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Slavery in the British Isles existed from before the Roman occupation. Chattel slavery virtually disappeared after the Norman Conquest to be replaced by feudalism and serfdom. Slavery was finally abolished throughout the British Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, with exceptions provided for the East India Company, Ceylon, and Saint Helena. These exceptions were eliminated in 1843. Forced labour existed between the 17th and 19th centuries in the form of transportation of convicts, and in the workhouse for the poor.
The prohibition on slavery and servitude is now codified under Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into United Kingdom law by the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 4 of the Convention also bans forced or compulsory labour, with some exceptions such as a criminal penalty or military service.
From before Roman times, slavery was normal in Britannia, with slaves being routinely exported. Slavery continued as an accepted part of society under the Roman Empire and after; Anglo-Saxons continued the slave system, sometimes in league with Norse traders often selling slaves to the Irish. In the early 5th century the Romano-Briton Saint Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland. St. Brigit, a patron saint of Ireland, was herself the daughter of Brocca, a Christian Brythonic Pict and slave in Ireland who had been baptised by Saint Patrick. Early Irish law makes numerous reference to slaves and semi-free sencléithe. A female slave (cumal) was often used as a unit of value, e.g. in expressing the honour price of people of certain classes. From the 9th to the 12th century Dublin in particular was a major slave trading center which led to an increase in slavery. In 870, Vikings besieged and captured the stronghold of Alt Clut (the capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde) and in 871 took most of the site's inhabitants, most likely by Olaf the White and Ivar the Boneless, to the Dublin slave markets. Maredudd ab Owain (d. 999) paid a large ransom for 2,000 Welsh slaves, which demonstrates the large-scale slave raiding upon the British Isles. Vikings traded with the Gaelic, Pictish, Brythonic and Saxon kingdoms in between raiding them for slaves.
The legacy of Viking raids can be seen in the DNA of the Icelandic people. Recent evidence suggests that approximately 60% of the Icelandic maternal gene pool is derived from Gaelic people and later by Norse–Gaels from Scotland and Ireland, which is much higher than other Scandinavian countries, although comparable to the Faroe Islands.
Some of the earliest accounts of the Anglo-Saxon English comes from the account of the fair-haired boys from York seen in Rome by Pope Gregory the Great. In the 7th century the English slave Balthild rose to be queen of the Frankish king Clovis II. Anglo-Saxon opinion turned against the sale of English abroad: a law of Ine of Wessex stated that anyone selling his own countryman, whether bond or free, across the sea, was to pay his own weregild in penalty, even when the man so sold was guilty of crime. Nevertheless, legal penalties and economic pressures that led to default in payments maintained the supply of slaves, and in the 11th century there was still a slave trade operating out of Bristol, as a passage in the Vita Wulfstani makes clear.
According to the Domesday Book census, over 10% of England's population in 1086 were slaves. In 1102, the Church Council of London convened by Anselm issued a decree: "Let no one hereafter presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were usually sold like brute animals." However, the Council had no legislative powers, and no act of law was valid unless signed by the monarch.
The influence of the new Norman aristocracy led to the decline of slavery in England. Contemporary writers noted that the Scottish and Welsh took captives as slaves during raids, a practice which was no longer common in England by the 12th century. However, by the start of the 13th century references to people being taken as slave stopped. While there was no legislation against slavery in Ireland and Wales, William the Conqueror introduced a law preventing the sale of slaves overseas. Historian John Gillingham opined that by about 1200 slavery in the British Isles was non-existent.
Transportation to the colonies as a criminal or an indentured servant served as punishment for both major and petty crimes in England and Ireland from the 17th century until well into the 19th century. A sentence could be for life or a specific period. The penal system required convicts to work on government projects such as road construction, building works and mining, or be assigned to free individuals as unpaid labour. Women were expected to work as domestic servants and farm labourers. Similar to slaves, indentured servants could be bought and sold, could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment, and saw their obligation to labour enforced by the courts. However, they did retain certain heavily restricted rights (this contrasts with slaves who had none).
