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In economic terms, the slave trade had become less important. There was no longer a need for large numbers of slaves to be imported to the British colonies. There was a world over-supply of sugar and British merchants had difficulties re-exporting it. Sugar could be sourced at a lower cost and without the use of slavery from Britain’s other colonies eg India. The Industrial Revolution and advances and improvements in agriculture were benefiting the British economy. Since profits were the main cause of starting a trade, it has been suggested, a decline of profits must have brought about abolition because; the slave trade ceased to be profitable, plantations ceased to be profitable, the slave trade was overtaken by a more profitable use of ships, wage labour became more profitable than slave labour, at various times plantations that provided the market for slave ships struggled to make profits. Prices and costs went up and down as war interrupted trade.
However, evidence of temporary problems with profits is not enough to draw any strong conclusions. Planters struggled to profit throughout the period of the Atlantic slave trade. Historians have not made a convincing link between the abolition act of 1807 and trends in profits. Evidence that economic considerations were not a direct factor to prompt abolition includes; the Atlantic slave trade continued for many years after 1807, slave plantations continued profitably for many years after 1807, the use of slave labour continued until it became illegal, there is no evidence that plantation owners decided that wage labour was more profitable than slave labour, in 1807 the MPs who had passed the Bill were still in essence in the same position in relation to the vested interests, as they had been throughout the 18th century. The majority did not have direct interests – they did not rely on the profits made from slavery. But their political motivation was still based on the property.
The early 1800s were a precursor to a period of significant democratic change. By the early 19th century they were more inclined to listen to the anti-slavery voices than the pro-slavery voices. The arguments had been put effectively and unrelentingly.
Changes to economic thinking also contributed to the ending of the slave trade throughout the British Empire because the cost of slaves increased as fewer became available from Africa. Also, the price of sugar declined as production grew, so this meant that the profits for the plantation owners were decreasing. For instance, in 1771, 2728 slaves were imported into Barbados, but by 1772, none were sold. Also, William Beckford, a poet and travel writer, commented in 1790 that, “without slaves, crops would decline as would the population.” This shows that the slave trade was becoming increasingly unsustainable and less profitable. As well as this, the idea that slaves were bad for the economy was also starting to emerge. Millions of freed slaves, it was argued, would ‘’benefit the general economy as well as the employer’’.The influential economics writer, Adam Smith, in his book ‘The Wealth of Nations’ pointed out that ‘‘slavery hindered, rather than helped wealth creation as slaves are unused consumers. If free they could buy goods and so help the wider economy prospers and employees, through new sales of goods to millions of new consumers’’.
However, the role of economies was also related to the roles of ordinary people and their petitioning. This was because they could put extra pressure on the politicians, who could not so easily ignore the demands of the mass of people. For example, in 1788 petitions began to flood into parliament calling for abolition. In Manchester in 1788 over 100,000 people signed a petition. In 1792, this figure grew to 200,000 petitioners. Many meetings were held, with huge numbers of people gathering to hear abolitionist speakers and campaigners. Indeed, even when the slave trade was abolished in 1807, the campaigning of ordinary people continued, in an effort to end slavery. For example, in 1814 more than 1.5 million people signed petitions to get slavery banned throughout the British Empire. The actions of ordinary people were so important that their efforts gave further weight and credibility to the wider abolitionist campaigning of Clarkson, Sharp, and Wilberforce in London.
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