African Institution

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807. Soon afterwards, in July, 1807, members of the Society for the Abolition of Slave Trade established the African Institution, an organization that was committed to watch over the execution of the law, seek a ban on the slave trade by foreign powers and to promote the "civilization and happiness" of Africa. The Duke of Gloucester became the first president and members of the committee included Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, James Stephen, Granville Sharp and Zachary Macaulay. The banker, Henry Thornton, became treasurer.

Wayne Ackerson, the author of The African Institution and the Antislavery Movement in Great Britain (2005) has argued: "The African Institution was a pivotal abolitionist and antislavery group in Britain during the early nineteenth century, and its members included royalty, prominent lawyers, Members of Parliament, and noted reformers such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Zachary Macaulay. Focusing on the spread of Western civilization to Africa, the abolition of the foreign slave trade, and improving the lives of slaves in British colonies, the group's influence extended far into Britain's diplomatic relations in addition to the government's domestic affairs. The African Institution carried the torch for antislavery reform for twenty years and paved the way for later humanitarian efforts in Great Britain."

Jack Gratustook a more critical view of the African Institution in his book The Great White Lie (1973): "The motives behind the formation of the Institution accorded with abolitionist logic. The only satisfactory way in which to end the slave trade was to cut it off at its source. Teach the Africans to be Christians, to conduct themselves as Europeans (and British Europeans in particular) and to sell commodities other than slaves, and the slave trade must come to an end."

William Wilberforce made it clear that he considered the organisation should do what it could to convert Africans to Christianity. In 1811 he wrote: "In truth there is a peculiar call on our sensibility in the present instance, for in proportion as the lot of slaves is hard in the world, we ought to rejoice in every opportunity of bringing them under their present sufferings, and secure for them a rich compensation of reversionary happiness."

In July 1807 the African Institution complained about the negative view of Africans promoted by newspapers and books: "The portrait of the negro has seldom been drawn but by the pencil of his oppressor, and he has sat for it in the distorted attitude of slavery. If he be accused of brutal stupidity by one of those prejudiced witnesses, another taxes him with the most refined dissimulation and the most ingenious methods of deceit. If the negroes are represented as base and cowardly, they are in the same volume exhibited as braving death in the most hideous forms... Insensibility and excessive passion, apathy and enthusiasm, want of natural affection, and a fond attachment to their friends... are all ascribed to them by the same inconsistent pens."

The African Institution continued to monitor the way the slave trade was working. In December 1816 it reported that 60,000 slaves were still being carried across the Atlantic every year. Of these, 15,000 were aboard North American ships flying Spanish flags. As a result of this information, Lord Castlereagh, at an international conference at Aix-la-Chapelle that there should be: "The vigilant superintendence of an armed and international police on the coast of Africa... To render such a police either legal or effective in its object, it must be established under the sanction, and by the authority, of all civilised states."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) The African Institution, report (July, 1807)

The portrait of the negro has seldom been drawn but by the pencil of his oppressor, and he has sat for it in the distorted attitude of slavery. If he be accused of brutal stupidity by one of those prejudiced witnesses, another taxes him with the most refined dissimulation and the most ingenious methods of deceit. If the negroes are represented as base and cowardly, they are in the same volume exhibited as braving death in the most hideous forms... Insensibility and excessive passion, apathy and enthusiasm, want of natural affection, and a fond attachment to their friends... are all ascribed to them by the same inconsistent pens.