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Treasure of the Month

Highlighting some of our most precious historic artefacts, from manuscripts to jewellery.

July 2018 - Papers from the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, London, 1787

The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in London in May 1787 by twelve men: nine prominent Quakers, and three Anglicans. One of the Anglican founding members was Durham resident Granville Sharp, who in his role as lawyer had long been involved in the prosecution of cases on behalf of enslaved Africans. The aims of the Society were threefold: to inform and educate the public on the inhuman treatment of slaves; to campaign in favour of a new law which would outlaw the slave trade and enforce this ban on the high seas; and to establish areas of West Africa where emancipated slaves could live safely, free from the risk of capture. As well as petitioning and speaking in parliament, they also arranged lecture tours and published abolitionist prints, posters and pamphlets, including Josiah Wedgwood’s famous image of an African man in chains, with the caption “Am I not a man and a brother?”


One of the most powerful and influential publications of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was this diagram of the Brookes, a ship used in the trade, demonstrating the appalling conditions on board during the passage from Africa to the New World. It depicts hundreds of slaves crammed together, with no room to move – divided into four separate rooms for girls, boys, women and men. Another founding member of the Society, Thomas Clarkson, travelled on horseback across Britain during the late 18th century, rallying the public to their cause by displaying slavery-related artefacts he had purchased, including manacles, leg-irons and thumbscrews used to physically restrain and control slaves; he understood the importance of propaganda and strongly encouraged the publication of the Brookes diagram, knowing what a powerful public reaction it was likely to elicit.


His colleague Granville Sharp was born in the College of Durham Cathedral, and educated at Durham School. Ninth son of Thomas Sharp, the Archdeacon of Northumberland and prebendary of Durham Cathedral, Sharp is sometimes referred to as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Sierra Leone; through his work with a different organisation (the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor), Sharp helped establish the Province of Freedom – later Freetown – in Sierra Leone for four hundred formerly enslaved black Britons.

The land was purchased from a local Koya Temne chief, with the understanding (at least for the British government) that the land was to belong to the settlers ‘forever’. However, the establishment was beset with problems from the outset: the settlers were landed there at the beginning of the five month rainy season; one of the settlers made the somewhat demoralising decision to leave to work in the slave trade; and the settlement was eventually burnt to the ground by a local Temne chief in retaliation for the burning of their settlement by a slave-trader.


In 1807, the British parliament eventually voted to abolish the international slave trade and enforce this through the Royal Navy. Sharp is said to have fallen to his knees and offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God upon hearing the news. By 1823, the Society had been superseded by the Anti-Slavery Society, which continued to work towards abolition in the United States and in British colonies, where slavery was still flourishing. The Slavery Abolition Act was finally passed in 1830, supporting immediate abolition in all British territories. Sharp did not live to see the final abolition, however – he died in July 1813.


6th July 2018 will mark the 205th anniversary of the death of Granville Sharp; the feast day of William Wilberforce – another prominent anti-slavery campaigner, a friend of Sharp’s, and the man who headed the parliamentary campaign to abolish slavery – is celebrated by the Church of England on 30th July.


Most of Durham Cathedral Library’s collections are accessible to researchers; please see for more information on the Cathedral’s library collections, catalogues, and how to access them.