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Abolitionism (from English abolition from Latin abolitio "abolition", "abolition") refers to a movement to abolish slavery . Fed by Christian as well as Enlightenment convictions, this happened in more and more western countries, from Portugal in 1761 to Brazil in 1888. From 1808 Great Britain took on a pioneering role in the fight against slavery. Whether abolitionism was primarily motivated by moral convictions or by economic interests is controversial. The term abolitionism was later also used by opponents of theTorture , the death penalty or imprisonment used. In the broader sense of the abolition of inhumane state institutions, this also includes the demand for the decriminalization of certain areas of crime, such as drug offenses. For the use of the word for the abolition of prostitution or sex work, see abolitionism (prostitution) .

History of abolitionism


Denmark banned human trade in 1722.

1848 8000 surrounded enslaved subjects of the Danish colony of Saint Croix , the Fort Frederik and threatened to set fire to the whole city. They were formally freed from Peter von Scholten .

Great Britain

British abolitionist logo on a medallion made by Josiah Wedgwood's porcelain factory . Design Henry Webber ~ 1790

In the fight against slavery and the slave trade , while Enlightenment ideas played some role in parts of the intellectual elites of the United States and Europe, Adam Smith's teaching that free labor is more productive than slave labor remained a minority opinion among British economists. It was more important that in pietism and evangelical missions in the 18th and 19th centuries the view prevailed that an understanding of human beings as children of God was incompatible with slavery. The Society for Effecting the Abolition of Slavery was founded on May 22, 1787 in the James Phillips print shop in London by twelve people, including Thomas Clarkson , Granville Sharp and several Quakers .

The former slave Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797), who told Granville Sharp about his experiences, was also influential . Clarkson held briefings to educate the unsuspecting public about the slave trade and its practices. The campaign initially aimed to abolish the Atlantic slave trade . To this end, the movement collected up to 400,000 signatures, filed petitions in parliament and called for a boycott of sugar from the Caribbean obtained through slave labor. Up to 300,000 people had joined the sugar boycott. In the House of Commons she found support from MP William Wilberforce , a committed evangelical and friend of William Pitt . The abolition of the slave trade was first decided in 1792 in the House of Commons . The delay in implementation was due to the French Revolution and its interpretation: through decisive abolitionism, Great Britain was able to position itself against France, with whom they had been at war since 1793 : Napoleon had allowed slavery, which was abolished in 1794, again in 1802, which is why Great Britain had a decisive abolition policy promised to underpin moral and legal leadership in the world. In 1807, both Houses of Parliament therefore passed the Slave Trade Act , which came into force in 1808, banning the slave trade. In addition to anti-French patriotism, the success of the generation change in the abolition movement, in which more women and younger people came into play and appeared more demanding, the faster dissemination of information through new streets and coffee houses with newspapers and the fear of a popular uprising like in France. In 1808 Sierra Leone became a British crown colony. Liberated slaves were brought there.

On August 28, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, with which from August 1, 1834 all slaves in the British colonial empire were declared free. For a transitional period of four years, they remained tied to their former masters for a fee. Plantation owners in the Caribbean were compensated with £ 20 million. As so-called “absentee owners” they were mostly not based in Great Britain, they invested these sums there and not in the West Indies , where a small-scale subsistence economy was now developing. The progress of emancipation was accompanied by an economic regression.

In the following years the smuggling of mostly child slaves from Africa to America ("hidden Atlantic") flourished , in which mainly Atlantic Creoles, but also British citizens took part. The Royal Navy strove with increasing success to combat this slave trade and also brought ships from third countries where it was still legal. This repeatedly led to diplomatic entanglements, but prevented the trade gap that the British abolition had left from being completely closed again: In the 19th century, the demand for slaves in Brazil and the southern states of the USA was already less due to new imports than to descendants existing slaves there satisfied. For Great Britain this policy was also linked to the enforcement of its imperial interests, insofar as the British Navy increasingly acted as ruler of the world's oceans. Great Britain also exerted diplomatic pressure on other states to get them to ban the slave trade.

Abolitionism also long remained an important issue in British civil society. The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1839 and held the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in Exeter in 1840. In 1901 there was a massive buyers' strike against a type of chocolate when it became known that the cocoa beans used to make it were produced by slaves in São Tomé . In the second half of the 19th century, reports from missionaries, especially the Scotsman David Livingstone , about the ongoing slave trade in southern and eastern Africa and the devastation it caused led to an international campaign against the slave trade. Significant for the race for Africa in the age of imperialism was Livingstone's view that without the economic development of Africa for world trade, the material foundations of slave hunts would not be eliminated: Abolitionism thus became the basis for British colonial acquisition in Africa .

