Abolitionists, Planters, and Saint Domingue

It was against the background of this campaign that, on February 11, 1788 a committee of the Privy Council was appointed to look into the state of the slave trade. In May, William Wilberforce, working in close cooperation with the London Committee of the SEAST, introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling for an early abolition of the trade. But the Commons resolved to hear its own evidence, a compromise measure that left abolitionists playing a dangerous waiting game. Wilberforce and his supporters did win one concession, however. Late in the same session both Houses passed Sir William Dolben’s Slave Limitation (or Middle Passage) Bill, which reduced the number of captives that British ships could carry.

The Commons’ hearings dragged on until February 1791. Undaunted, the SEAST went on collecting evidence, distributing tracts, and lobbying MPs. Despite these efforts, Wilberforce’s motion was again defeated, this time by a vote of 163 to 88. The size of this defeat prompted him to propose launching another petition campaign. Everything indicated that public support for abolition was still strong. Help also came from William Fox’s Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Utility of Refraining from West India Sugar and Rum (1791). Fox’s pamphlet, which went through fourteen editions, inspired a nationwide boycott of West Indian sugar and rum that at its peak involved some 300,000 families.

Not to be outdone, in 1792 the powerful Society of West India Planters and Merchants set up its own publications committee, whose activities mirrored exactly those of the SEAST. The propaganda war was further intensified by debates over the meaning and significance of the slave insurrection in Saint Domingue (future Haiti) in 1791. The SEAST was eager to refute the charge that abolition of the slave trade, or even abolitionist activity, might in any way lead to the destruction of West Indian property.

The revolt in Saint Domingue, abolitionists countered, had not been caused by "the friends of the blacks in France," but by "the pride and obstinacy of the whites who drove them to their fate, by an impolitic and foolish dissention with the mulattoes, and with each other." Yet for many, Saint Domingue would remain a potent symbol of violence, instability, and unrest, conjuring up images that made explicit the link between abolition, liberty, and the rising tide of revolutionary violence in France.