging in the struggle to abolish the slave trade and had petitioned parliament, placed articles in various London and provincial papers, and had amassed some fifty thousand members engaged in the work who, despite their dedication, had warranted little impact (Wilson 1990, 14). The impact of their efforts were limited by their status as Quakers who had been marginalized to the fringes of British society. The Quakers had submitted the first public petition against the slave trade in 1783 but little public action was agitated in the next four years as a result of the Quakers’ efforts. There were groups that were engaged in work to abolish the slave trade but they had been unable to stimulate any serious action. Thomas Clarkson encountered the Quaker networks finally in 1786 after he had already written his prize essay at Cambridge University in 1785. Thomas Clarkson had lobbied William Wilberforce, a sitting Member of Parliament (MP) and convinced him to undertake abolition of the slave trade as a legislative priority. Clarkson read Wilberforce’s decision to the Quakers and signaled the beginning of the construction of a coalition to provide support to Wilberforce’s parliamentary action (Wilson 1990, 24). It was clear that Wilberforce would not be able to execute decisive legislative action without a clear demonstration of popular support from across social lines. The Quakers would not be enough and Clarkson set his mind to building a broad base of support for the abolition of the slave trade (Drescher 2009, 211).

Clarkson’s fervor for justice extended itself naturally to coalition building. His primary goal was to secure narratives of slave cruelty and trauma suffered by British sailors (Wilson 1990, 30). He formed an auxiliary group in Bristol which included Baptists and Anglicans as well as the Quaker base which was an important step in securing widespread support of typically divided groups to combine their efforts around a common cause (Wilson 1990, 34). Clarkson’s vision was of a widespread participatory movement that would bring attention to his collection of testimonies. This testimony collection identified the faulty legal basis and humanitarian cost that the slave trade had on black bodies but, more relevant to parliament’s mind, the cost of British sailor life and health as the slave expeditions hurt sailors consistently more than other expeditions (Wilson 1990, 17). Clarkson published his accumulated evidence into a volume entitled “A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of its Abolition” in 1787. This publication along with his speeches at public meetings where he brought along sailor narratives and instruments of slavery, like manacles and thumbscrews, were used to convince folk to sign petitions to demonstrate widespread support for the abolition of the slave trade to sitting MPs (“Thomas Clarkson: Collecting Evidence” 2014). Clarkson put himself at risk of bodily harm as he conducted the grueling work of amassing evidence when he was accosted by a group of eight seamen in Liverpool in 1787 and managed to escape “not without blows” while on a fact-finding mission (“Thomas Clarkson: Collecting Evidence” 2014). 

Women were unable to legally sign these petitions, but it would be incorrect to say that the only signatories of these petitions were aristocratic men. Only about thirty percent of Clarkson’s signatories were aristocratic in 1788 and only fifteen percent in 1792. Antislavery has been viewed as one of the first stirrings of middle class solidarity and was one of the first routes through which women were able to gain access into public life and work (Hilton 2010, 72).

It is important to note that accounts of Clarkson and Wilberforce oftentimes leave out who carried the brunt of the work: the women in these autonomous societies who campaigned for the greater cause of abolition of the slave trade despite the fact that they were not even entitled to the vote. They were not able to sign the petitions they distributed. Claire Midgley’s Women against Slavery identifies how white women were engaged from the 1780s onwards in the writing of anti-slavery verse, leading abstention campaigns from slave produce and supporting local and national abolition societies (Midgley 1992, 7). They developed strategies of abstention but also spent money to lend their support for the abolition of the slave trade. The subscription list, which the Abolition Society published in 1788, included the names of 206 women, comprising around 10% of total subscribers. The majority of the subscribers being male, however, can be explained by the fact that many of these subscriptions may have been in the mens’ names since they were the “head” of the household and women were not technically allowed any legal or financial independence (Midgley 1992, 17).

