In 1807, after a 20-year fight by British and African activists, Britain finally banned the slave trade. Slavery was still permitted in British territories, but planters could not import new slaves from Africa.
Many North East Scots joined the fight to abolish the slave trade. In 1770 Dr James Beattie, a philosopher at Marischal College, became one of the first public figures to argue that slavery was morally wrong. Thinkers such as Adam Smith had criticised the economics of slavery, but Beattie condemned it for treating Africans as less than human.
Tortures, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity are practised upon the poor slaves with impunity. I hope the slave-trade will be abolished. I pray it may be an event at hand. Olaudah Equiano calls for the abolition of slavery, 1789
Beattie’s friend, the Reverend James Ramsay of Fraserburgh, was another influential voice against slavery. In 1784, after years working in St Kitts, he detailed the horrors of plantation slavery in An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves. The book helped persuade abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce to launch a public campaign against the slave trade.
In 1792 the Scottish Quaker William Dickson took this campaign to North East Scotland. He found eager audiences in towns such as Fordyce, Huntly and Turriff. Other places, including Alford, Stonehaven and Banff, sent petitions to parliament opposing the trade.
Perhaps the most influential abolitionist to visit the North East was a former slave, Olaudah Equiano. He called at Aberdeen on 23 August 1792 to publicise his autobiography. This told how he had been kidnapped as a child from Nigeria and sold into slavery in America. Reading this was a dramatic experience for his Scottish audience. It helped them realise the truth of Beattie’s teaching – that Africans were human just like them.
We buy and enslave them, not because we have had proof of their wickedness, but because they are black, and have been brought from Africa. James Beattie lectures against slavery at Marischal College, 1797