Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire freed more than 800,000 slaves and contributed significantly to the worldwide abolition movement.

Summary of Event

The abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire was the culmination of the great antislavery movement in Great Britain. The first planned British effort to eradicate slavery began as early as 1765, when Granville Sharp, a civil servant, sought to gain the freedom of Jonathan Strong, a runaway slave who had incurred a severe beating from his owner. Although Sharp’s attempt failed, he remained committed to the abolition of slavery in England. The initial legislation that served as a precursor to the eventual abolition of slavery in Great Britain and the British colonies occurred in 1807. Specifically, the abolition of the British slave trade on March 25, 1807, was the first stage in the struggle that continued until the institution of slavery was finally eradicated throughout the empire. British Empire;slavery Slavery;in British Empire[British Empire] Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 Emancipation Act of 1833 [kw]Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire (Aug. 28, 1833) [kw]Abolished Throughout the British Empire, Slavery Is (Aug. 28, 1833) [kw]British Empire, Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the (Aug. 28, 1833) [kw]Empire, Slavery Is , Abolished Throughout the British (Aug. 28, 1833) British Empire;slavery Slavery;in British Empire[British Empire] Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 Emancipation Act of 1833 [g]Great Britain;Aug. 28, 1833: Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire[1800] [g]British Empire;Aug. 28, 1833: Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire[1800] [g]Central America and the Caribbean;Aug. 28, 1833: Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire[1800] [c]Human rights;Aug. 28, 1833: Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire[1800] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 28, 1833: Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire[1800] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 28, 1833: Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire[1800] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 28, 1833: Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire[1800] Sharp, Granville Wilberforce, William Buxton, Thomas Fowell Brougham, Henry Canning, George [p]Canning, George;and abolition of slavery[Abolition of slavery] Grey, Charles Sturge, Joseph

Opponents of the British slave trade calculated that their victory would gradually lead to the end of slavery and that the condition of existing slaves would improve when slave owners could no longer replenish their supplies of unpaid labor and would have to increase their paid labor forces. It was hoped that such amelioration of the slaves’ condition would eventually lead to emancipation.

By 1823, however, the hopes of the humanitarians, and others, were at a low point. Aside from moral and ethical prohibitions against slavery, there was a growing disaffection with slavery by those who asserted that the British economy was undergoing transition as steam power was gradually replacing human power. Consequently, these critics of slavery emphasized that the institution of slavery was detrimental to the British economy as there were an increasing number of industries that had a need for raw materials from foreign markets rather than slaves. Thus, slaves had lost their value as they were replaced by industrialization in England. For example, when the British slave trade was abolished in 1807, the reaction in Liverpool—which had thrived on the slave trade—was characterized by terror, because residents expected a major decline in their standard of living.

Despite the ban on the slave trade in the colonies, illicit importation continued. One reason illegal slave trading continued was the fact that penalties for violating the trading ban were only monetary fines. The slave trade was so profitable that slave traders could easily pay the fines. Even after slave trading became a felony offense, British slave traders developed new means of circumventing the law. The slave trade thus continued, and the condition of the slaves did not show marked improvements. Attempts at change had been disregarded or resisted by slave owners and colonial legislatures, especially in areas such as the West Indies where plantation agriculture was performed primarily by black slaves. In reaction to the continued existence of these problems, abolitionists decided to attack the institution of slavery itself, hoping that the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire would set a pattern for other countries.

There were, however, critics—particularly from other countries—who believed that the British were hypocritical and selective in their quest to abolish slavery. The British had derived innumerable benefits from their domination of the slave trade for many years, and they had also financed the Industrial Revolution from the unpaid labor of black slaves. Critics also maintained that the British campaign to eradicate slavery in the West Indies West Indies;abolition of slavery ignored their earlier dependence and profits derived from slave-maintained sugar and cotton plantations in these colonies. Moreover, they argued that the British continued to use these colonial goods to purchase slaves in Africa. Further, they cited another inconsistency stating that while the British were boycotting Boycotts;and slavery[Slavery] the slave-grown products of the West Indies, Britain’s economy depended greatly on cotton Cotton;and Great Britain[Great Britain] that was produced from the labor of black slaves in the United States.

