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Slavery Abolition Act 1833: Slavery Was Abolished Throughout The British Empire On This Day

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The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that abolished slavery in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa and making the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire, (with the exception of “the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company”) took effect on this day in 1834.

Slavery Abolition Act 1833: Slavery Was Abolished Throughout The British Empire On This Day
Slaves on a West Indian plantation being freed following passage of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833). George Munday/age fotostock

Background

The Slavery Act received Royal Assent on August 28, 1833, and took effect on August 1, 1834.

The Act abolished slavery in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa and making the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire, with the exception of “the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company”.

The Act also made Canada a free territory for enslaved American blacks. Thousands of fugitive slaves and free blacks subsequently arrived on Canadian soil between 1834 and the early 1860s.

In practical terms, only slaves below the age of six were freed in the colonies. Former slaves over the age of six were redesignated as “apprentices”, and their servitude was abolished in two stages: the first set of apprenticeships came to an end on 1 August 1838, while the final apprenticeships were scheduled to cease on 1 August 1840.

There were lots of different factors that led to the 1833 Abolition Act. Slave revolts, home grown abolition movements, religious arguments, government policies and the economy. By the time of the act coming into force in 1833/1834 the economy wasn’t as reliant on the slave trade as it had been in the early 1700’s.

The trade in slaves was also becoming less cost effective. The trade usually involved two trips for each enterprise – one slave ship and one cargo ship.

The slave ship would be sent from Britain to the markets on the African coast, and be docked there for some time whilst the crew waited for enough slaves to be brought to the market for purchase before eventually setting sail to the Caribbean. Secondary ships would then have to be sent directly from Britain to the Caribbean to pick up the produce. This process could sometimes take up to 2 years.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that abolished slavery in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa and making the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal

Slave ships and cargo ships also had to be equipped differently for their load. A slave ship would be infused with weeks and months of human excrement, vomit, blood as well as food waste. No trader would then load perishable and valuable goods onto the same vessels. In addition, plantation owners encouraged ‘breeding programs’ so slaves would reproduce, effectively gaining more slaves at no extra cost rather than purchase at market.

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Campaign To Abolish Slave Trade

The first Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in Britain in 1787, and members included John Barton; William Dillwyn; George Harrison; Samuel Hoare Jr; Joseph Hooper; John Lloyd; Joseph Woods Sr; James Phillips; Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Philip Sansom and Richard Phillips.

The later Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1823. Its goal was not only the continued suppression of the trade but the end to slavery itself – but gradually and not immediately.

The Baptists War

In 1831 there was a large-scale slave revolt in Jamaica, also known as ‘The Baptists War’. It was organised originally as a peaceful strike by Baptist minister Samuel Sharpe. The rebellion was squashed with force ten days later in early 1832. The damage to the islands economy and the plantations finances, plus two inquiries into the revolt by the British parliament added to the case for emancipation at home and abroad.

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The Slavery Abolition Act

By July 1833, the act was read for the third time in parliament and a few days before the death of Wilberforce. The same year, parliament received several more petitions calling for the end of slavery. Finally, the act was passed and received Royal assent on 1 August.

Slavery Abolition Act 1833: Slavery Was Abolished Throughout The British Empire On This Day
Poster for an event in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1849, commemorating the end of slavery in the British West Indies. Image: Wikipedia

The act had two major parts to it – the emancipation of all slaves throughout the British colonial empire with the exception of those held by the East India Company, (The exception was eliminated in 1843) and compensating slave owners for the loss of the slaves.

The Act provided for payments to slave-owners. Under the terms of the Act, the British government raised £20 million to pay out for the loss of the slaves as business assets to the registered owners of the freed slaves. Those who had been enslaved did not receive any compensation.

Half of the money went to slave-owning families in the Caribbean and Africa, while the other half went to absentee owners living in Britain.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was repealed in its entirety by the Statute Law Act of 1998. In its place the Human Rights Act of 1998 incorporates into British Law Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits the holding of persons as slaves.



Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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