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The Abolitionist Movement and the Abolition of Slave Trade Act of 1807
The abolitionist movement in Britain began to gain momentum during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The French and Haitian Revolutions played a large role in the spreading the belief in liberty and equality on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it was homegrown abolitionists who lived in Britain that helped to transform the narrative. British Quakers, as well as middle-class and working-class women’s groups, were the primary allies in the fight to abolish slavery. At the center of the abolitionist movement, however, were former slaves themselves. They organized groups and spoke in public about the evils of slavery. They also petitioned Parliament to end the slave trade and abolish slavery altogether.
The efforts of the British abolitionists finally bore fruit when the Parliament passed the Abolition of Slave Trade Act in 1807. The Act forbade British ships from transporting slaves, as well as imposed a fine on ship captains who broke the law. (Several ship captains conveniently ignored the law since slave trade was lucrative). Plantation owners, merchants, and other people whose livelihood depended on the exploitation of slaves met the passage of the Act with resistance, but to no avail. Although the law only abolished the slave trade in the British colonies, it did not abolish slavery itself. This only pushed the abolitionists to work harder to help the slaves attain their freedom.
Prelude to Freedom
The slave rebellions in British Guiana and Jamaica accelerated the end of the slavery in the West Indies. In 1823, rumors of emancipation reached a group of slaves working in the Demerara region of British Guiana. Upon hearing the news, they demanded that their masters grant them freedom immediately. Their owners, however, denied the news of emancipation. It soon became a rebellion, and 13,000 slaves soon joined in the uprising. The rebellion was brutally crushed. The leaders of the Demerara Rebellion were executed, while the rest remained in slavery.
It was the death of the missionary John Smith in British Guiana that galvanized the abolitionist movement in Britain. John Smith ministered primarily to slaves in the Demerara’s ‘Le Resouvenir’ plantation. The authorities soon linked his name to the uprising and accused him of inciting the slaves to rebel. He was convicted and sentenced to hang but was saved when the sentence was commuted to imprisonment. Unfortunately, he died of pneumonia while in prison. The British authorities hurriedly buried him in an unmarked grave in the early morning hours so as not to arouse the anger of the slaves. But news of the “Demerara martyr” soon reached England and outraged the public. In the same year, British newspapers and the Parliament were flooded with condemnation of Reverend Smith’s death. Concerned groups also petitioned Parliament to pass laws that would protect the slaves and the missionaries who ministered to them.
The British colony of Jamaica was not a stranger to slave rebellions. Slave uprisings flared every now and then, but the rebellion which rocked it in 1831 was the largest one yet. It started with a peaceful protest, but soon snowballed into riot and destruction. It was eventually subdued, but not before a number of whites and hundreds of black slaves lost their lives. Samuel Sharpe and other leaders of the rebellion were sentenced to death. Not only did the brutality of the rebellion shock England, but it also made the plantation owners realize that it was only a matter of time before another uprising would destroy their properties. They decided to accept the inevitable and cut their losses by agreeing to the passage of laws that would eventually end slavery.
Britain Finally Ends Slavery in the West Indies
British abolitionists continued to speak out against and write about slavery between 1823 and 1833. They published and distributed literature which greatly influenced the public’s opinion on slavery. Prominent Quakers, such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton, represented the abolitionists in the Parliament. Buxton himself managed to get 1.5 million signatures on his petition to end slavery in the British Empire. His efforts to set the slaves free, however, encountered great resistance from merchants, planters, and members of Parliament who were sometimes plantation owners themselves.
The tide against slavery finally turned in 1833. The Whigs (composed largely of members of the middle class) dominated the House of Commons after the Great Reform Act of 1832. The proslavery lobby pushed back by arguing that slavery was crucial to the prosperity of the West Indies and the British Empire.
The Colonial Secretary Edward Smith-Stanley penned a new proposal in an attempt to find a win-win solution to the issue. The MPs debated the secretary’s proposal in the Parliament, but the terms proved unacceptable to both sides. After a period of negotiation and debate, both sides finally found the terms acceptable in summer of 1833. The Abolition of Slavery Act (also known as British Emancipation Act) was finally approved on August 28, 1833. The law finally became effective on August 1, 1834. The government compensated former slave owners for their loss, while emancipated slaves spent many years as “apprentices” to “prepare” them for their new life.
Browne, Randy M. Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.
Rodriguez, Junius P., and William E. Burns. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007.
Sherwood, Marika. After Abolition Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
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