This is not to say that the work conducted by women in the abolition of the slave trade was merely relegated to grunt labor, doing the work that men dictated, advising or using their money to support the movement. Upper class women, such as Lady Margaret Middleton at Teston in Kent, acted as a center for Anglican and Evangelical supporters of abolition. Lady Middleton and her friends, including author and reformer Hannah More, initiated discussions of the slave trade at dinner parties and personally canvassed and wrote letters to sitting MPs to persuade them to lend their support to the abolition of the slave trade. Ignatius Latrobe, a clergyman and of the times, even remarked that the “abolition of the slave trade was the work of a woman, Lady Middleton” (Midgley 1992, 16). It is clear that women acted as the facilitators of these conversations but they were not limited to upper class spaces either. Thomas Clarkson mentioned transatlantic visits by Quaker ministers, many of them women, for initially igniting opposition to the slave trade among Quakers (Midgley 1992, 14). Women may have been excluded from direct leadership positions in the campaign but it would be wrong to conclude that women were did not make substantial contributions to the evolution of its ideology or tactics (Midgley 1992, 16). They were organizers of mass petition and abstention campaigns that would lay the foundation that Wilberforce and other parliamentarians built upon. The organizers of the movement must have understood that by building coalitions with women they would be expanding their struggle past the male-dominated political sphere and into the female-dominated “domestic” spheres where women would have the power to shape morality and economic power of individual families. Women were the ones who kept up the house and determined the purchases of foodstuffs and it was women who organized the abstention campaigns that cut into the profits of slave-based products. Coalition building between genders, religions and classes was a necessary and conscious tactic of organizers who sought to cripple the paternalistic and patriarchal British Parliament through mass participation despite the fact that many of those involved could not sign the petitions they distributed nor could they vote for the MPs that they lobbied.


  • Drescher, Seymour. 2009. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hilton, Boyd. 2010. “1807 and All That.” In Abolitionism and Imperialism in Britain, Africa, and the Atlantic, edited by Derek R. Peterson, 63–83. Athens: Ohio University Press.
  • Midgley, Clare. 1992. Women against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870. New York: Routledge.
  • “Thomas Clarkson: Collecting Evidence.” 2014. The Abolition Project.
  • Wilson, Ellen Gibson. 1990. Thomas Clarkson: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

The Suppression of the Traffic Worldwide

By Katelyn Ziegler, University of Missouri, Columbia, April 25, 2017

In 1807, domestic legislation for abolition passed and eventually expanded to much of the globe over the 19th century. Still the traffic and enslavement of Africans certainly persisted in the face of numerous international treaties, countless hours of diplomacy, naval policing, and proceedings at international courts around the world; these were created to adjudicate the captures of slaving ships most often by the West African Squadron of the Royal Navy, though American, French, and others were included. Suppression thus had multiple mechanisms of enforcement given the persistence of smuggling and emergence of new exportation centers for the enslaved.

From 1807, the traffic first shifted south in the Atlantic, with the Brazilian-Angolan connection but, when Brazil closed its doors to the traffic in 1850, the trade shifted to the Eastern coast of Africa. In the early 19th century, Britain emerged from the Napoleonic wars and resulting diplomatic conferences as a preeminent global power; this hegemony encouraged other nations to sign abolition treaties, despite the deep integration of slave labor in the nation’s economy, and send representatives to Mixed-Commission courts at for multilateral adjudication of accused slaving vessels. Accused ships were adjudicated increasingly by British representatives despite the multilateral design of the various courts in Sierra Leone, St. Helena, Surinam, the Cape, Mauritius, Lagos, Luanda, Rio, and Havana (Bethell 1966). Smuggling from the west coast involved the extreme packing of the enslaved and their consequent high mortality. Going beyond earlier British policing authority, Portuguese and Brazilian ships outfitted with equipment associated with slave trafficking such as shackles, barricades, and large water reserves, etc., could also be seized and tried after passage of the Palmerston and Aberdeen acts of 1839 and 1845 respectively.

