August 1st 1834: Britain abolishes slavery
On this day in 1834, slavery was abolished in the British
Empire as the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act came into force. Britain had dominated the Atlantic slave trade for hundreds of years, with millions of people being forcibly taken from Africa to the Americas while businessmen in Britain profited from their plight. The campaign for abolition began in the late eighteenth century, countering claims that slaves were content with the brutal reality of life aboard a slave ship and toiling in a plantation. One of the primary actors in the movement to abolish the slave trade was freed slave Olaudah Equiano, whose eloquent autobiography articulated the horrors of slavery. The slave trade was thus banned in 1807, and this was enforced by the British navy on the West African coast, but the practice continued and captains would throw slaves overboard to avoid fines. The Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1823 to campaign for the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire, led by the politician William Wilberforce. The abolition movement was partly fueled by humanitarian concern, but also changing economic interests, as the newly industrial Britain no longer relied on slave-based goods, and slave rebellions in Haiti and Jamaica indicated that slavery was becoming unprofitable. The 1833 act was passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, before receiving Royal Assent from King William IV in August; Wilberforce died three days after hearing that the bill would pass. Due to come into effect a year later, it provided for the eventual emancipation of slaves in the British Empire (they were to become ‘apprentices’ for six years before freedom), while providing £20 million (nearly £70 billion in modern currency) in compensation for slaveowners. Whilst this act ostensibly ended slavery, it did not completely eradicate the practice, as some areas of the British Empire were initially exempt and others continued to secretly sell slaves throughout the nineteenth century.