In British historical consciousness, abolition has long played a significantly larger role than the fact that the country had made good money in slavery and the slave trade for decades. Trinidad and Tobago historian Eric Eustace Williams scoffed in 1966: "British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced negro slavery only to have the satisfaction of abolishing it afterwards."

United States of America

Contemporary caricature depicting slaves as (supposedly) satisfied blacks forced to be free by the abolitionists
Thomas Paine published the first known American pamphlet advocating the abolition of slavery in 1775
Rioting by advocates of slavery in Alton, Illinois in 1837, in which the abolitionist Elijah Parish Lovejoy was murdered

Resistance to slavery existed in North America as early as the 17th century and was mostly based on religion. Under the leadership of the Baptist Roger Williams , the Rhode Island colony declared slavery illegal in 1652. The Mennonites and parts of the Quakers also rejected them for religious reasons. The American Methodists issued a corresponding ecclesiastical ban in 1786, larger groups of Baptists and Congregationalists followed in 1789. With the slogan “Slavery is sin”, the anti-slavery movement (Abolitionist Movement) began around 1820. The novel Uncle Tom's Cabin ( GermanOnkel Toms Hütte ) (1852) by the Presbyterian Harriet Beecher Stowe had an extremely strong political effect .

The abolitionism movement was reorganized in the northern states of the USA around 1830 and became more active as a journalist. In 1831 the New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded . The movement had its roots as early as the 18th century and initially led to the ban on the international slave trade in 1808, which the government did not adequately enforce, particularly in the south, but at least reduced trade. According to an estimate by historian John Hope Franklin , around 250,000 more slaves were brought to the United States after the ban. The possession of slaves and the slave trade within the country was allowed until the end of the Civil War, especially in the southern states .

At the time the United States was founded , several states banned slavery as incompatible with the principles of the new republic. It was gradually abolished in all states north of Maryland between 1789 and 1830 . The constitution , passed in 1787, referred to slavery in some sections, such as the three-fifths clause . According to her, three-fifths of the number of men who were not eligible to vote - slaves and Indians - were counted as three-fifths when determining a state's seats in the House of Representatives. This gave the votes of white southerners greater weight than those of northern voters. The word slavery does not appear in the constitution itself, but is circumscribed using euphemistic formulations such as “bound service” or “peculiar institution” (special institution).

In the south, where slavery has always had a much greater economic importance than in the north due to the plantation economy, the “special facility” remained unchanged even after the war of independence. After the invention of the cotton ginning machine , which made the use of slaves in cotton fields particularly profitable from around 1800, the attitude of many southerners to slavery changed. Until then it had been regarded as a necessary evil, but now an apologetics of slavery developed, which became increasingly radicalized in response to the strengthening of the northern anti-slavery movement from 1830 onwards. The majority of Northerners were critical of slavery, but, unlike the abolitionists, did not advocate its immediate abolition. Even Abraham Lincoln took this majority opinion. He accepted slavery in states where it was legally allowed until the Civil War. He only stood up against their expansion to other states and sought to release the slaves in a gradual process - in exchange for compensation for the slave owners.

The abolitionist movement, on the other hand, not only wanted to prevent the spread of slavery, but also advocated its immediate and universal abolition as a matter of principle. Its most effective propagandists included the publicists William Lloyd Garrison , Horace Greeley and Frederick Douglass , who had been an escaped slave himself, as well as the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe . Many, but by no means all, of the abolitionists were Quakers in the tradition of Benjamin Lay and John Woolman . They rejected violence, but still played an active role in the resistance against slavery, for example by supporting the “ Underground Railroad ”, which helped slaves escape. The escape aid, in which the former slave Harriet Tubman particularly excelled, was made illegal by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This federal law required the northern states to hand over escaped slaves who were on their territory to their owners in the south.

In addition to non-violent groups, a militant, violent branch of the abolitionist movement also developed, to which the group around John Brown belonged. On October 16, 1859, she raided a US Army arsenal in Harpers Ferry to trigger a slave rebellion. Although the operation was unsuccessful, it led to the establishment of armed militias in the southern states, whose white population had always feared being murdered by insurgent slaves, which formed the basis of the later Confederate Army . Herman Melville referred to Brown as the "meteor of war" because his action strengthened the conviction on both sides that the conflict between slave-holding and free states could no longer be resolved peacefully.

