On August 28, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act received royal assent from King William IV, providing for the gradual emancipation of slavery in the British Empire.
Like every other European colonial power, the British relied on slavery for its labor force. That was true throughout its American colonies, but especially true in the sugar colonies of the Caribbean, where slaves were routinely worked to death, as the money was so great for the planters that buying more slaves was nothing to them. This received little backlash for a long time. The move to abolish slavery in Britain proper went back to at least 1772, when Lord Mansfield ruled in the Somerset case that a slave in England could not be sent to Jamaica for sale. In this decision, he used ideas of natural law to say that slavery was simply wrong and should not be tolerated. Now, it was unclear whether this decision in fact freed all slaves held in Britain. But certainly many British abolitionists such as Granville Sharp took that position, argued the point, and then went a step farther, asking why if slavery was not allowed at home, it was allowed in the colonies.
The British were pioneers in one aspect anyway–understanding that slavery was not necessary for having forced, mostly bound labor. Their leaders understood that there were many ways to ensure a global labor force producing for the colonial center without actually having slavery. Debt peonage would work just as well. The threat of military intervention if local authorities did not produce the goods. From the Americans to the Spanish, other slave owners were resistant to thinking through these questions. What this functionally meant is that the British could take the moral high ground in opposing chattel slavery on a global scale while not actually giving up much in the way of real power to the global working class. So it was gold for them. People such as William Wilberforce became legends of global justice for leading the fight against slavery by the late 18th century.
This began to have legal impacts as well. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 outlawed the international slave trade, though of course not slavery. When the international slave trade pretty much continued unabated, Parliament followed with the Slave Trade Felony Act of 1811, which set the Royal Navy as the policemen of the seas and while this certainly did not halt the international slave trade completely, it did severely hamper it and the overall number of people taken across the Atlantic declined significantly. At that point, the anti-slavery movement kind of stalled out for about fifteen years, but then the one thing that always helps these arguments happened–the profitability of the global sugar trade collapsed. Colonies such as Jamaica didn’t necessarily need slavery anymore in an economic sense. So like how in the Revolutionary period of the United States, when the tobacco trade profits had gone into the toilet and before the cotton gin made that crop white gold, a lot of elite slaveholders could articulate a desire to see the slow end of the institution. Once the cotton gin happened, forget about it.
Well, the anti-slavery forces in the UK acted before there was a new way to make slavery super profitable again. But there was a number of factors here. One was the parliamentary reforms overtaking British society in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre. The slaveowning class in the Caribbean mostly lived at home in Britain and they had created rotten boroughs to install themselves as far more powerful than they actually were. So those were under attack. Then, at the end of 1831, a slave rebellion in Jamaica known as the Baptist War, broke out. 60,000 of the colony’s 300,000 were in open revolt and killed fourteen white people before the militia finally put it down in early January. After this, the arguments that slavery made much sense were harder to make. It took grotesque violence to control and it didn’t make as much money as it used to in the Caribbean. Coverage in the British newspapers was highly critical of the planting class.
The Baptist War was what finally pushed gradual emancipation over the line for the British public. The Reform Act of 1832 finally got rid of the rotten boroughs, so a primary structural problem for eliminating slavery was washed away. The Slavery Abolition Act really did not even face any meaningful opposition, largely due to it being seen as a done deal. It sailed through Parliament, with its second reading passing unopposed a mere week before William Wilberforce died. That just gave the whole thing even more power behind it. The King gave his approval on August 28. It went into effect on August 1, 1834.
The law provided for gradual, compensated emancipation. At the moment of its passage, only those under the age of 6 were technically now free. Others were reclassified as “apprentices,” which would remain a major way that the British would continue to control the global labor supply in its colonies. But by 1840, all slaves would be in fact free except in areas controlled by the East India Company, which won an exception until 1843. To pay off the owners was a real enterprise and it took about 5 percent of British GDP to do it, requiring the floating of a large loan with the Rothschild family. Mostly of course, the beneficiaries of the payouts were already the richest people in the empire, since they had built their fortunes on the back of human labor.
So again, this is a good law and a good moment in human history. But I also think we need to resist going too far in praise. As the historian Sven Beckert has shown in his magisterial book Empire of Cotton, the British and then later the other colonial powers found lots of ways to control labor with the threat of violence even if it was not in fact slavery. In the U.S., it was sharecropping, which became part of the global strategy. As the British demanded cotton from colonies in Africa and India, it used a wide variety of strategies to compel that labor. In short, there are many versions of unfree labor. Chattel slavery is just the worst of them.
This is the 490th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.