Royal Naval Museum

Plan of James Island, The Gambia

Timeline - What happened before 1807?

Slavery dates back to the dawn of civilisation and slaves were a part of everyday life in the ancient world.   In Mesopotamia, 10 000 years ago, a single male slave was worth an orchard of date palms whilst in ancient Egypt, children were often sold into slavery by poor families, or sold from other countries, like Libya. Slaves were so common in Greece, during the fifth century BC, that Athens had more slaves than free citizens. The Romans trained slaves for many different functions, including as gladiators, clerks and miners, as well as agricultural workers.

By medieval times, slaves had been effectively abolished in Northern Europe, but peasants, known as serfs or villeins, were used as unpaid servants and workers owned by individual lords and manors. From the 8th century onwards, an Arab-run slave trade was also very active in East Africa. 

However, the story of the slave trade in west Africa begins with the arrival of Portuguese settlers in the 15th century, who transport enslaved Africans to Brazil.  At first the Portuguese enforce a strict monopoly on the slave trade, but soon other nations follow, becoming the main visitors to the Slave Coast.


Start of European slave trading in Africa. The Portuguese captains Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão capture 12 Africans in Cabo Branco (modern Mauritania) and take them to Portugal as slaves.


First enslaved Africans in the Americas when the Europeans conquer Mexico.


Sir John Hawkins becomes England’s first slave trader when he embarks on a voyage to Sierra Leone and loads his ship with 500 Africans to be sold to estate o wners in the West Indies.  He burns African villages and towns in order to get slaves.


Queen Elizabeth I sponsors Sir John Hawkins’ second voyage, providing him with a 700 ton ship, Jesus of Lubeck.  He captures 500 Africans in Guinea and trades them in the West Indies.  Over the next five years he will make 3 more trips, totalling 1200 slaves.


First ‘indentured servants’ (workers placed under a contract to work for a specific amount of time to pay off passage to a new country) brought from Africa to Jamestown, Virginia, America to grow tobacco.

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Charles II grants a monopoly for the trading of slaves to the Royal Adventurers into Africa, a company led by James, Duke of York, Charles II’s brother.


The Royal African Company succeeds the Royal Adventurers into Africa and operates a monopoly on the slave trade, transporting an average of 5 000 slaves each year between 1680 and 1686.


The Royal African Company’s monopoly is ended and the slave trade opened to all. By the end of the century, England leads the world in the trafficking of slaves


Britain becomes the biggest slave trading country.


Quakers (who will later lead the abolitionist movement) ban slave trading amongst their followers.


The abolitionist, Granville Sharpe collects evidence showing slavery to be incompatible with English law.


John Wesley, a Methodist preacher, publishes Thoughts Upon Slavery, arguing for its abolition.


Royal Commission created to take evidence on the slave trade. The first resolution against the slave trade moved in House of Commons.


The Scottish legal case Knight vs Wedderburn rules that no individual can legally be a slave in Scotland.


Thomas Clarkson’s essay (originally written in Latin), An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African is published, establishing Clarkson as an important voice in the abolitionist movement.


Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Ottabah Cugoano, a former slave, publishes an account of his experiences, Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of America, with the help of his friend, Olaudah Equiano.


William Pitt introduces a Bill to abolish the slave trade, which fails. Britain passes Sir William Dolben’s Act to limit the numbers of slaves to be carried on slave ships but reports of horrifying conditions during the middle passage continue.


Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who bought his own freedom,  publishes his autobiography The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African.  The book is also published in America, Germany and Holland and becomes a bestseller.


William Wilberforce’s first Bill on the abolition of the slave trade is defeated by a majority of 75 votes against .


Wilberforce presents an amended Bill for the ‘gradual’ abolition of the slave trade.  The House of Commons votes in favour of the Bill but it is rejected by the House of Lords.

Denmark abolished slave trade


French Revolutionary Wars between Britain and France delays the abolition campaign.


United States abolishes foreign slave Trade.

France abolishes slavery in French colonies.


John Stedman publishes Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, an account of the inhumane treatment of slaves by slave owners, based on his experiences as a soldier sent to suppres a slave rebellion in Surinam, 1772-3.


Napoleon reintroduces slavery in French colonies

1803 – 1815

Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France


Bill for the Abolition is passed in the House of Commons but rejected in the H ouse of Lords.


Denman J - Instructions for the Suppression of the Slave Trade: Chronology of Treaties1865

Lloyd, C - The Navy and the Slave Trade. London: Longmans Green, 1949

Timeline on National Maritime Museum website:

‘Royal African Company Established’, Africans in America website, PBS.

Slavery author Brycchan Charey’s timeline on slavery and abolition.

New Internationalist, ‘History of Slavery’

Encyclopaedia of Slavery:

Understanding Slavery website:

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