Never forget that the British political and media elite endorsed slavery. It took radical campaigners to end it

<span>Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Two hundred years ago tomorrow, a few dozen old friends and comrades gathered in a tavern on Poultry, the short street in central London. That tavern, the King’s Head, was known for its “unsophisticated wines and honest measures”. It acquired its name in 1660, when the restored Charles Stuart rode past and bowed to the tavern’s mistress. Who promptly fainted.

Now, there is no trace of the place at all. When I last looked for it, I found only the premises of a pharmacist, a tailor and a travel agency. Yet on 31 January 1823, a date for which there is no monument and not even a blue plaque, the King’s Head tavern played host to the inaugural meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society.

The year of 1807, when William Wilberforce and his allies secured the abolition of the British slave trade, is seared into British national consciousness. But the act of parliament that forbade ships from carrying enslaved Africans had done nothing about slavery itself. The abolitionists had not even mentioned slavery; instead, they had hoped that, deprived of “new blood”, it would simply wither away and die. It did not. Indeed, since 1807 Britain had even acquired more slave colonies – Mauritius and Demerara among them – after the wars against Napoleonic France. On that night in 1823, therefore, almost three-quarters of a million men, women and children were enduring bondage in the British West Indies.

But now, led by the independent MP and East Anglian brewer Thomas Fowell Buxton, who was joined in his fight by veteran abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson and Zachary Macaulay, the British Anti-Slavery Society would pursue the ultimate extinction of colonial slavery and the emancipation of the enslaved people of (most) British colonies.

A statue of Sam Sharpe in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
‘The rebellion at last convinced British ministers that slavery was unsustainable.’ A statue of Sam Sharpe in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Photograph: Ron Giling/Alamy

This was no small matter. Ranged against the abolitionists were a host of formidable enemies, chief among them the West India “Interest” of planters and merchants whose livelihoods depended on the survival of slavery. If “the West Indians” were not MPs themselves, they had dozens of allies in both Lords and Commons. In government, they counted the home secretary, Robert Peel; the foreign secretary, George Canning; the Duke of Wellington; and the colonial office minister in charge of the West Indies as friends.

Related: A meeting of the Anti-Slavery society - archive, 6 June 1829

In the conservative press, they had outlets for pro-slavery apologia. The Bible condoned slavery, they argued, and Christ said nothing against it; enslaved people were like Frankenstein’s monster, physically powerful but morally unfit for freedom; and the sugar colonies were essential to the British empire. Moreover, asked certain British radicals who aligned with the slaveholders, wasn’t the enslaved black population of the Caribbean – on fertile islands, under sunny skies – better off than the cotton-weavers and miners of northern England?

Those same papers and magazines, of course, despised the abolitionists. They damned Buxton and his colleagues as “fanatics”, as Puritan extremists, as “Praise-God Barebones” and the like. Today, they would probably call them “woke”. Yet even if it took a while, a decade in fact, the abolitionists would win through.

They built a formidable political machine, constructing massive petitions to parliament, sending anti-slavery lecturers around the country, and boycotting slave-grown sugar in preference of free-grown alternatives; they also used the story of Mary Prince, a black woman marooned in London, to illustrate the horrors of enslavement.

They took advantage of political breaks. When the Tories splintered over the rights of Catholics, and when the Whigs forced through the Great Reform Act, they persuaded hundreds of parliamentary candidates – not to mention thousands of new voters – to do the moral thing and press for abolition.

And the enslaved people of the West Indies made their own, decisive contribution. The Demerara uprising of 1823 was a warning shot and then, over the Christmas period of 1831-32, thousands of black Jamaicans rose, under the leadership of Sam Sharpe, to seize their freedom. They lost that time, but the rebellion at last convinced British ministers that slavery was unsustainable, insupportable.

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When freedom came, it came at a cost. The government raised a £20m loan to buy off the slaveholders, and compensate them for the confiscation of their property. And the “free” people of the West Indies suffered under the grisly system known as “the apprenticeship”, which required former slaves to continue working unpaid until 1838. Still, the eradication of colonial slavery – a triumph of liberal politics, nascent democracy and black resistance – was a major milestone in British history. And it all began 200 years ago on Tuesday, 31 January.

There is no national monument to the British history of slavery. There probably should be. But to erect a monument that simply celebrated abolition would miss the point; it would be like raising a memorial to the liberation of Auschwitz without anything that spoke to the atrocities that went before. There was only ever abolition because there was slavery; there was only ever anti-slavery campaigning because there was pro-slavery profiteering, and more than 200 years of it.

We should remember these uncomfortable truths, and this Tuesday would be a good time to start.