Why did the British Empire abolish slavery in 1833 at the height of its dominion?

The amount of money that had been borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act had been paid off only in 2015 by taxpayers because it was such a large sum

                            Why did the British Empire abolish slavery in 1833 at the height of its dominion?
Slaves picking cotton on a plantation (Getty Images)

While the British Empire was at its peak in the 19th century, it made provisions to abolish slavery. In 1833, the British Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery in most British colonies spread throughout the world. The Acts' passage freed more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa as well as a small populace in Canada. But what exactly led to this decision, that may as well have become a major setback in Britain's centuries-long quest for world domination?

For one, the country's economy was in flux, especially with a new commercial system expanding to the international trade setting in. After America's independence in 1776, it established direct trade connections with the French, Dutch, and the West Indies. Its slaveholding Caribbean colonies (such as Jamaica and Barbados) were largely focused on producing sugar, so they could no longer compete with the larger economies of plantations in Cuba an Brazil. In addition, the Industrial Revolution didn't call for slave-based goods, and the country was able to prosper from a new system that was based on high efficiency via free trade and free labor. Cotton, rather than sugar, then replaced the main produce of the British economy, where Manchester and Salford became the center of industrial operations. Another reason was that merchants demanded the British end monopolies on the markets held in Caribbean colonies. 

Poster for an event in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1849, commemorating the end of slavery in the British West Indies (Wikimedia Commons)

Thirdly, there was a growing fear of slave insurgence among plantation owners who took note of the enslaved Africans' persistent struggle for liberation and gladly accepted the abolition act rather than risk a war. The struggles had surfaced ever since the beginning of the trade, and later the 1789 French Revolution also sparked the ideas of liberty and equality. This fueled some of the major revolts in Haiti, Barbados, and Jamaica, which effectively reduced profitability and also gave the strong indication that regardless of a political basis, they enslaved people would not tolerate any more of these atrocities against them. The British government was taken off-guard by the revolts and made them realize that they kept slaves in the West Indies would not only cost them heaps, but it could also potentially be dangerous.

However, this wasn't the first time the Abolition Act had been passed. The British Parliament initially passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, prompting campaigners to switch their focus to ending slavery, rather than just the slave trade. Although the slave trade had been banned, no measures were taken to emancipate the enslaved workers of the British empire. As the campaigns continued, many politicians, religious groups, and supporters came together and fought to end slavery. Finally, in 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which granted all slaves in British colonies their freedom, albeit after a long period of struggle. However, the Act did not explicitly refer to North American colonies but was aimed at dismantling the large-scale plantation that existed in the Caribbean colonies, where the slave population was larger than that of the white colonists. 

A group of liberated slaves on the parade at Fort Augusta, Jamaica, after the slave ship they were imprisoned in was captured by an English destroyer (Getty Images)

African slaves in British North America comprised an isolated and small demographic, and the act liberated less than 50 of them. For most enslaved blacks in British North America, the Act only resulted in partial liberation, applying to children below six years of age, while others were retained by their former slave owner for the next four to six years under the guise of an apprenticeship. The British government, back then made available £20 million ($2,45,83,600) to pay for damages suffered by the owner of registered slaves. Not a single penny reached the slaveholders based in British North America and neither did the slaves receive any money in the form of reparations. The Act also enabled Canada to free enslaved African-Americans. Subsequently, between 1834, and 1860, thousands of fugitive slaves and freed blacks moved to Canada. 

In 2018, Her Majesty's Treasury declared in a since-deleted tweet that the amount of money that had been borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act had been paid off only in 2015 by taxpayers because it was such a large sum. “Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes. In 1833, the British government used £20m, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the empire," the tweet said. "Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”

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