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Five Abolitionists you should know


The slave trade has existed since almost the dawn of mankind but its only in the last millennia that documentation has come to light showing that other voices in different time periods spoke out against the enslaving and trading of human beings. William Wilberforce is an obvious example of a famous abolitionist but here are five other prominent abolitionists you should know: 

Wulfstan of Worcester (The Viking slave trade) 

‘They used to buy men from all over England and carry them to Ireland in the hope of gain; nay they even set forth for sale women whom they had themselves gotten with child. You might well groan to see the long rows of young men and maidens whose beauty and youth might move the pity of a savage, bound together with cords, and brought to market to be sold.’ 

Information is limited on one of the UK’s earliest abolitionists with references to him coming from only a few sources.  

What we do know is that Wulfstan was born around 1008 and made Bishop of Worcester in 1062. His primary concern during his lifetime was looking after the people of his diocese, which was even noted by William the Conquer. Wulfstan preached against the Viking slave trade that operated out of Bristol and spent most Sundays preaching against the trade, eventually winning the minds of most of the citizens who were said to have driven the traders out of town. It was a partial victory, the main trade had gone but Vikings and other slavers continued to kidnap victims across the country before sailing away with them to the bustling slave markets in Dublin.  


Antonio De Montesinos (The Spanish conquest of the Americas) 

‘With what right and with what justice do you keep these poor Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? By what authority have you made such detestable wars against these people who lived peacefully and gently in their own land? Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves?’

- Fr. Antonio de Montesinos, Santo Domingo, December 1511 

A Dominican Friar from Spain, he was one of the first priests in the ‘New World’ who arrived in Santa Domingo in 1510. He was appalled at the brutality of his countrymen towards the natives and made a passionate sermon against this in December 1511. The sermon horrified the congregation who were outraged that Montesinos would attack their way of life and withhold confession from them if they carried on in their brutality. Luckily his fellow priests backed him, especially so when he was recalled to Spain to give an account to the King (along with a pro-slavery friar). The King heard both arguments and settled in some favour towards Montesinos in what became known as the ‘Laws of Burgos, granting the natives some basic rights such as regulating their treatment.  

Not much is known about his life after this other than he went on a missionary expedition to South Carolina in 1526 and then Venezuela at a later date. He was ‘martyred’ there around 1545.  


Bartolomé de las Casas (The Spanish conquest of the Americas) 

Bartolome was born around 1484 to a wealthy family who were well connected to the family of Christopher Columbus. His father sailed with Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas and had land holdings (and slaves) there. The family wealth enabled young Bartolome to study to become a priest who excelled in Latin. By 1502, he sailed to Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic & Haiti). Accompanying the Governor on a tour of the Island, he witnessed a massacre of natives and the deplorable conditions in which many lived. He soon renounced his families slave holdings and began to preach about slavery being a mortal sin in the Catholic Church. He was even in the audience of Fr. Antonio de Montesinos famous December 1511 sermon 

Las Casas spent a number of decades trying to convince the Spanish to renounce slavery, or at the very least treat them justly. Not just for the souls of the slaves but also for his countrymen whose eternal souls were at risk from their continued sin of owning slaves. He even managed to convince the authorities to give him some land in Central America so he could show them that the native populations could be controlled peacefully with religion rather than with force. He failed in Venezuela but succeeded in Guatemala with an area called ‘Verapaz’ which means ‘true peace’ and is still named this today.  

Las Casas returned to Spain in 1540 to try and end the ‘encomienda’ system which was a grant given to colonists by the crown which gave them power to demand tribute and labour from the native population. He returned to central America once more during this decade before returning to Spain again in 1547 He took part in the Valladolid debate of 1550-1, which was a trial to investigate the justification of slavery in the indies. It came to no definitive conclusion and both sides claimed victory over the other.  

Las Casas never returned to Central America but continued to debate slavery and the indies for the rest of his life until dying in Madrid in 1566. He was an ambiguous figure to later abolitionist movements. Although lauded for his efforts to free Indians, at one point during his lifetime he thought the solution was to import African slaves to take their place. He later recanted this belief during his later years and included an apology for it in his writings. 


Olaudah Equiano (The Transatlantic Slave Trade) 

‘This is 'a round unvarnished tale' of the chequered adventures of an African who early in life was torn from his native country by those savage dealers in a traffic disgraceful to humanity and which has fixed a stain on the legislature of Britain, which nothing but its abolition can remove. With what propriety can we boast of our humanity and love of justice whilst we continue a commerce inconsistent with either? [...] The narrative appears to be written with much truth and simplicity. The author's account of the manners of the natives of his own province (Eboe) is interesting and pleasing; and the reader, unless perchance he is either a West-India planter or Liverpool merchant, will find his humanity severely wounded by the shameless barbarity practised towards the author's hapless countrymen in our colonies.’ - Review of The Life of Olaudah Equiano in The General Magazine and Impartial Review (July 1789) 

A contemporary and co-abolitionist at the time of William Wilberforce, Equiano stands out for having been both a slave and a freeman who spent his life trying to abolish this heinous trade in human beings.  

Born in 1745 in what is now Nigeria, he was kidnapped as a young child and sold into slavery, first in Africa and then in the West Indies. As a sickly child, he was put to work in the house rather than the fields and was generally better treated than many others. He was bought by a sea captain and taught to read and write by some of the sailors. He was later allowed to buy fruit to sell on to sailors prior to their journeys and eventually bought his own freedom with these proceeds from his owner. Once a free man, he travelled and settled in England and married a local girl Susannah Cullen and had two daughters with her. He spent the rest of his life pursuing the goal of abolition by writing a bestselling book of his life as a slave (that was translated into multiple languages), giving speeches and working with luminaries such as Josiah Wedgewood, William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Hannah Moore (known as the Clapham sect or ‘The Saints’) towards their collective goal of ending the transatlantic slave trade. 

Equiano died in London in 1797, a decade before the Abolition Act entered the Statute books and 40 years before it would finally be completely abolished throughout the British empire.     


David Livingstone (The East African/Arab slave trade) 

‘Africa is bleeding out her life-blood at every pore’ 

Livingstone was well known for his exploration, unsuccessful missionary attempts and his opposition to the East African slave trade. Born in South Lanarkshire in 1812 to a poor family, from a young age he would work in the cotton mill and do his school work at night. He eventually graduated in medicine from Glasgow University before heading off to Africa as a missionary. He travelled extensively and witnessed the Swahili-Arab slave markets in Malawi. It was after witnessing the slave markets and a particularly cruel Boer raid where many adults were slaughtered hundreds of children were taken as slaves that Livingstone started his mission against the slave trade and to end it in Africa for good 

Although the transatlantic slave trade has disappeared after the British Abolition Act of 1837, slaves were still in high demand in South America, the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf Few British readers knew of this trade until his book Missionary travels and researches in South Africa was published in 1857. Public opinion at home pushed the British government to send the Royal Navy to intercept and stop the slaves ships operating in the area. Meanwhile Livingstone continued his exploration of Africa for a few decades more and in 1871 wrote about a massacre of slaves carried out by rival slave traders in Zanzibar.  

Livingstone was ill for a few years before dying in 1873. The plaque on his tomb in Westminster Abbey bears a diary inscription he made in his diary towards the end of his life: ‘All I can add in my solitude, is, may heaven’s rich blessing come down on everyone, American, English, or Turk, who will help to heal this open sore of the world.’ 

The African slave trade continued for several decades. Countries around the world continued to buy and trade African slaves such as Brazil, which didn’t abolish slavery until 1888 and a number of Middle Eastern countries who didn’t outlaw slavery until well into the 20th century.

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