A convict who had served part of his time might apply for a "ticket of leave" permitting some prescribed freedoms. This enabled some convicts to resume a more normal life, to marry and raise a family, and a few to develop the colonies while removing them from the society. Exile was an essential component and thought to be a major deterrent to crime. Transportation was also seen as a humane and productive alternative to execution, which would most likely have been the sentence for many if transportation had not been introduced.
The transportation of British subjects overseas can be traced back to the English Vagabonds Act 1597. During the reign of Henry VIII, it has been estimated that approximately 72,000 people were put to death for a variety of crimes. An alternate practice, borrowed from the Spanish, was to commute the death sentence and allow the use of convicts as a labour force for the colonies. One of the first references to a person being transported comes in 1607 when ‘'an apprentice dyer was sent to Virginia' from Bridewell for running away with his master's goods.’’. The Act was little used despite attempts by James I who, with limited success, tried to encourage its adoption by passing a series of Privy Council Orders in 1615, 1619 and 1620.
Transportation was seldom used as a criminal sentence until the Piracy Act 1717, (An Act for the further preventing Robbery, Burglary, and other Felonies, and for the more effectual Transportation of Felons, and unlawful Exporters of Wool; and for declaring the Law upon some Points relating to Pirates.) established a seven-year penal transportation as a possible punishment for those convicted of lesser felonies, or as a possible sentence that capital punishment might be commuted to by royal pardon. Transportation of criminals to North America was undertaken from 1718-1776. When the American revolution made it unfeasible to carry out transportation to the thirteen colonies, those sentenced to it were typically punished with imprisonment or hard labour instead. From 1787-1868, criminals convicted and sentenced under the Act were transported to the colonies in Australia.
Following the Irish uprising in 1641 and subsequent Cromwellian invasion, the English Parliament passed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652 which classified the Irish population into one of several categories according to their degree of involvement in the uprising and subsequent war. Those who had participated in the uprising or assisted the rebels in any way were sentenced to be hanged and to have their property confiscated. Other categories were sentenced to banishment with whole or partial confiscation of their estates. Whilst the majority of the resettlement took place within Ireland to the province of Connaught, Dr William Petty, Physician-General to Cromwell's Army, estimated that as many as 100,000 Irish men, women and children were transported to the colonies in the West Indies and in North America as slaves. During the early colonial period, The Scots and the English, along with other western European nations, dealt with their "Gypsy problem" by transporting them as slaves in large numbers to North America and the Caribbean. Cromwell shipped Romanichal Gypsies as slaves to the southern plantations and there is documentation of Gypsies being owned by former black slaves in Jamaica.
Long before the Highland Clearances, some chiefs, such as Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, sold some of his clan into indenture in North America. His goal was to alleviate over-population and lack of food resources in his glens.
Numerous Highland Jacobite supporters, captured in the aftermath of Culloden and rigorous Government sweeps of the Highlands, were imprisoned on ships on the Thames River. Some were sentenced to transportation to the Carolinas as indentured servants.
From the 17th century to the 19th century, workhouses took in people whose poverty left them no other alternative. They were employed under forced labour conditions. Workhouses took in abandoned babies, usually presumed to be illegitimate. When they grew old enough, they were used as child labour. Charles Dickens represented such issues in his fiction. A life example was Henry Morton Stanley. This was a time when many children worked; if families were poor, everyone worked. Only in 1833 and 1844 were the first general protective laws against child labour, the Factory Acts, passed in Britain.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries it is estimated that between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and Barbary slave traders and sold as slaves. Barbary pirates were based on that coast of North Africa – what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Reports of Barbary raids and kidnappings of those in France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom and as far north as Iceland and the fate of those abducted into slavery in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.
