The slave trade
Following the defeat of French Emperor Napoleon in 1814, Britain and allies including Austria, Russia, and Prussia, met to finalise the boundaries of Europe at the Congress of Vienna. While political leaders jostled to create a new balance of power, communities in cities and towns across Britain prepared petitions to influence the shape of the peace.
Since 1805, the maritime dominance of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars effectively blockaded French trade, including the slave trade. Leaders of the anti-slavery movement, who fought hard to abolish the slave trade in the British Isles, quickly recognised that peace would enable French slave traders to resume their traffic in enslaved Africans.
Anti-slavery campaigners, working through the same communities and networks which had campaigned for Britain’s own slave trade abolition - passed in 1807, generated a new wave of petitions. The scale of petitioning was unprecedented. In 1814 communities from Plymouth to Fife and Beverley to County Wexford produced 1,370 petitions with signatures numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Historian Seymour Drescher estimates that between one-fifth and one-third of adult men signed. In some parts of the country women signed too. This was at a time when most men did not have the right to vote and women were excluded entirely.
Wellington and the Congress of Vienna
The petitioners pushed the international abolition of the slave trade onto the conference agenda, to the surprise of Europe’s monarchs and diplomats. It is fairly clear that the British Government considered abolition of the slave trade a side issue. The Duke of Wellington, sent to negotiate on behalf of Britain at the Congress of Vienna, was shocked by such popular demands over the content of an international treaty. His brother Richard Wellesley, who had served as foreign secretary, even suggested a revolution would break out if they ignored these popular calls.
Men such as Henry Woolcombe, a Plymouth solicitor and the town’s mayor, heard about the initiative through his Bible Society contacts, and he soon ensured that his town was not absent from the avalanche of petitions. Like many other communities, he and his collaborators hesitated over who to send the petitions to - the House of Commons, the House of Lords or the King. In the end, they chose to petition the King.
British commercial interests
The attack on the French slave trade drew an even broader base of support than the campaign to end Britain’s own slave trade a few years earlier. West Indian slave owners, who bitterly opposed the abolition of slavery in Britain’s Caribbean colonies (where slavery remained legal until 1834), saw a commercial advantage in the abolition of the French trade. The popularity of petitioning to end the French slave trade, we must remember, did not mean that Britons viewed enslaved Africans as their equals.
Impact of the petitions
The volume of petitions persuaded the British Government to add international condemnation of the slave trade to the negotiating table, even if the restored French King Louis XVIII was unpersuaded. The petitioners even found an unlikely audience in the Emperor Napoleon. Imprisoned on the Isle of Elba since his defeat, he escaped in February 1815 and returned to France allying loyalist soldiers and attracting defectors from those troops sent to arrest him. In a bid to undermine British public support for renewed war against him, one of Napoleon’s first actions was to declare abolition of the French slave trade. He hoped, by offering the British public what they wanted, to undercut sympathy for Louis XVIII.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, British petitioners were not persuaded by his sudden abolitionist conversion. Fear of his imperial designs ensured widespread support for Wellington when he defeated Napoleon for a final time, at Waterloo, in June 1815. While the peace negotiations produced a vague declaration against the slave trade, abolition – both on paper and in practice – proved slower to produce. The illegal slave trade to the Americas would continue for another fifty years.
Dr Richard Huzzey is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool.
Image: The meeting of Wellington and Blucher after the Battle of Waterloo (detail), waterglass painting by Daniel Maclise, 1861.
© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 3246.