Though on a smaller scale, this East African traffic spread to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean as well as westward around the Cape, displacing the enslaved to Indian Ocean islands including Zanzibar, Pemba, Mauritius, Réunion, across the Sahara to the Near East, and to Brazil and Cuba (Black 2012, 37). Paul Lovejoy estimates the Atlantic traffic over the 19th century accounted for 62% of slave exports at nearly 3.5 million whereas the Saharan overland traffic lay at 21%, the Red Sea at 9%, and the Indian Ocean at 8%, the final translating to less than 450,000 people (Lovejoy 2000, 142). Abolition was carried out here largely through naval policing and diplomacy; in some cases, British representatives were cautious to encourage immediate emancipation in Egypt for example, noting the need for tolerance toward domestic slaveholding and questioning Britain’s authority to press emancipation on foreign peoples. Still the suppression campaign was making strides by midcentury in associating slavery with immorality, brutality, economic risk, and social corruption.

Some scholars suggest enforcement by the British was “half-hearted” and the naval blockades largely ineffective until the 1830s and especially 40s (Lovejoy 2000, 140-141). Derek Peterson emphasizes the hyper-complexity of the campaign with its wealth of participants and resulting disparate agendas. In light of recent national celebrations of the altruism associated with abolition, Peterson stresses the underlying symbiotic relationship between enacting abolition and building empire; for him, the campaign “clear[ed] the legal and political barriers to the partition of Africa” (Peterson 2010, 14, 29-30). What was certainly lasting and resonant was the transmission of British moral conceptions surrounding slavery and freedom, and the lengths Britain took to enforce its presumed international duties even if the practice of slavery persisted and was manifest in various forms. Channelling into formal imperialism throughout Africa, the national mission of suppression provided justification for exploration, missionary and military presence, and ever-more invasive governing.

Ultimately, our charts convey a sense of commitment to an evolving state policy; why the British pushed and funded this agenda for so long becomes an intriguing jumping off point for users of the website. The graphics also demonstrate a profound resistance to the terms of British abolitionism and consequently the resilience of slaving through its structural and geographic adaptations around the world; suppression was certainly not simple, cheap, or immediately rewarding. Still there is certainly a reflection in the timeline chart of the campaign’s limited successes and periods of increasing pressure on foreign nations to uphold this new world order. Further insights into the agendas, negotiations, and military tactics lay within the letters themselves as well as external sources such as contemporary newspapers published in the metropole and elsewhere. 


  • Bethell, Leslie. 1966. “The Mixed Commissions for the Suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of African History 7 (1): 79–93.
  • Black, Jeremy. 2012. “Suppressing the Slave Trade.” In British Abolitionism and the Question of Moral Progress in History, edited by Donald A. Yerxa, 27–57. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Lovejoy, Paul E. 2000. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Peterson, Derek R. 2010. “Abolitionism and Political Thought in Britain and East Africa.” In Abolitionism and Imperialism in Britain, Africa, and the Atlantic, edited by Derek R. Peterson, 1–37. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Building Visualizing Abolition

By Humera Lodhi and Kelsey Rogers, University of Missouri, Columbia, April 25, 2017

The British parliament engaged in a coordinated effort over the course of the 19th century to end the transatlantic slave trade. Letters were regularly sent and received between the British Foreign Office and commissioners, naval officers, and diplomats in various countries around the world. Almost two years ago, the project Visualizing Abolition was undertaken and our research facilitator began the momentous task of charting and cataloguing over 30,000 letters to create a correspondence database. Visualizing Abolition traced the spread of abolition, not just in Britain, but globally, and allowed us to see the way the international community interacted and participated in the campaign to end slavery. There are so many separate pieces in this project– thousands of letters spanning almost a hundred years from people all over the world. We turned to the digital humanities to better understand the abolition movement and the struggles of the past.

Digital humanities falls at the intersection of computer science and humanities, two fields that do not traditionally interact with each other.  Scholars use digital tools and technology to aid in both humanities research and education. Digital humanities allows for a deeper level of understanding and provides methods of distributing and presenting information to make humanities education accessible and relevant to all.