During this time the corsairs plundered British shipping pretty much at will, taking no fewer than 466 vessels between 1609 and 1616, and 27 more vessels from near Plymouth in 1625. and printed lists from London in 1682' state of 160 British ships captured by Algerians between 1677 and 1680. Considering what the number of sailors who were taken with each ship was likely to have been, these examples translate into a probable 7,000 to 9,000 able-bodied British men and women taken into slavery in those years.
On 20 June 1631, in an event known as the Sack of Baltimore, the village of Baltimore in County Cork, Ireland was attacked by Algerian pirates from the North African Barbary Coast. The pirates killed two villagers and captured almost the whole population of over 100 people, who were put in irons and taken to a life of slavery in North Africa.
Villagers along the south coast of England petitioned the king to protect them from abduction by Barbary pirates. Item 20 of The Grand Remonstrance, a list of grievances against Charles I and presented to him in 1641, contains the following complaint about Barbary pirates of the Ottoman Empire abducting English people into slavery:
Admiral Sir John Hawkins of Plymouth, a notable Elizabethan seafarer, is widely acknowledged to be "the Pioneer of the English Slave Trade". In 1554–1555, Hawkins formed a slave trading syndicate of wealthy merchants. He sailed with three ships for the Caribbean via Sierra Leone, hijacked a Portuguese slave ship and sold the 300 slaves from it in Santo Domingo. During a second voyage in 1564, his crew captured 400 Africans and sold them at Rio de la Hacha in present-day Colombia, making a 60% profit for his financiers. A third voyage involved both buying slaves directly in Africa and capturing a Portuguese ship with its cargo; upon reaching the Caribbean, Hawkins sold all the slaves. On his return, he published a book entitled An Alliance to Raid for Slaves. Britain soon became the leader in the Atlantic slave trade, where Queen Elizabeth was complaining about the number of 'blackamoores' as early as 1556.
By the mid 18th century London had the largest Black population in Britain, made up of free and enslaved people, as well as many runaways. The total number may have been about 10,000.
It was regarded as fashionable amongst the upper classes to have a Black servant and they sometimes feature in paintings, such as 'The family of Sir William Young' by Zoffany. There were Black people in many other towns, such as Liverpool, Bristol, Bath and Lancaster. Smaller number of Black people were also found in rural areas throughout the country.
A number of Black people achieved prominence. Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) opened his own grocer's shop in Westminster. He wrote poetry and music and his friends included the novelist Laurence Sterne, David Garrick the actor and the Duke and Duchess of Montague. He is best known for his letters which were published after his death. Others such as Olaudah Equiano and Cuguano were active in the abolition campaigns.
The legal status of enslaved people in Europe was often unclear. In Britain it was not finally resolved until abolition in 1838, though after the famous Somerset case in 1772 enslaved people could not be sent back to the colonies against their will.
By the 18th century, the slave trade became a major economic mainstay for such cities as Bristol and Liverpool, engaged in the so-called "Triangular trade". The ships set out from England, loaded with trade goods which were exchanged on the West African shores for slaves captured by local rulers from deeper inland; the slaves were transported through the infamous "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic, and were sold at considerable profit for labour in plantations. The ships were loaded with export crops and commodities, the products of slave labour, such as sugar and rum, and returned to England to sell the items.
The Isle of Man was involved in the transatlantic African slave trade. Goods from the slave trade were bought and sold on the Isle of Man, and Manx merchants, seamen, and ships were involved in the trade.
John Locke, the philosophical champion of the Glorious Revolution argued against slavery (Ch.IV) and asserted that "every man has property in his own person" (§27, Ch.V). By the 18th century African slaves began to be brought into London and Edinburgh as personal servants. In a number of judicial decisions between slave merchants, it was tacitly accepted that slavery of Africans was legal. In Butts v. Penny (1677) 2 Lev 201, 3 Keb 785, an action was brought to recover possession of 100 slaves. The court held that slavery was legal in England in relation to infidels and that an action for trover would lie.
