The World Antislavery Convention of 1840
by W. E. Skidmore II, Rice University
In March 1839, a New York abolitionist newspaper called for a convention to unite the efforts of national anti-slavery forces from around the world. And in the summer of 1840, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) answered the call. From June 12 to June 23, the General Anti-Slavery Convention, hosted by the BFASS and later known as the World Anti-Slavery Convention, convened at Exeter Hall in London. More than 500 abolitionists from Canada to Mauritius attended the meeting, and the public proceedings attracted around 1,000 spectators daily.
Delegates to the 1840 convention in London were united by the common goal of ending slavery in their time. Exhilarated by the legal abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1838, British abolitionists in particular believed that Britain, at the threshold of a new decade, was primed to lead an attack on slavery throughout the world. It may be hard to tell from painter Benjamin Haydon’s famous (and famously staid) portrait of the Convention, but those who came to Exeter Hall were zealous activists intent on stopping human bondage.
Many of these activists were also scholars of slavery. A Harvard professor was among the featured speakers, and attendees at the convention heard detailed reports on the history and development of forms of bondage. These reports examined an impressive array of topics from Russian serfdom and Liberian colonization to slavery in the United States and the British East Indies. Some lectures even contained early examples of the comparative history of slavery. One of the most valuable contributions made by the convention was the collection and publication of the most comprehensive examination on slavery and the slave trade to date. Following this meeting, the BFASS established itself as an international clearinghouse for the best information and scholarship on slavery and the slave trade.
By uniting mind and heart, empirical investigation and activism, the General Anti-Slavery Convention provided massive amounts of information used later by abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Joseph Pease, and William Adam. And although the Convention also illustrated some of the divisions that can arise between and within abolitionist movements, the General Anti-Slavery Convention did highlight one harsh and universal reality: even after its legal abolition by Britain, slavery continued to influence every corner of the globe. From the cotton fields of India to the Brazilian fazendas, slavery was a global problem. Although abolitionists disagreed over various approaches to ending it, they did recognize that slavery, no matter its form, was a universal sin against humanity, which could only be remedied through global emancipation. Today, the battle they joined in 1840 continues. The BFASS lives on under the name Anti-Slavery International, and Historians Against Slavery seeks to continue the Society’s example of uniting action with investigation.
Find out more: You can read the Proceedings of the General Anti-Slavery Convention, published in 1841, on the Internet Archive. For more background on the British antislavery movement, see Howard Temperley, British Antislavery 1833-1870 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972); Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Richard Huzzey, Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012); Donald Kennon, “‘An Apple of Discord’: The Women Question At the World Antislavery Convention of 1840,” Slavery and Abolition vol. 5 (1984), available online; Kathryn Skylar, “Women Who Speak for an Entire Nation: American and British Women at the World Antislavery Convention, London, 1840,” in The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women´s Political Culture in Antebellum America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).