In the case of Visualizing Abolition, computer science was central to our project. Coding was used to create a detailed database of the letters, and was then used to create visualizations mapping out when and where these letters were sent. Digital humanities enabled us to quickly sift through all the data and information to get to the core of our research. By creating a map and timeline, we were able to see trends in data and pinpoint important dates and locations for the British suppression campaign.

The research, digital database, and visualizations were made available to all via the internet. The digital database and visualizations allow anyone to see the significance of the research and to interact with it themselves. From scholar to student, Visualizing Abolition provides a database with information that is useful, meaningful and most importantly, accessible for all.  

One of the main goals of the Visualizing Abolition website is to provide a public history resource for people at all levels of academia, from rural middle school classrooms to historians. Primary sources are especially difficult to access, as many exist only in physical form and even when digitized, can be difficult to sift through. In order to bring important resources like the correspondences Visualizing Abolition deals with to the public, digitization can only be the first step. By providing an interactive database to filter, download, and explore over 30,000 records through dynamic visualizations, greatly diminishes the difficulty in both gaining access to and working with this primary source. In addition to the database, the website consolidates its many multidisciplinary aspects into one place. Now essays, related resources, analyses, photographs, and articles that our team of researchers have compiled, can be accessed and viewed in a cohesive whole. This provides a deeper understanding of the multiple forces, perspectives, and people involved in the abolition of the slave trade and puts the primary source in a wider context. This not only creates a streamlined way to connect research across disciplines, but also allows for an immersive narrative, something that is key in public history.

When approaching a multidisciplinary project like this, not only does the ease of use for the eventual end user needs to be considered, so too does the ease of use for fellow members of the project. We have a variety of accompanying materials that cannot be handled in the same way that the database is handled. The photos, essays, and article scans need to be uploaded and formatted individually, as well as accompanied by descriptive text, a task done best by other researchers who are familiar with these materials and can showcase them to their fullest extent. Therefore, the website must also be user friendly on the backend. The best platform for this is WordPress. It has a familiar yet flexible blogging structure perfect for the variety of content we have. It also has one of the most extensive customer support systems for a platform of this kind, and it is completely free to use.

WordPress allows for all members of the research team to easily access and edit content, as well as extensive plugin development for more complicated visualization aspects like the database, maps, and timeline. It is also easy to customize the look and feel of the website to accommodate a project’s brand as there are a variety of open source themes and plugins available to use. The functional and developmental side of WordPress is also supplemented by an almost inexhaustible number of add-ons for any purpose that can be seamlessly added to the basic structure of the platform. Our project took advantage of a few of these suited for key areas, one for offline testing, and another for a user-friendly theme that would tie together the website visually and allow for future growth of the project. InstantWordPress is a free program that allows for the development and testing of a website without a server and domain set up. Most of our development has happened on this local server environment and when the site is ready to go up on the server, the program has a system on place to migrate your work seamlessly over to the new environment.

Layers is Visualizing Abolition’s particular theme of choice because it has a flexible customization platform that anyone can use, as well as extensive documentation detailing every aspect of creating a theme based off of the Layers platform. This is called a child theme that piggy backs off of the main theme and enables elements of the website to be altered through code rather through the Layers interface. This allowed for further customization through HTML, CSS, and PHP languages. HTML and CSS are fairly well known coding languages and can be picked up easily by nearly anyone. PHP is a bit more difficult but Layers made the steep learning curve an easier climb through their documentation. This allows for Humanities undergraduates to utilize direct coding to personalize the theme and begin to learn a valuable coding language on the fly. The scale of website customization can be scaled for any skill level, which makes WordPress and its add-ons ideal for multidisciplinary projects.