The American Civil War broke out in April 1861 after the election of the moderate anti-slavery opponent Lincoln as US President in 1860 had induced eleven southern states to leave the Union and to found the Confederate States of America . Until then, the northern states had still adhered to the existing laws that allowed the possession of slaves in the south. In order to hit the Confederate economically, however, the Congress passed several Confiscation Acts from August 1861 , which enabled the Union troops to “seize” the enemy's slaves and recruit them as soldiers. The emancipation proclamation of January 1, 1863 finally declared all slaves who were at that time in one of the renegade southern states to be free. However, in the upper-south border states of Kentucky , West Virginia , Maryland, and Delaware that remained with the Union , slavery remained legal. It was only finally abolished with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of January 31, 1865.

After the formal liberation of the slaves, the American abolitionists continued to devote themselves to the cause of the black population and the improvement of their living conditions, which in the former slave states remained characterized by poverty and racial discrimination. From their principles out the US-developed civil rights movement (Civil Rights Movement) of the 1960s, the most prominent leaders of Muslim activist Malcolm X and Baptist minister Martin Luther King had, both in 1965 and 1968 killed.


Abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848 (painting by Auguste François Biard, 1849)

In France the abolitionist movement was weak for a long time. With the exception of Turgot and Montesquieu , hardly any voices rose in the 18th century calling for an end to slavery. In the wake of the French Revolution , the Declaration of Human Rights and the Haitian Revolution , slavery was abolished by the National Convention on February 4, 1794 , but this was never implemented and applied. François-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture became the first governor of the French colony of Haiti of African descent in 1799. Napoleon sent an expeditionary army to the island, suspended the abolitionist decrees and the Code Noir , and with it slavery, came back into force on May 20, 1802. However, it was not possible to restore French sovereignty, the French colony declared independence on January 1, 1804 and the end of slavery.

During the Restoration , the French colonial administration acted largely in the interests of the slave owners. When King Charles X concluded a trade treaty with Haiti in 1825 and thus diplomatically recognized the renegade slave republic, the French state compensated the slave owners expelled from there with sums of millions. The July Monarchy then, under British pressure, passed a law banning the slave trade. Slavery itself was only abolished on April 27, 1848 during the Second Republic , when a small group of abolitionists around the industrialist Victor Schœlcher asserted themselves against the interests of the plantation owners. Abolitionism in France was never a mass movement.


As early as February 12, 1761, the reforming Prime Minister Marquês de Pombal declared all slaves deported to motherland Portugal to be free, making Portugal one of the pioneers of abolitionism. In 1763 slavery was abolished in Madeira and the Azores . The aim was not to help the slaves to achieve their human rights in the sense of the Enlightenment , rather the slave trade was to be steered away from the luxury needs for house slaves in the Portuguese colony of Brazil , where workers were needed on the sugar and coffee plantations. In 1810, Portugal agreed to a treaty with Great Britain to allow slave trade only between its own territories. In 1836 the ban was extended to the entire Portuguese monarchy (to which Brazil no longer belonged since 1825).

From 1856 Prime Minister Sá da Bandeira implemented a series of decrees aimed at the complete abolition of slavery, such as a "Lei do Ventre Livre" (law of the free belly), according to which the children of female slaves should no longer automatically be slaves, the masters but their mothers had twenty years to serve; In 1858 it was decreed that slavery in the colonial empire should end within twenty years. On February 25, 1869, the abolition of slavery was finally proclaimed throughout the Império Português , although the former slaves had to remain with their masters for at least ten years.

All of these decrees were largely ineffective. Graduated systems of unfree labor were practiced in the colonies of Mozambique and Angola , in which some elite slaves, called botaca , were themselves allowed to own slaves; other, allegedly free contract workers were sold to the French colonies in the Indian Ocean, or were abducted to do serviciais on the sugar and cocoa plantations of Sao Tomé. The complicated legal regulations made it easier for the slave owners to ignore the liberation decrees. Since most of them refused to register their slaves and their respective legal status, the state lacked the means to intervene. As late as 1875 it is reported that black African workers were chained in the Mozambican city of Quelimane on the grounds that otherwise they would flee.

Unfree work such as serviciais , house slavery (often of children) and forced concubinates of black women with white men were common practice in the Portuguese colonial empire into the 20th century.