In January, 1823, the Society for the Gradual Mitigation and Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions—better known as the Anti-Slavery Society—was formed. The leadership of the society was impressive. The duke of Gloucester Gloucester, duke of , a nephew of the late King George III, served as president, and the society’s vice presidents included five peers and fourteen members of the House of Commons. William Wilberforce Wilberforce, William and Thomas Clarkson Clarkson, Thomas , who had spearheaded the drive against the slave trade, were nominally officers, but actual leadership fell to younger men, such as Henry Brougham Brougham, Henry and Thomas Foxwell Buxton, Buxton, Thomas Fowell who were also members of Parliament.

The Anti-Slavery Society was to be the parent organization to numerous societies. By means of its monthly journal, the Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter edited by Zachary Macaulay Macaulay, Zachary , important speeches and documents relating to the cause were summarized and local societies were kept informed. In addition, pamphleteering was used in the society’s attempt to marshal public support and generate pressure on Parliament.

The abolition campaign in Parliament began on May 5, 1823, when Thomas Buxton Buxton, Thomas Fowell moved that slavery, “repugnant alike to the British constitution Constitutions;British Great Britain;constitution and Christian principles,” should be gradually abolished. He presented a two-part plan for abolition: All children born to slaves after a certain date were to be free, and reform measures were to be instituted for those who were then slaves. The first part of the plan would mean the eventual extinction of slavery; the second part would limit the authority of owners over the slaves they already held, extend personal rights not previously held by slaves, and generally improve the physical condition of slaves.

George Canning Canning, George [p]Canning, George;and abolition of slavery[Abolition of slavery] , the leader of the House of Commons, replying to Buxton’s Buxton, Thomas Fowell plan for the government, evaded the first part of Buxton’s motion but was in agreement with the second part. He then presented resolutions that would effectively and decisively ameliorate the condition of the slaves and prepare them for freedom “at the earliest period . . . consistent with the welfare of the slaves themselves and a fair and equitable consideration of the state of property.” Canning made it clear that reforms would be introduced in the Crown Colonies and recommended to the colonies’s legislative bodies. Buxton then withdrew his own motion, and Canning’s resolutions were carried.

These resolutions, providing for the amelioration and eventual abolition of slavery, formed the basis of government policy almost up to the time of the Emancipation Act of 1833. Numerous orders in council that gradually became more specific were founded upon them. The object of the orders in council was to improve the slaves’ position by altering slave codes in the colonies. The use of the whip and the flogging of women were prohibited; evidence presented by slaves, under certain regulations, was allowed in law courts; facilities for manumission were to be established; and facilities for the moral and religious instruction of slaves were to be encouraged.

During the seven years following the Canning Canning, George [p]Canning, George;and abolition of slavery[Abolition of slavery] proposals, the government’s policy was shown to be ineffective. There was strong opposition to the government policies in Britain’s West Indies colonies on the grounds that only such resistance would save their property. It was claimed that the cultivation of sugar was impossible without slavery, as freed slaves would work only hard enough to maintain themselves at a subsistence level. Orders in council consequently encountered considerable colonial resistance and were enforced only with great reluctance. Moreover, in the period after 1826, Parliament’s attention was absorbed by domestic issues, such as the removal of political restrictions on Nonconformists and Roman Catholics and the parliamentary reform movement.

By 1830, it was apparent that the gradual emancipation policy of the government would never work. Despite the fact that the Anti-Slavery Society enthusiastically approved a motion for the immediate abolition of slavery in the British colonies in May, 1830, political events in Great Britain once again pushed the question of slavery to the side. In 1831, voters expressed dissatisfaction with the more conservative policies of the duke of Wellington’s ministry by returning a Whig government under the leadership of Charles Grey Grey, Charles . The new Whig government was more in sympathy with the objectives of the antislavery movement, and Lord Brougham Brougham, Henry , leader of the Anti-Slavery Society, served as Lord Chancellor in the cabinet.

Parliamentary reform nevertheless remained the question of the hour, even under the sympathetic Whig government. One attempt was made to resurrect the policy of amelioration. A strict order in council, designed to reform slave codes in the Crown Colonies, was enacted, accompanied by the promise of lower duties on sugar to encourage the colonial legislatures to enforce the order. Even this order in council was resisted by the planters, who anticipated that the Whig Whig Party (British);and slavery[Slavery] government would probably initiate more severe measures against slavery in the future.

The case against slavery, meanwhile, was being argued more extensively than ever before. Agitation was sharpened in June, 1831, with the formation of the Agency Committee by younger and more zealous abolitionists such as George Stephens and Joseph Sturge. Believing that nothing effectual would be accomplished in Parliament without first increasing the “pressure from without,” younger abolitionists decided to inform the public mind by means of antislavery lectures given throughout the country by agents of the committee who were independent of the parent society.

