In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Abolitionism and Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Anthologies
  • African Abolitionism and Resistance
  • Legitimate Commerce
  • Impact of Abolition on Slave Exports From Africa
  • Antislavery Colonization
  • Abolition in Western African Societies
  • Antislavery Squadrons and Courts of Mixed Commission

Atlantic History Abolitionism and Africa
Bronwen Everill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0068


From the beginning of the organized abolition campaigns in the Atlantic world in the 1780s, antislavery campaigners were interested in Africa as both an idea and a place for action. Different groups looked to Africa with ideas for how to suppress the supply of slaves from Africa, to use Africa to establish colonies that would demonstrate the efficiency of free labor over enslaved labor, and to develop new African exports for the Atlantic economy. Africa served a dual purpose in European and American abolitionist thinking, as both an object of anti–slave trade and later antislavery interventions, and as a rhetorical trope for developing new ideas about nonslave labor and utopian social formation. Much of this rhetoric drew on long-standing ideas about Africa’s potential as a place for the production of primary commodities, but abolition’s rhetoric also changed the way that people around the Atlantic were thinking about Africa and Africans by linking the evangelicalism and “civilizational” discourse of antislavery rhetoric to, on the one hand, the imagined image of Africa as a “savage” wilderness, and, on the other, the imagined place of Africans as objectified victims of the slave trade. These competing ideas shaped the political and economic role of Africa within the Atlantic world over the course of the 19th century. The impact of abolitionism on African political, social, and economic life over the course of the 19th century varied widely as a result of these multiple objectives. African societies responded to or anticipated abolitionism in different ways depending on their earlier involvement in, or resistance to, the slave trade. Internal commercial and political changes in Futa Toro, in Futa Jallon, in the Oyo Kingdom, in the Akan states, in the Kingdom of Kongo, and elsewhere in the early 19th century affected African regions’ differential participation in the Atlantic slave trade and in abolitionism. As a result of these varying experiences of abolitionist interventions in Africa, historians have debated the extent of connections between abolitionism and economic crises in Africa, abolitionism and political disruption, and abolitionism and colonial rule. Because European abolitionism coincided with these political changes, and brought about a fundamental change in the economic organization of the Atlantic system, there is no clear cause-and-effect chain linking abolitionism to imperialism, or economic change to abolitionism. Nonetheless, abolition played an important—if multidimensional and contested—role in shaping the relationship between African producers, consumer, politicians, and religious figures and the Atlantic world in the 19th century.

General Overviews

There are two very good introductory texts on the relationship between abolitionism and Africa. Miers and Roberts 1988 is an edited volume that presents country case studies of the impact of abolitionism in various parts of Africa. Lovejoy 2012 is the most recent edition of this canonical work on African slavery; it also looks at the impact on African societies, but from a more holistic perspective, considering the integrated regional dynamics rather than case studies of different areas. Apart from these overviews of the impact on Africa, a number of books and articles deal with the broader abolition movements. While there are significant works that deal with abolitionism that are excluded from this list, those presented here all deal in some measure with the role of Africa in the abolitionists’ plans, or with the impact of abolitionism in African society. Brown 2006 describes the origins of the British “legitimate” commerce schemes to replace the slave trade from Africa. Curtin 1973 is a classic text that explores the origins of the British ideological and rhetorical relationship with Africa. Klein 1998 provides a comprehensive overview of the role of slavery and abolition in French West Africa. Bethell 1970 looks at the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Brazil, with a focus that includes other Atlantic players, including West Africa. Marques 2006 looks at the Portuguese abolition movement from a mostly metropolitan perspective. Daget 1971 considers the metropolitan language of abolitionism in the context of resistance to slave trade abolitionism by French authorities on the ground in Senegal. Cooper 1979 provides an argument for thinking about African slavery and abolition in the broader comparative, Atlantic perspective.

  • Bethell, Leslie. The Abolition of the Brazilian Slave Trade. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511759734

    Considers competing pressures of Atlantic commerce and enslaved labor in Brazil’s decisions about abolition and their impact on Portuguese Africa.

  • Brown, Christopher Leslie. Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

    Includes an important chapter on the “legitimate commerce” schemes for Africa. Considers the role of Africans from the diaspora in influencing the directions of early anti–slave trade projects.

  • Cooper, Frederick. “The Problem of Slavery in African Studies.” Journal of African History 20.1 (1979): 103–125.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700016741

    A historiographical argument about the comparative approaches to slavery and abolition in American and African history. Argues that looking at these issues with too narrow a regional focus both replicates problematic methodologies and risks approaching African slavery from only one perspective. An influential argument in shifting studies of African slavery.

  • Curtin, Philip. The Image of Africa: British Ideas in Action, 1780–1850. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.

    Explains how British ideas about Africa changed, consolidated, and hardened in this period of transition from slave trade to abolitionist interventionism through increased encounter with travel writing, through the perceptions of the failure of the Sierra Leone colony and the high mortality rate of British officers on the coast, and through a developing idea of Africa as a terra nullius for humanitarian projects.

  • Daget, Serge. “L’abolition de la Traite des Noirs en France de 1814 a 1831.” Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 11.41 (1971): 14–58.

    DOI: 10.3406/cea.1971.2811

    Presents both the metropolitan movements against the French slave trade and the implications for French engagement with Africa and the Americas—in particular, the attempts by French slave traders and governments on the ground in Senegal to resist British interference.

  • Klein, Martin A. Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511584138

    A comprehensive study of the relationship of French colonial rule to slavery, with a chapter specifically on the impact of abolitionism.

  • Lovejoy, Paul. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    Considers the role of slavery in African society over time, including in the period after the abolition of the slave trade. Important for its focus on the relationship between slaveholding polities and the margins on which they preyed for slaves, the social role of slaves in different African societies, and the evolution of the institution in the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Marques, Joao Pedro. The Sounds of Silence: Nineteenth-Century Portugal and the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Translated by Richard Wall. Oxford: Berghahn, 2006.

    Chapter six of this overview of Portuguese abolitionism investigates the impact on that country’s African colonies. However, the major focus of this book is on metropolitan, rather than colonial or African, contributions to Portuguese abolitionist thought.

  • Miers, Suzanne, and Richard Roberts. The End of Slavery in Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

    Extensive edited collection that explores the process and consequences of abolitionism in fifteen different societies around the continent. Includes a detailed introduction and historiographical essay exploring the debates over slavery in African societies, as well as the relationships between slavery and colonial rule.

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