In Germany there was an organized anti-slavery movement only in the 1880s, which was initiated by the movement initiated by Cardinal Lavigerie in France. It quickly split into two denominational parts, the African Association of German Catholics and the Evangelical African Association .

The humanitarian and religious concerns of the Christian anti-slavery movement became an important factor in the implementation of German colonial policy in the German public . In 1891, a lottery run by a German anti-slavery committee under the leadership of Prince zu Wied provided the funds for a number of expeditions in German East Africa and for the construction of a ship that was to be used to combat the slave hunt on one of the great East African lakes. Ultimately, only the transport of a steamer already procured by the colonial officer Herrmann von Wissmann - the Hermann von Wissmann - to Lake Nyassa was successful; then the committee ran out of funds.


Most of Latin America's states had abolished slavery under British pressure by the 1850s. In the Empire of Brazil , which was next to Cuba the largest slavery system in the world in the 19th century, a law was passed under British pressure in 1831 that promised freedom to all newly imported Africans, but this was circumvented by the mass smuggling of people. It was only in the 1850s that the state intervened more strongly because it was feared that cholera would enter the country with the slaves . Since the 1860s, an abolitionist mass movement of intellectuals, entrepreneurs, urban middle classes and immigrants formed: the latter saw in the slaves competition in the search for jobs. In addition, the economic importance of the slaves declined after steam-powered sugar mills were increasingly used on the sugar plantations .

The abolitionists counted on a slave-free republic to further modernize the country . In 1871 the Lei do Ventre Livre ("Law of the Free Belly") was passed, according to which the children of female slaves were no longer slaves themselves. In 1885 the Lei dos Sexagenários (“Law of Sixty Years”) followed, which gave all slaves over 60 years of freedom. Against the background of mass exodus of slaves from their plantations, the Brazilian Senate adopted the Lei Áurea ("Golden Law") on May 13, 1888 , which declared the institution of slavery to be extinct. The next day it was signed by the regent Princess Isabella .

The liberation of slaves meant that the imperial government lost all support from the large landowners who supported it. On November 15, 1889, the military deposed Isabella's father, Emperor Pedro II , who had been on a trip to Europe during the enactment of the Lei Áurea, in a military coup and proclaimed the Republic of Brazil.


As the last country in the world managed to Mauritania in 1981 slavery de jure off as a crime it applies, however, only since 2007 and was in fact more practiced in the following years. At least until 2010 there were no criminal proceedings against slave owners, but several slaves were freed that year.


Historians have divided opinions about the motives behind the abolitionist movements. Following Karl Marx, materialist historians suspect class interests behind the efforts against slavery: Eric Williams argues in his 1944 work Capitalism and Slavery that Great Britain campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century because the soils of the Caribbean islands were depleted and therefore the profits of the plantations there have fallen sharply. In order for modern capitalism to spread, it was necessary to replace slavery with free wage labor , which the abolitionist movement achieved by the end of the century. A similar position was taken in the 1970s by the influential American historian David Brion Davis .

Other historians believe that it was not economic interests, but above all ideal and moral motives that guided the abolitionists, who were particularly strong within strongly religious circles such as the Quakers. In 1985, the American historian Thomas L. Haskell argued with Davis that liberal economic practice possessed a humanistic awareness of the consequences of economic activity, which for moral and functional reasons no longer made slavery appear sustainable. This morality was not the mere superstructure of economic interests, but a decisive prerequisite for the development of modern capitalism. Haskell relies explicitly on Max Weber's treatise The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism from 1904/5, in which Weber viewed religious factors as the cause of economic developments.

In this controversy, according to the German historian Benjamin Steiner, since the fall of the real existing socialism around 1990, the representatives of a moral motivation who up until then represented a lesser opinion have had the upper hand. He refers to studies according to which the plantation economy in the West Indies and the American southern states was quite profitable until the abolition of slavery.

