Transatlantic Slavery and Abolition

Transatlantic Slavery and Abolition

From the 17th through to the early 19th century Britain played a central role in the transatlantic slave economy. At the core of this inhumane trade was the kidnap and exploitation of enslaved Africans to provide forced labour for the plantation economies of the Caribbean.

Discover how traces of transatlantic slavery can be found across many sites in the National Heritage Collection, and explore the stories of individuals whose lives were touched by enslavement, including those who campaigned for its eventual abolition. 


Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

A watercolour painting of a Caribbean plantation with mountains in the background
An illustration from 1820–21 of the Whitney Plantation in Jamaica, owned by William Ward, 3rd Viscount Dudley, whose descendants acquired Witley Court in 1833. Romanticised illustrations such as this do not depict the reality of life for the enslaved
© Public domain licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

Long read: Traces of the slave economy in the National Heritage Collection

Traces of the transatlantic slave economy can be seen all around us, not only in the landscapes and buildings of West Africa and the Caribbean, but also in the United Kingdom.

Much of the wealth from the trade in enslaved peoples and associated industries was invested in Britain, and that investment has a lasting legacy in buildings, communities, businesses and institutions across the country today.

From plantation owners, to pro- and anti-abolitionists, from investors in trading companies to colonial administrators, examples can be found across sites in the National Heritage Collection that show the extent of transatlantic slavery’s presence in British society.

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  • Dido Belle

    Dido Elizabeth Belle was raised as part of an aristocratic family in Georgian Britain. She was the daughter of a formerly enslaved woman named Maria Bell and a Royal Naval officer, Sir John Lindsay. 

  • The Somerset case

    The ruling in the case of Somerset v Stewart in 1772, made by Lord Mansfield of Kenwood, was a landmark in the progress towards the abolition of slavery in England.

  • Black Prisoners at Portchester Castle

    In October 1796 a fleet of ships from the Caribbean carrying over 2,500 prisoners of war began to dock in Portsmouth Harbour. Many of the prisoners were formerly enslaved people from the French Caribbean.


Close up of blue plaque to Ottobah Cugoano installed on a brick wall

A blue plaque to anti-slavery campaigner Ottobah Cugoano was unveiled by English Heritage in 2020

In 1807 Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, which abolished the transportation of enslaved Africans to the Americas in British vessels. Slavery itself continued in the Caribbean colonies until the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

The Act came into force the following year, but the formerly enslaved were re-designated as ‘apprentices’, meaning their servitude continued until these apprenticeships ended in August 1838.

Slavery continued in the United States until the American Civil War of 1861–5. It finally ended in the Carribbean when the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba freed their enslaved people in 1873 and 1886 respectively.

Below you can read the stories of just some of the people who campaigned for abolition, including some who had formerly been enslaved themselves. 

  • Ottobah Cugoano

    Ottobah Cugoano was an anti-slavery campaigner and one of the first formerly enslaved people to write and publish a text in the English language. 

  • Ellen and William Craft

    Ellen and William Craft were African American freedom fighters who escaped from enslavement in the USA and fled to Britain in the mid 19th century.

  • William Wilberforce

    William Wilberforce is commemorated with a blue plaque at the site of the house in Battersea where he lived at the height of his campaign against slavery.

  • The Clapham Sect

    Holy Trinity Church was once the meeting place of the Clapham Sect, whose campaigning helped bring about the abolition of slavery in the British Commonwealth.

  • Thomas Fowell Buxton

    The anti-slavery campaigner and social reformer Thomas Fowell Buxton headed the anti-slavery movement in 1834 when abolition was secured.

  • Daniel O'Connell

    The Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell campaigned for civil rights, including the abolition of slavery.

The English Heritage Podcast

The Ancestors

A group of young black women in historic costume perform  a play in the grounds of a castle

A performance of ‘The Ancestors’ at Portchester Castle in summer 2021

In 1807 white French prisoners of war held at Portchester Castle staged The Revolutionary Philanthropist, a play about enslaved people’s fight for freedom during the Haitian Revolution.

When it was written, the play was one of only a few that explored revolution in the Caribbean, but it includes racist language and outdated attitudes.

In collaboration with English Heritage’s youth engagement programme Shout Out Loud and the University of Warwick, members of the National Youth Theatre have staged a production of a new play called The Ancestors. Written by Lakesha Arie-Angelo in response to The Revolutionary Philanthropist, it turns the focus away from the original colonial male perspective, and retells the story from a black female point of view.

The play was performed in the grounds of Portchester Castle in the summer of 2021. A documentary about the production is coming soon.

  • The Ancestors: Telling the Story of Freedom and Revolution

    How do you take a historic play informed by real events and reimagine it for 21st-century performance?

  • Finding Our Voices

    Watch five brand new monologues created as part of the development of The Ancestors.

  • The Haitian Revolution

    To accompany the production, we examine the connections between Haiti and Portchester and a few of the key events and characters of the Revolution.

  • Freedom and Revolution

    The Ancestors is part of the project ‘Freedom and Revolution’ which explores Portchester Castle’s links to the Caribbean. In partnership with the National Youth Theatre and Warwick University.

Research into Transatlantic Slavery

In 2007, to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade, English Heritage (now separately English Heritage and Historic England) commissioned research into the slavery connections of English Heritage sites.

This report surveyed 33 properties that were built or occupied during the main period of the British transatlantic slave trade (c.1640–1807). Twenty-six properties with some level of connection to slavery or abolition were identified.

Read the research papers

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