This proved to be doubly useful when creating the core visualization elements of the website. These elements are not native to the WordPress environment, nor can they be simply copy and pasted into a page or post. Nor were there suitable WordPress plugins available for the kind of functionality required for our visualizations. A specialized plugin needed to be created. Layers provided a framework for creating the base plugin with detailed steps that was invaluable for this phase of website creation. Once the basic plugin was created, an interactive database needed to be coded. Once again, open source code became an invaluable resource. Tabulator uses JQuery to build a table that can be both manipulated by the end user and customized by the programmer. The database can be connected to JavaScript based visualization plugins that will output real-time changes in timelines and maps based on end-user filters. This framework also allows for the raw data to be updated seamlessly at any time, giving the project room to grow.

With over 30,000 letters, however, the amount of data is overwhelmingly large and it’s easy to feel lost in the research. We began working on visualizations so users could see the impact of our research. We presented our information in forms people were already familiar with– a map and a timeline– so that our research was easily ingestible and meaningful.

Initially, our visuals were created using Google’s Chart API.  One major difficulty was the amount of data we were working with. In many cases, when people utilize Google Charts, they write their data into the literal code. However, since we were working with such a large data set this was not possible and we had to adjust our code to ingest information from an outside data source. Our charts were connected to spreadsheets with our data. Once we solved that issue, Google provided many features to adjust the look of our visuals.

When the database and the visuals were completed, we began the task of connecting the database with the visuals. However, Google Charts could not be connected with our database easily. Since users would be using the database filters to control the visuals, it was essential these two features join together. This meant the visuals created with Google Charts were no longer useful and had to be remade using a different charting library.  An alternative to Google Charts was High Charts. After ensuring High Charts provided code that could be connected with our database, we began the task of remaking the map and the timeline.  Creating the visuals proved more challenging than anticipated and required a more in-depth knowledge of coding. However, through a process of research and trial and error, we were able to land upon the correct tools needed to make the map and the timeline.

In a way, the process of creating visuals hit at the very core of digital humanities– it furthered our research and education of both history and technology.  Creating the website has allowed for a deeper understanding of how to work with primary sources in new, innovative ways and to create narratives that can engage the public with history. It also fostered skills in working across disciplines, from learning coding and design, to compiling different disciplines into a cohesive whole.

By using modern technology, Visualizing Abolition transformed abstract studies and knowledge into a shared platform with information that is relevant to all. Researchers of Visualizing Abolition combined two distinct fields of study– history and technology– to provide insight from the past that is useful today.

The Campaign in the Illustrated London News

By Ellie Cherryhomes and Samuel Mosher, University of Missouri, Columbia, April 25, 2017

In the nineteenth century, British suppression of the African slave trade was one of the most discussed topics of the day, frequently making the pages of The Illustrated London News, the world’s first illustrated weekly periodical. Great Britain had abolished its own trade in 1807. Since then, the Parliament engaged in a campaign to suppress the entire traffic. It signed bilateral treaties with other nations stipulating a date for the end of the trade, created international courts for adjudication of ships violating those agreements, and deployed a naval squadron to patrol both sides of the Atlantic. It was a costly and time consuming endeavor, and the public, no doubt, had an opinion and starved to learn more about its progress. Was it worth it? Why Great Britain? How much will it cost us? These are some of the questions that crossed the mind of British readers at the time, and which The Illustrated London News sought to address.

But how did the paper go about doing it? How important did it consider the suppression of the trade? How did it portray the campaign in its writing and illustrations? How objective was it? Did it serve any private interest? Did it censor any of its content? This paper will address these questions by examining the articles and illustrations published by The Illustrated London News on the suppression of the African slave trade during the campaign’s peak period. The Illustrated London News was first published in 1842 by Herbert Ingram, a young businessman from northern England. Ingram aimed the periodical at a “fairly literate market”  (Sinnema 1998, 17). He partnered with printer Henry Vizetelly who envisioned the paper as the world’s first weekly illustrated report on local and global events. The paper’s expensive, high-quality production caused it to appeal to middle class audiences, and it found success in this market. In 1855, it was the highest selling newspaper in Great Britain, with an average of 130,000 copies sold a week (Sinnema 1998, 16). It covered a wide variety of topics, ranging from politics to the arts, including regular columns like “Imperial Parliament,” “Naval and Military Intelligence,” and “Theatres and Theatrical Portraits” (Sinnema 1998, 21).