An English court case of 1569 involving Cartwright who had bought a slave from Russia ruled that English law could not recognise slavery. This ruling was overshadowed by later developments particularly in the navigation acts, but was upheld by the Lord Chief Justice in 1701 when he ruled that a slave became free as soon as he arrived in England. 
But agitation saw a series of judgments repulse the tide of slavery. In Smith v. Gould (1705–07) 2 Salk 666, Holt CJ stated that by
the common law no man can have a property in another.
But in 1729 the then-Attorney General and Solicitor General of England signed the Yorke–Talbot slavery opinion expressing their view (and, by implication, that of the Government) that slavery of Africans was lawful in England. At this time slaves were openly bought and sold on commodities markets at London and Liverpool. Slavery was also accepted in England's many colonies.
Lord Henley LC said in Shanley v. Harvey (1763) 2 Eden 126, 127 that as
soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free.
After R v. Knowles, ex parte Somersett (1772) 20 State Tr 1 the law remained unsettled, although the decision was a significant advance for, at the least, preventing the forceable removal of anyone from England, whether or not a slave, against his will. A man called James Somersett was the slave of a Boston customs officer. They came to England, and Somersett escaped. Captain Knowles captured him and took him on his boat, Jamaica bound. Three abolitionists, saying they were his "godparents", applied for a writ of habeas corpus. One of Somersett's lawyers, Francis Hargrave, stated "In 1569, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a lawsuit was brought against a man for beating another man he had bought as a slave overseas. The record states, 'That in the 11th [year] of Elizabeth , one Cartwright brought a slave from Russia and would scourge him; for which he was questioned; and it was resolved, that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in'." He argued that the court had ruled in Cartwright's case that English Common Law made no provision for slavery, and without a basis for its legality, slavery would otherwise be unlawful as false imprisonment and/or assault. In his judgment of 22 June 1772, Lord Chief Justice William Murray, Lord Mansfield, of the Court of King's Bench, started by talking about the capture and forcible detention of Somersett. He finished with:
So high an act of dominion must be recognized by the law of the country where it is used. The power of a master over his slave has been exceedingly different, in different countries.
The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory.
It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.
Several different reports of Mansfield's decision appeared. Most disagree as to what was said. The decision was only given orally; no formal written record of it was issued by the court. Abolitionists widely circulated the view that it was declared that the condition of slavery did not exist under English law, although Mansfield later said that all that he decided was that a slave could not be forcibly removed from England against his will.
The Church of England was implicated in slavery. Slaves were owned by the Anglican Church's Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPGFP), which had sugar plantations in the West Indies. When slaves were emancipated by Act of the British Parliament in 1834, the British government paid compensation to slave owners. Among those they paid were the Bishop of Exeter and three business colleagues, who received compensation for 665 slaves.
A member of the House of Commons as an independent, William Wilberforce became intricately involved in the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. His conversion to Evangelical Christianity in 1784 played a key role in interesting him in this social reform. William Wilberforce's Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. It was not until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that the institution finally was abolished.
The Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron (or Preventative Squadron) at substantial expense in 1808 after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807. The squadron's task was to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa, preventing the slave trade by force of arms, including the interception of slave ships from Europe, the United States, the Barbary pirates, West Africa and the Ottoman Empire.
Historians and economists have debated the economic effects of slavery for Great Britain and the North American colonies. Many analysts suggest that it allowed the formation of capital that financed the Industrial Revolution, although the evidence is inconclusive. Slave labour was integral to early settlement of the colonies, which had too few people. Also, slave labour produced the major consumer goods that were the basis of world trade during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: coffee, cotton, rum, sugar, and tobacco. Slavery was far more important to the profitability of plantations and the economy in the American South; and the slave trade and associated businesses were important to both New York and New England.
In 2006, the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, expressed his deep sorrow over the slave trade, which he described as "profoundly shameful". Some campaigners had demanded reparations from the former slave trading nations.