Important figures in the abolitionist movement

Great Britain

  • Thomas Clarkson in 1787 founded the Society for Effecting the Abolition of Slavery (Society for the Abolition of Slavery)
  • William Wilberforce (1759-1833), Member of the English Parliament, co-founder of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, in 1789 he applied for the abolition of the slave trade together with William Pitt
  • Granville Sharp (1735–1813), co-founder of the British abolitionist movement

United States of America

See also


Web links

Commons : Abolitionism  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Abolition of Slavery  - Sources and full texts
Wiktionary: Abolitionism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ WDR: Human Rights: Slavery. July 13, 2020, accessed September 29, 2020 .
  2. Denmark's ex-colony in the Caribbean - How slavery reverberates. Retrieved September 29, 2020 (German).
  3. a b c d e f g h Jürgen Osterhammel : The transformation of the world. A story of the 19th century. Beck, Munich 2009, p. 1192ff.
  4. Adam Hochschild: Break the chains. The decisive battle for the abolition of slavery. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-608-94123-4 , pp. 118-120.
  5. a b Lutheran remote library (ed.): William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Fighters against slavery in England. sl 2005–2011, http://texte.efb.ch/wilberforce.htm (accessed on February 2, 2012).
  6. Michael Zeuske : Handbook History of Slavery. A global story from the beginning until today . De Gruyter, New York / Berlin 2013, p. 407 f. (accessed via De Gruyter Online)
  7. "The British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery for the satisfaction of abolishing it." Eric Williams: British Historians and the West Indies . London 1966, p. 250, quoted from Benjamin Steiner: Prosperity thanks to slavery? The significance of the Atlantic slave economy in contemporary historiography. In: History in Science and Education 66, Issue 5/6 (2015). P. 250.
  8. Glenn FaFantasie, ed. (1988): The Correspondence of Roger Williams . University Press of New England, Vol. 1, pp. 12-23.
  9. ^ Clifton E. Olmstead (1960): History of Religion in the United States . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 60-10355, p. 115.
  10. ^ Heinz-Dietrich Wendland : Slavery and Christianity . In: The religion in history and present , 3rd edition, Volume VI (1962), Sp. 101-103.
  11. ^ Peter Bromhead: Life in Modern America , 4th ed. (1981), Langenscheidt-Longman Verlag, Munich. ISBN 3-526-50451-2 , p. 127.
  12. cf. Howard Zinn: A People's History of the United States . Harper Perennial, 2005, p. 172, ISBN 0-06-083865-5 .
  13. Benjamin Steiner: Prosperity Thanks to Slavery? The significance of the Atlantic slave economy in contemporary historiography. In: History in Science and Education 66, Issue 5/6 (2015). P. 251.
  14. Michael Zeuske : Handbook History of Slavery. A global story from the beginning until today . De Gruyter, New York / Berlin 2013, pp. 123 ff. (Accessed via De Gruyter Online).
  15. Horst founder: God wants it. A crusade movement at the end of the 19th century . In: History in Science and Education 28 (1977), pp. 210-224.
  16. On this, cf. contemporary information in the colonial dictionary : African Association of German Catholics , Evangelical African Association .
  17. ^ Bernhard Gondorf, The German Anti-Slavery Committee in Koblenz (= publications of the Landesmuseum Koblenz, vol. 39), Koblenz 1991; Stefan Noack: The civilization mission of the German anti-slavery committee. Colonial politics between abolitionism, imperial development strategies and military violence , in: Catherine Repussard, Christine de Gemeaux (eds.): 'Civiliser' le monde, 'ensauvager' l'europe? Circulations de savoir, transferts et mimicry dans l'espace germanophone et sa sphère coloniale , Paris 2017, pp. 181–192.
  18. Junius P. Rodriguez (Ed.): Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World . Routledge, London 2015, vol. 1, p. 83 ff.
  19. Amnesty International : Amnesty Report 2011: Mauritania. Released the same year.
  20. ^ Karl Marx: The capital . Critique of Political Economy. Vol. I, Dietz Verlag, Berlin / GDR 1968, pp. 741–791.
  21. Eric Eustace Williams: Capitalism and Slavery. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1944.
  22. David Brion Davis: The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823. Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1975.
  23. Benjamin Steiner: Prosperity Thanks to Slavery? The significance of the Atlantic slave economy in contemporary historiography. In: History in Science and Education 66, Issue 5/6 (2015). P. 246 f.
  24. ^ Thomas L. Haskell: The Relationship between Capitalism and Humanitarianism. In: The American Historical Review 90, No. 3 (1985), pp. 547-566.
  25. Benjamin Steiner: Prosperity Thanks to Slavery? The significance of the Atlantic slave economy in contemporary historiography. In: History in Science and Education 66, Issue 5/6 (2015). Pp. 247 ff. And 258; JR Ward: The Profitability of Sugar Planting in the British West Indies 1650-1834. In: The Economic History Review 31, No. 2 (1978), pp. 197-213; David Eltis: Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Oxford University Press, New York 1987 p. 15.