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The Road to Abolition

Today 2 George Yard, London EC3 9DH, is a modern high-rise building. In 1787 it was a bookshop and printers and where the twelve men who formed The Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade met.

The Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade became a campaigning society and developed over the next twenty years into one of Britain's biggest mass political movements and single-issue parliamentary lobbying campaigns.

Granville Sharp

One of the twelve men who formed the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade in 1787 at 2 George Yard was Granville Sharp (from 1735 to 1813). Sharp was a civil servant who devoted much of his life to campaigning against slavery. His contemporaries often described him as "the father of the Cause".

His interest in the plight of Africans in England began with a chance encounter in 1765 with Jonathan Strong, a young runaway slave. Strong was a slave in Barbados who was beaten and abandoned in London by his master, David Lisle. Lisle later attempted to kidnap Strong and send him back to the Caribbean. Sharp helped Strong to successfully defend his rights in court.

Portrait of Granville Sharp in profile.
© National Portrait Gallery

Granville Sharp continued to pursue the cases of other Africans through the courts. He wanted to establish once and for all that slavery was not part of English law. This culminated in 1772 with the case of James Somerset. Hailed a victory, this case was widely reported in the press and highlighted the question of slavery and British involvement in the slave trade. You can find out more about the case on our Notable Legal Cases page. Granville Sharp continued to campaign against slavery, publishing many pamphlets and tracts.

Sharp is buried in the churchyard at All Saints, Church Gate, Fulham, London SW6 3LA. His tomb was repaired and re-consecrated as part of the 2007 commemoration of the bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition Act. Sharp also has a memorial in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey, SW1A 3PA.

Inscription on stone of Granville Sharp's tomb
Inscription on Granville Sharp's tomb, All Saints Church Gate, Fulham, London © Jasper233 Wikimedia commons

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano (about 1745 to 1797) described in his autobiography how he was enslaved as a child and bought to England by an English naval captain. The captain named him Gustavus Vassa after a famous Swedish king.

Equiano was baptised at St. Margaret's Church, St. Margaret Street, Westminster, London W1 3JS. His autobiography, 'The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African' (1789), told the story of slavery from the point of view of the enslaved. The book was a bestseller, which went through nine editions during his lifetime. It was instrumental in strengthening the abolitionist campaign.

The book described how Equiano fought in the Seven Years War as an able seaman in the British Navy. He then worked for a Montserrat based Quaker and travelled throughout the Caribbean. Eventually Equiano was able to buy his freedom and he worked as a hairdresser in London.

Book frontispiece showing portrait of Olaudah Equiano and text
Olaudah Equiano book frontispiece © National Portrait Gallery

He spent the rest of his life travelling the country, promoting his book and speaking out against slavery. He became the defender of black interests and tried to prevent black people from being kidnapped and sold into slavery. He sometimes worked with other black Londoners known as "The Sons of Africa".

Equiano was a friend of Granville Sharp and it was he who alerted Sharp to the Zong case in 1783, where 133 slaves were thrown over aboard a slave ship by the captain.

Equiano was appointed commissary in a scheme to send hundreds of London's black poor to Sierra Leone. However, he left after exposing official corruption and ill treatment of the migrants.

When Equiano's autobiography was published he lived at a house on the site of 73, Riding House Street, Westminster, London W1W 7EJ. A green plaque by Westminster Council marks the site.

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