From 1842 to 1869, The Illustrated London News published 145 articles directly or indirectly related to the suppression of the African slave trade, or an average of 5.2 articles per year. The number of articles published annually, however, varied significantly. The volume of articles peaked in 1845, 1850, the second half of the 1850’s, and the early 1860’s. These peaks did not necessarily reflect British suppression of the traffic. Records of ships captured by anti-slave trade forces available in the Voyages Database, for example, do not correlate with reporting from The Illustrated London News. Rather, the causes behind these peaks stemmed from several other factors. First, the enactment of the 1845 Aberdeen Act, which allowed the British navy to stop and search suspected Brazilian slave ships as well as try them at British Vice-Admiralty Courts as opposed to international or Mixed Commission Courts(Bethell 1970, 242). Second, a spike in interest in the exploits of the African squadron in 1850, which culminated with a resurgence in the coverage of chases and ship captures in the late 1850’s. Third, the impending Civil War in the United States over the issue of slavery and the protection of constitutional rights. Finally, Dr. David Livingstone’s expeditions across Central and Southern Africa in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. A Christian missionary for the London Missionary Society, Dr. Livingstone was a dedicated abolitionist, who preached that slavery and the slave trade would only vanish if Europe replaced them with the growth and trade of natural produce from Africa.

But how did The Illustrated London News prioritize coverage? Were articles about the traffic relegated to the back of each issue or lauded in the front as the latest and most important news? Addressing these questions appropriately would require a careful study of the publishing industry and reading practices of the time. It is clear, however, that the paper used the front page to call attention to the most important news of the day. The subsequent pages were normally divided into sections, such as “Foreign Intelligence,” “Accidents and Offenses,” “The Market,” “Epitome of News-Foreign and Domestic,” and finally, like any other newspaper, the ads section towards the end. One could measure the importance of the topics published by simply locating on which page they were published and then counting with which frequency they were published in these pages. For example, the more news on the traffic appeared on the front page, in theory, the more important the newspaper considered it. This method, however, may not be adequate enough because the number of pages in each issue increased over time. Consequently, an article featured on page five of a thirty page-long issue was more significant than an article featured on page three of a sixteen page-long issue. Perhaps, a better way of measuring the importance that The Illustrated London News assigned to slave trade articles would be by calculating in terms of percentages how far into each issue did the newspaper publish the article.

Indeed, whenever the newspaper published an article related to the slave trade, it considered them very important. Nearly half of the articles that the newspaper published on the traffic, or 62 out of the 145, appeared in the first quarter of each issue; 13 of them, in fact, made the front page. Approximately 34 articles were published in the second quarter. Finally, about 49 articles appeared in the last two quarters of each issue. When it came to reporting the suppression of the African slave trade, The Illustrated London News rarely failed to depict its importance by assigning a prominent location within most issues of the newspaper.

While The Illustrated London News considered coverage of the suppression important, was its reporting accurate? Did it portray the complexity of the issue in an unbiased light or in the interest of a third party? Generally, the newspaper supported Great Britain’s humanitarian reasons behind the suppression. The Illustrated London News often defended these positions using religious and nationalist rhetoric, such as arguing Great Britain had a responsibility to suppress the African slave trade due to its “nobler sympathies” and “higher precepts of a godlike philosophy” (The Illustrated London News 1842, 193). As seen here, it often talked about abolition in passionate, rather than objective, tones, resembling the modern editorial, rather than more conventional news-writing. On many occasions, the paper described the traffic as “hideous” and “cruel” (The Illustrated London News 1844, 33). In one instance, the African slave trade was labeled as “a dark stain in the history not of one nation, but of mankind” (The Illustrated London News 1844, 33).

