Darwin and Slavery

Although more known for his scientific discoveries, Darwin believed that the enslavement of people was barbaric. His family was strongly against slavery and his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, produced and distributed a medallion based on the design for the seal for the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

From Darwin's letters we know that he was shocked by his experiences on the slave plantations in Brazil and that he supported the abolition movement. This pack contains cross-curricula activities for examining nineteenth-century slavery in the context of Darwin's experiences and beliefs.

  • History KS3 and 4
  • Citizenship KS3 and 4
  • English KS3 and 4
  • Design and Technology KS3 and 4

Darwin's encounters with the slave trade

During his voyage on HMS Beagle Darwin witnessed the conditions and treatment of enslaved African people first hand.
Click on a marker to find out more and follow the link to the classroom activities.

Europe to Africa

  • Guns, gunpowder
  • Alcohol
  • Brass, iron
  • Glass

Britain and the Slave Trade
Key dates and facts

Key dates
  • 1787

    Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed.

    It had 12 members, including Thomas Clarkson. The majority of members were Quakers.

  • 1789

    Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography was published.

    Equiano was kidnapped as a child and sold as a slave to a Royal Navy officer in Virginia. He finally bought his freedom and joined abolitionists in Britain. His autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African', was a widely read and influential account.

  • 1807

    Slave Trade Act.

    The act abolished trade in the British Empire but not slavery itself.

  • 1823

    Anti-Slavery Society was formed.

    Members included Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce.

  • 1831

    The Baptist War

    Major revolt of enslaved Africans broke out in Jamaica, led by Baptist preacher Sam Sharpe. It was brutally suppressed and led to around 500 deaths. The resulting two enquiries are thought to have contributed to the Slavery Abolition Act, 1833.

  • 1831

    ‘The History of Mary Prince: a West Indian Slave’ was published

    Mary Prince’s autobiography describes her treatment as a slave in the Caribbean. Prince was born in Bermuda and sold at the age of 12. She was then passed ‘from one butcher to another’ and suffered years of torture. She came to England as a servant in 1828 and was encouraged to share her story by abolition campaigners. It is not known whether she returned home.

  • 1833

    Slavery Abolition Act

    The act abolished slavery throughout the British Empire (with initial exceptions of Ceylon, St Helena and the territories held by the East India Company). The Act applied only to those under the age of 6. Those older were forced to become apprentices. The Government paid out £20 million in compensation (roughly 40%of annual expenditure) for the loss of business assets.

  • 1838

    The Apprenticeship scheme failed.

    Full emancipation was granted in the British Empire.

  • 1839

    British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society founded

    It exists today as Anti-slavery International.


The Middle Passage refers to the journey by sea between Africa and the Americas during which so many enslaved people lost their lives due to the appalling living conditions on board ship.

By the middle of the 18th century British ships were carrying about 50,000 slaves a year. Royal Navy sailors said that they could smell the stench of a slave ship from 10 miles downwind.

Between 10 and 28 million people were taken from Africa

At least 12 million Africans were taken across the Atlantic to North and South America and the West Indies.

Up to 20% of enslaved people died chained in the holds of the slave ships during the journey.

Britain had one of the highest records in transatlantic slave trading – around 2.5 million people in the 18th century.