On 28 August 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was given royal assent in Britain. This legislation terminated an institution that, for generations, had been the source of an incredibly lucrative trade and commerce.
Why Britain would abolish such a brutal and degrading institution appears self-evident in the world we live in today. Slavery was, by definition, a morally indefensible and corrupt system.
Nonetheless, within the context of abolition, it is important to remember that while sugar and slavery had created enormous fortunes for a small but very influential community on both sides of the Atlantic, the exploitation of enslaved workers also contributed heavily to the wider prosperity of the nation.
It was not only planters who benefitted from the significant West Indian branch of British colonial commerce, but the merchants, sugar refiners, manufacturers, insurance brokers, attorneys, ship-builders and money-lenders – all of whom were invested in the institution in some form or another.
And so, an understanding of the intense opposition facing abolitionists in their fight to see the liberation of slaves, as well as an idea of the scale in which slavery commercially permeated throughout British society, begs the question: Why did Britain abolish slavery in 1833?
By ending the traffic of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic in 1807, those within the ‘Abolition Society’, such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, had achieved an unprecedented feat. Yet it was never their intention to stop there.
Ending the slave trade had prevented the continuation of a profoundly cruel commerce but had brought no change to the condition of enslaved people. As Wilberforce wrote in his Appeal in 1823, “all early abolitionists had declared that the extinction of slavery was their great and ultimate project.”
In the same year that Wilberforce’s Appeal was published, a new ‘Anti-Slavery Society’ was formed. As had been the case in 1787, a great emphasis was placed on using various campaigning tools in order to gain support from the general public in order to influence parliament, as opposed to the traditional methods of backdoor lobbying.
1. Failure of amelioration
One major factor that enabled abolitionists to argue for emancipation was the failure of the government’s ‘amelioration’ policy. In 1823, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Canning, introduced a series of resolutions that called for the improvement of conditions for slaves in His Majesty’s colonies. These included the promotion of Christianity amongst the enslaved community and further legal protection.
Many abolitionists were able to prove that planters had ingnored these policies by highlighting slave population decreases within the West Indies, falling marriage rates, the continuance of native cultural practises (such as ‘Obeah’) and more importantly, the perpetuation of slave uprisings.
2. Late slave rebellions
Between 1807 and 1833, three of Britain’s most valuable Caribbean colonies all experienced violent slave uprisings. Barbados was the first to witness a revolt in 1816, while the colony of Demerara in British Guyana saw a full-scale rebellion in 1823. The largest of all slave uprisings, nevertheless, occurred in Jamaica in 1831-32. 60,000 slaves looted and scorched property across 300 estates on the island.
Despite the significant property damage caused by the insurgents and the fact that they considerably outnumbered colonists, all three uprisings were quelled and suppressed with brutal consequences. Rebel slaves and those who were suspected to have conspired were tortured and executed. A universal retaliation occurred in all three dominions toward missionary communities, whom many planters suspected to have instigated the revolts.
The rebellions in the West Indies, accompanied by the brutal suppressions, strengthened abolitionist arguments regarding the instability of the Caribbean dominions. They argued that upholding the institution was bound to cause more violence and unrest.
The backlash of the rebellions also fed into anti-slavery narratives that stressed the immoral, violent and ‘un-British’ nature of the Caribbean planter class. This was an important element in shifting public opinion against the West India Lobby.
3. Declining image of colonial planters
White colonists in the West Indies were always viewed with suspicion from those in the metropole. They were often disdained for their excessively ostentatious displays of wealth and their gluttonous habits.
In the aftermath of the rebellions, accusations made against colonists, as to their bad taste and lack of class, were strengthened by reports of the violent backlashes.
Divisions were not only created between the planter class and the general public in Britain, but within the West India Lobby itself. Cracks were beginning to emerge between local or “creole” planters and the absentee proprietor community residing in Britain. The latter group were becoming increasingly favourable to the idea of emancipation if sufficient compensation was granted.
Local planters were far more invested in the institution, not only financially, but culturally and socially, and so they resented the fact that planters in Britain were ignorantly willing to sacrifice slavery in return for remuneration.
4. Overproduction and economic deterioration
One of the most convincing arguments presented to parliament during the emancipation debates highlighted the economic deterioration of the West Indian colonies. In 1807, it could be proven that the Caribbean dominions remained Britain’s most lucrative colonies in terms of trade. This was no longer the case by 1833.
The main reason why the colonies were struggling was because plantations were overproducing sugar. According to the Colonial Secretary, Edward Stanley, sugar exported from the West Indies had risen from 72,644 tons in 1803 to 189,350 tons by 1831 – this now far exceeded domestic demand. As a result, the price of sugar fell. Sadly, this only led planters to produce more sugar in order to achieve economies of scale and so a vicious cycle had been created.
Facing increasing competition from colonies such as Cuba and Brazil, the West Indian colonies, protected by a monopoly that gave them low-tariff access to the British market, were beginning to become more of a burden on the British treasury, than a valued asset.
5. Free labour ideology
Economics proved to be one of the first social sciences applied to the political debate over slavery. Abolitionists attempted to use Adam Smith’s ‘Free Market’ ideology and apply it to proceedings.
They insisted that free labour was a far superior model as it was cheaper, more productive and efficient. This was proven by the success of the free labour system employed in the East Indies.
6. A new Whig government
One cannot underestimate the influence of the political environment when it comes to understanding why emancipation occurred. It is no coincidence that slavery was abolished only a year after the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the subsequent election of a Whig Government under the leadership of Lord Grey.
The Reform Act had allowed the Whigs to achieve a large majority in the House of Commons, eradicating ‘rotten boroughs’ that had previously gifted parliamentary seats to wealthy members of the West Indian Interest. The election in 1832 had led to a further 200 pledged candidates who were in favour of ending slavery.
Many historians have rightly argued that without the promise of compensation for slaveholders, an abolition bill would not have received enough support to pass in parliament. Originally proposed as a £15,000,000 loan, the government soon pledged a grant of £20,000,000 to approximately 47,000 claimants, some of whom owned only a few slaves and others who owned thousands.
Compensation allowed the British government to attain support from a significant proportion of absentee proprietors who could be secure in the knowledge that their financial re-imbursement could be re-invested in other commercial enterprises.