The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (citation 3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73) was an 1833 Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire (with the exceptions “of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company,” the “Island of Ceylon,” and “the Island of Saint Helena”; the exceptions were eliminated in 1843). The Act was repealed in 1998 as part of a wider rationalisation of English statute law, but later anti-slavery legislation remains in force.
In 1772, Lord Mansfield’s judgement in the Somersett’s Case emancipated a slave in England, which helped launch the movement to abolish slavery. The case ruled that slavery was unsupported by law in England and no authority could be exercised on slaves entering English or Scottish soil. In 1785, English poet William Cowper wrote:
“We have no slaves at home – Then why abroad? Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free. They touch our country, and their shackles fall. That’s noble, and bespeaks a nation proud. And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then, And let it circulate through every vein.”
By 1783, following the American Revolutionary War, an anti-slavery movement to abolish the slave trade throughout the Empire had begun among the British public.
In 1808, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which outlawed the slave trade, but not slavery itself. The Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa. It did suppress the slave trade, but did not stop it entirely. It is possible that, when slave ships were in danger of being captured by the Royal Navy, some captains may have ordered the slaves to be thrown into the sea to reduce the fines they had to pay. Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans. They resettled many in Jamaica and the Bahamas.
In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was founded. Members included Joseph Sturge, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton, Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Elizabeth Pease and Anne Knight.
During the Christmas holiday of 1831, a large-scale slave revolt in Jamaica, known as the Baptist War, broke out. It was organised originally as a peaceful strike by the Baptist minister, Samuel Sharpe. The rebellion was suppressed by the militia of the Jamaican plantocracy and the British garrison ten days later in early 1832. Because of the loss of property and life in the 1831 rebellion, the British Parliament held two inquiries. The results of these inquiries contributed greatly to the abolition of slavery with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.
A successor organisation to the Anti-Slavery Society was formed in London in 1839, which worked to outlaw slavery in other countries. Its official name was the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The world’s oldest international human rights organisation, it continues today as Anti-Slavery International.
Britain’s anti-slavery stance was not viewed as a benevolent one by some of the United States’ senior politicians. In a January 24, 1842 letter to Senator John C. Calhoun, diplomat Duff Green wrote from Paris after recently visiting London:
“England finds it impossible to maintain her commercial and manufacturing superiority, because she cannot raise cotton, sugar, etc., as cheap in India as it can be raised in the United States, Cuba, and Brazil, and that her war on slavery and the slave-trade is intended to increase the cost of producing the raw material in the United States, Brazil, and Cuba, that she can sell to other rival manufacturing, continental powers, the product of her East India possessions cheaper than they can purchase from us. If she can do this, having the power to compel her East India subjects to purchase her manufactures, and hers alone, she can, through her manufactures, command the supply of raw material, and thus compel rival manufacturing nations to pay her tribute, while she, in a great measure, controls the manufacture itself. … Under the aspects of the case, you will find that England has much more than a work of benevolence in the suppression of the slave-trade.”
Slavery was officially abolished in most of the British Empire on 1 August 1834. 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.
The Act provided for compensation for slave-owners who would be losing their property. The amount of money to be spent on the compensation claims was set at “the Sum of Twenty Millions Pounds Sterling.” Under the terms of the Act, the British government raised £20 million to pay out in compensation for the loss of the slaves as business assets to the registered owners of the freed slaves. The names listed in the returns for slave compensation show that ownership was spread over many hundreds of British families, many of them of high social standing. For example, Henry Phillpotts (then the Bishop of Exeter), with three others (as trustees and executors of the will of John Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley), was paid £12,700 for 665 slaves in the West Indies, whilst Henry Lascelles, 2nd Earl of Harewood received £26,309 for 2,554 slaves on 6 plantations. The majority of men and women who were awarded compensation under the 1833 Abolition Act are listed in a Parliamentary Return, entitled Slavery Abolition Act, which is an account of all moneys awarded by the Commissioners of Slave Compensation in the Parliamentary Papers 1837–8 Vol. 48.
In all, the government paid out over 5,000 separate awards. The £20 million fund was 40% of the government’s total annual expenditure. In the Cape Colony, where farmers had loans estimated at a total £400,000 secured against their slave, the Dutch-language newspaper De Zuid-Afrikaan first campaigned against abolition and then for a compensation package to enable farmers to pay their debts.
As a notable exception to the rest of the British Empire, the Act did not “extend to any of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company, or to the Island of Ceylon, or to the Island of Saint Helena.” Slavery was abolished in India by the Indian Slavery Act of 1843.
On 1 August 1834, an unarmed group of mainly elderly people being addressed by the Governor at Government House in Port of Spain, Trinidad, about the new laws, began chanting: “Pas de six ans. Point de six ans” (“Not six years. No six years”), drowning out the voice of the Governor. Peaceful protests continued until a resolution to abolish apprenticeship was passed and de facto freedom was achieved. Full emancipation for all was legally granted ahead of schedule on 1 August 1838.
It is believed that after 1833 clandestine slave-trading continued within the British Empire; in 1854 Nathaniel Isaacs, owner of the island of Matakong off the coast of Sierra Leone was accused of slave-trading by the governor of Sierra Leone, Sir Arthur Kennedy. Papers relating to the charges were lost when the Forerunner was wrecked off Maderia in October 1854. In the absence of the papers, the English courts refused to proceed with the prosecution.
The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was repealed in its entirety by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1998. The repeal has not made slavery legal again, with sections of the Slave Trade Act 1824, Slave Trade Act 1843 and Slave Trade Act 1873 continuing in force. In its place the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates into British Law Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits the holding of persons as slaves.