The Illustrated London News may have supported the suppression, but it was still very critical of Great Britain’s past, as well as its success in carrying out the campaign. The paper acknowledged that a heavy “amount of guilt” weighed on the country for being a Christian nation taking part in the traffic of human beings (The Illustrated London News 1844, 33). Occurring largely in the early 1850’s, The Illustrated London News also began to question the campaign’s effectiveness. It specifically criticized the money spent in order to fund the suppression efforts on the west African coast, as the money added to Great Britain’s “most stupendous debt that was ever contracted since the world began” (The Illustrated London News 1850, 185). The paper’s last main source of criticism was Great Britain’s partnership with other countries in suppressing the traffic. Despite being a false perception, The Illustrated London News believed the United States and France did not participate in the suppression, and simply watched Great Britain carry out the campaign. “[France and America] consider it our affair, not theirs; and they are only too happy when they hear that we make a failure of it,” wrote the paper (The Illustrated London News 1850, 185).

The reporting of The Illustrated London News both praised and criticized various parts of the suppression campaign, thus providing readers with a balanced viewpoint that gave readers the newspaper’s own opinion, and not one of a third party. While not as immediately apparent, its famed illustrations contained some bias, as these images focused on praising the country’s efforts and often avoided showing the true horrors of the slave trade.  The periodical capitalized on the development of technology to visually document the British suppression efforts of the trade. Published on January 6th 1843, the newspaper “discovered and opened up the world of illustration as connected with News, and the quick-sighted and sound-judging British public peopled it at once” (The Illustrated London News, 1846). During the papers infancy, from 1840s to the mid 1850s, images primarily depicted British naval squadrons, debate and legislation within Parliament, missionary endeavors and Christian condemnation of the traffic, and colonial exploration. Visual coverage expanded at the end of the 1850s and into the 1860s with the creation of three new columns “Illustrations of War in America”, “The Findings of Dr. Livingstone,” and “The East African Slave Trade.” Granted that The Illustrated London News was the world’s first illustrated periodical and that it consistently used illustrations to document British affairs in regards to the slave trade, it coincidentally broadened the number of witnesses to one of the world’s most horrific human rights violations. 

The suppression of the African slave trade was no doubt one of the greatest events of the nineteenth century, and The Illustrated London News rightly recognized its importance. It frequently reported on the progress of the campaign and related topics. Although the British led this major change, the newspaper presented a rather balanced view of the campaign. It praised the humanitarian values behind it, the effort of the British government to carry out the suppression, and the participation of British diplomats, naval officers, and others in this huge endeavor. However, it also criticized the British past involvement in the traffic, the costs of the suppression, its effectiveness, and the alliances that the government made to achieve that goal. In view of its passionate language, the newspaper may not have been always accurate or objective. One must admit, however, that it is not easy to live through major historical transformations consciously of their impact. Nevertheless, The Illustrated London News often emphasized articles on the slave trade and its suppression by giving them a prominent location within the pages of its newspaper. Its illustrations, although censored, broadening the number of  witnesses to what was one of the world’s most horrific human rights violations as well as the efforts to stop it. Despite its sometimes opinionated coverage, The Illustrated London News provided a balanced look at the British suppression of the African slave trade, and its frequent reporting was representative of the campaign’s undeniable historical significance. Rarely news media do justice to important historical events unfolding at unfamiliar corners of the world, but, in this particular case, The Illustrated London News seems to have struck the right chord.


  • Bethell, Leslie. 1970. The Abolition of the Brazilian Slave Trade: Britain, Brazil and the Slave Trade Question, 1807-1869. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sinnema, Peter W. 1998. Dynamics of the Pictured Page: Representing the Nation in the Illustrated London News. Brookfield: Ashgate Pub.
  • The Illustrated London News. 1842. “Abolition of the Slave Trade,” August 6.
  • ———. 1843. January 6.
  • ———. 1844. “The Slave Trade,” July 20.
  • ———. 1850. “The African Squadron,” March 23.

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