The Slaving Capital in the Era of Abolition: Liverpool's Silent Rejection of the Slave Trade, 1787-1807
In 1787, when the British abolition movement began, the Liverpool slave trade was the largest in the world. Contemporaries throughout Britain, but especially in the port, viewed the slave trade as the primary source of Liverpool’s growth and prosperity in the eighteenth century. Liverpudlians, therefore, reacted negatively to the abolition movement, which they viewed as a threat to both the local and national economy. By 1788, the immense popular support generated by the abolition campaign left Liverpool isolated in its defence of the slave trade. Liverpudlians, however, were not unanimous in their support of the slave trade’s continuance. In 1787 and 1788, a small group of rational dissenters, known as the Roscoe Circle, anonymously contributed to the abolition campaign from Liverpool. The group’s namesake, William Roscoe, went on to be elected Member of Parliament for Liverpool in 1806, and in March 1807 he voted in favour of abolishing the slave trade along with 282 other MPs, against just sixteen, including Liverpool’s other MP. This thesis examines reactions in Liverpool to the British abolition movement between the start of the campaign in 1787 and the passage of the Slave Trade Abolition Act in 1807. It highlights the periods 1787-1788 and 1796-1807 to challenge the view of Liverpool as a town almost uniformly averse to abolition throughout the twenty year campaign. Chapters One and Two examine the immediate pro- and anti-abolition responses in Liverpool in 1787 and 1788, respectively focusing on the contributions of Liverpool slaving merchants to the anti-abolition campaign and on the abolitionist activities of the Roscoe Circle. Drawing on Liverpool guidebooks and a series of letters in the Liverpool Chronicle, Chapter Three then traces the gradual change in popular feeling towards abolition that occurred in Liverpool in the last decade of the British slave trade’s existence. Ultimately, this thesis argues that rapidly dwindling Liverpudlian support for the slave trade from the mid-1790s onward has been under-valued. By 1807 Liverpudlians, wanting to re-affirm cultural ties with the rest of Britain, turned their backs on the slave trade, which had by then become a source of unease and embarrassment.