Britain abolishes slavery
The 1st of August 1834 AD
It is to Britain’s great dishonour that, though in 1811 slave trading had been outlawed within the British Empire, it took a further 23 years for slavery itself to be ended by Act of Parliament, and even then the abolition was neither total nor instant.
The Napoleonic Wars undoubtedly delayed radical action, the perceived economic disruption of ending slavery in the West Indies in particular over-riding common humanity. And of course there were vested interests in the colonies and at home – many of the great families of the day had built their fortunes on the slave-powered sugar trade.
The torch once carried by Wilberforce and his friends was taken up by the likes of Thomas Fowell Buxton, a leader of The Society for the Amelioration and Gradual Abolition of Slavery from its birth in 1823. The gradualist view of this group prompted more radical members to split from it and form The Agency Anti-Slavery Society. For once a split was helpful: the gradualists lobbied Parliament, the radicals worked on the conscience of the British people. By the 1830 general election the campaign had convinced Prime Minister Grey to put a bill through Parliament ending slavery, though this still took until 1833 to draft and only came into force on August 1 1834.
Even then abolition was incomplete, Ceylon, St Helena, and territory controlled by The East India Company entitled to continue, and the impact of the Act on Mauritius and the Cape being delayed for four months. The slave owners had too, in addition to negotiating the vast sum of £20 million in compensation, convinced the authorities to build a seven year ‘apprenticeship’ into the Act, still binding slaves other than those younger than six when it passed to their owners. This proved difficult to control, and finally at midnight on July 31 1838 all slavery ceased within the Empire – with the exception of India where it was not illegal until 1860!
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