Events moved rapidly in the reformed Parliament that met in February, 1833. Disturbed by the omission of the slavery issue from King William IV’s William IV (king of Great Britain and Hanover) speech opening Parliament, Buxton was determined to press the issue. Parliament was bombarded with petitions containing 1.5 million signatures, antislavery delegates from every local center were summoned to a convention at Exeter Hall on April 18, 1833, and a body of more than three hundred men proceeded to Downing Street to address the prime minister. When Buxton Buxton, Thomas Fowell rose in the Commons to move for immediate emancipation, the government promised to present its plan on April 23, 1833. Additional time was needed to gather further information and seek a compromise with opposing elements. On May 14, 1833, Edward Stanley Stanley, Edward , the colonial secretary, rose to explain the principles of the government’s abolition proposals. Surveying the past history of the question, Stanley noted that public opinion would no longer countenance delay on the issue.

Noting that previous parliamentary pressures had had no effect on the colonial legislatures, Stanley proposed a plan that would free not only future generations of slaves but also the current generation, while it would at the same time prevent any possible dangers from immediate emancipation. The plan included two key provisions. First, all children who were born after the act, or who were under the age of six, would be free. Second, existing slaves would be placed in an intermediate stage of apprenticeship, which would last no longer than twelve years. Apprentices would be cared for by their former masters and would devote three-fourths of their labor to their former masters, the last fourth being contracted out as a free labor system with part of the proceeds used as compensation to the planters. Compensation to the slave owners was to be in the form of a fifteen-million-pound loan to the West Indian West Indies;abolition of slavery group. This sum, equal to the ten-year net profits on the cultivation of sugar, rum, and coffee, would compensate the owners for the one-fourth wages they would have to pay under the apprentice system. Debates and consultations on the proposal began with Stanley Stanley, Edward calling for the adoption of the scheme in five motions.

When the motions appeared before Parliament as a bill, several changes were introduced as the proposals passed through the House of Commons. The alterations were necessary to achieve both abolitionist support and West Indian planter acceptance. The apprentice period was reduced from twelve to six years for agricultural workers and from six to four years for nonagricultural workers. This alteration was demanded by the abolitionists who were repelled by the apprenticeship concept. To secure the acceptance of slave owners, the loan was changed to a twenty-million-pound gift as compensation for property loss. The revised bill subsequently passed the House of Commons and was sent to the House of Lords, where a few nonsubstantive changes were made. The bill received the royal assent on August 28, 1833, and thus became law.


The emancipation of some 800,000 slaves in the British Empire was a remarkable triumph for the abolitionists. It was also a triumph that would give impetus to the case of slave emancipation throughout the world, particularly in the United States, where emancipation was finally achieved with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barclay, Alexander. A Practical View of the Present State of Slavery in the West Indies. Reprint. Miami, Fla.: Mnemosyne, 1969. Originally published in 1828, this work contains a detailed discussion of slave labor in the West Indies and the British slave trade to these islands during the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barclay, Oliver. Thomas Fowell Buxton and the Liberation of Slaves. York, England: Sessions, 2001. Biography of Buxton that emphasizes his seminal role in Great Britain’s abolition movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coupland, Reginald. The British Anti-Slavery Movement. London: Frank Cass, 1964. This book presents a classic statement of the humanitarian perspective in the antislavery movement by an authority on empire history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drescher, Seymour. The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor Versus Slavery in British Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Examination of the British debates over emancipation that argues that neither abolitionists nor proslavery advocates sincerely believed that free labor would ultimately be more economically profitable than slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathieson, William Law. British Slave Emancipation, 1838-1849. New York: Octagon Books, 1967. Originally published in 1932, this complement to Mathieson’s book on abolition (below) represents a further statement on the antislavery campaign and its aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. British Slavery and Its Abolition, 1823-1838. New York: Octagon Books, 1967. Originally published in 1926, this book surveys the first part of the antislavery campaign along the lines of Coupland’s school of thought, which emphasizes the humanitarian aspect of the movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mellor, George R. British Imperial Trusteeship, 1783-1850. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. This work contains a succinct treatment of the antislavery movement in its survey of British relations with dependent peoples, including Indians, Africans, the Maoris, and Australian Aborigines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheridan, Richard. Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies. Kingston, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2000. Detailed history of the important role that slavery played in the sugar industry, which provided the mainstay of the economies of Britain’s Caribbean colonies.

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