Poetry and Memoirs by 19th-Century British
and American Writers of African Descent

Time Line
Britons of African Descent until the Abolition of Slavery:

1677 Though persons of color had been enslaved for some time, a court first ruled in 1677 that black persons could be considered in a list of merchandise (that is, that slavery was legally permissible in Britain).

1706 Another ruling declared black persons free on English soil.

1729 English Law Office ruled that a person enslaved elsewhere did not necessarily gain freedom when brought to Great Britain.

1700s Bristol, Liverpool and London became centers of the slave trade, trafficking in millions of Africans. Slave interests financed a powerful West Indian lobby in Parliament. Slaves continued to be advertised for sale until the last quarter of the century. Most free blacks worked as servants. They gathered in clubs, churches and other meeting places, and banded together to help slaves escape their masters. A 1772 account mentions "black hops," dances to African popular music, and British-Africans were often employed as military musicians.

1765 Granville Sharp began a series of legal battles to defend rights of Africans to be free of seizure, effectively beginning the abolitionist movement in Britain. His A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery appeared in 1769.

1770 Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, born in Nigeria and abducted at the age of 15, published the first memoir by a African-Briton, Narrative of the Most remarkable Particulars in the Life of . . . an African Prince.

1772 In the Somerset case, Lord Mansfield ruled that slaves could not be exported from Britain against their will. Owners sometimes defied the law, however, capturing escaped slaves and forcing them on ship.

1773 Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects was published in London.

1772 Ignatius Sancho's urbane Letters attracted wide circulation. He commented on the pervasive racism he encountered.

1778 A Scottish court ruled that slavery was illegal in Scotland.

1781 The Zong case aroused sympathy; slavers who had thrown 133 slaves into the ocean in order to collect insurance sued when refused payment. Granville Sharp and others brought suit against them but the case seems to have been dropped.

1787 Ottobah Cugoano, kidnapped from Ghana and freed in England, published the first abolitionist treatise by a Briton of color, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species.

1788 Dolben Act passed, first modest regulation of slave trade.

1789 Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), the eloquent African-descended spokesperson for the abolitionist cause, published The Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

1790s The enslavement of African-Britons had in practice almost ceased, largely because slaves succeeded in escaping their would-be masters.

1791 William Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary motion to abolish the slave trade in Britain and its possessions.

1796 English court refused to give damages to slave merchant seeking compensation for 128 Africans who had starved to death on a sea voyage, thus ruling that slaves could not be viewed simply as merchandise.

1800 Estimates of numbers of Britons of color vary from 10,000 to 20,000 (pop. of England and Wales was 9,000,000 ).

1807 Slave trading by British subjects and in British possessions declared illegal.

1824 Robert Wedderburn's The Horrors of Slavery published.

1827 Grace Jones, an Antiguan slave brought to England, sued for freedom and lost, though British public opinion was divided on the case.

1832 Reform Bill extended franchise to prosperous upper-middle class Britons.

1833 Slavery abolished in British possessions (though certain exceptions delayed the process of implementation).