Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Key to abolition was the willingness of the British government to compensate slave-owners for their property. The government budgeted £20 million, supervised by the Slavery Compensation Commission. This huge amount of money* was unprecedented and needs explanation as it wasn’t for love of slaves, who got nothing, or the slave-owners. There were compelling domestic, economic and geopolitical reasons for paying generous compensation. The breath-taking sum recognised the political importance and the sheer numbers of British people directly or tangentially implicated in slavery.
Mr O’Connell made an eloquent speech in the parliamentary debate, which gave a context to the decision (see appendix). Unfortunately for those who believe the story of stellar British moral fibre, there were other factors making 1833 the year for abolition. The debate brought characteristic arguments for and against slavery. These ranged from O’Connell’s view of owners as whip-wielding monsters (39 lashes for speaking ‘reason’) to W E Gladstone’s, “the ordinary relation of master and slave was one of kindliness and not of hostility”**.
The following single example illustrates the embedded nature of slavery within British society. Compensation claims submitted to the Slavery Compensation Commission for Peter’s Hope estate (97 slaves) in St. Vincent produced nine claimants. These claimants were scattered throughout Britain: a village in Gloucestershire, another village in Scotland, Glasgow, London and Bristol. These claims covered annuities, mortgages, legatees, alleged heirs and judgement creditors***. Slave-ownership was far from unusual in middle and upper-class British society in 1833.
Closer to home political unrest grew with penalties being paid for being either a slave-owner or a supporter. The unreformed electoral system had few competitive constituencies. One such was Yorkshire where the slave-owning Henry Lascelles was defeated by an abolitionist. Ominously anti-slavery campaigners overlapped with those demanding parliamentary reform. In Bristol, a major slaving port, there were political riots demanding parliamentary reform. These rioters appeared to be abolitionists producing a toxic over-lapping here too.
Geopolitical considerations worries began with the successful slave rebellion (1791) in Haiti (St Dominique). In 1803 Napoleon sent 43,000 French troops to regain the island. The French defeat meant the first ex-slave nation was born. Haiti provided the psychological context for the Christmas 1831 Jamaican rebellion. Baptists were, in this instance, religious provocateurs creating the intellectual and religious context for a full-blooded slave rebellion. The insurrection, of 50,000 Jamaican slaves, led Admiral Fleming to assert “it must have been visible to all who would or could see, that it (slavery) was drawing-fast to a close, and that the horrid system would either blow up, as it has done, or end in insurrection****…” Fleming also noted, that his experiences with freed slaves, was entirely heartening and positive, refuting the slave-owners stereotyping of slaves. Fleming’s practical argument asserted that free men worked very much harder than slaves and so it was in the slave-owners’ economic interest to abandon slavery. Bone headed racism and conservative economics meant that such arguments were derided despite being correct.
The British government did suppress the Jamaican insurrection but quickly came to the conclusion that this would be an open-ended commitment. Additionally the high-water mark of the profitable use of slaves had gone. Evidence for this is the very large number of estates mortgaged to ‘Home Country’ financiers. In brief, slavery wasn’t worth either the domestic political price or the strains on, especially, the Royal Navy.
The abolition of slavery in 1833 was not an altruistic act by the British government. It was a pragmatic act recognising the moral odiousness of slavery whilst also ‘squaring the circle’ about the importance of slavery to very many British people. That was the genius of the 1833 Act. The government bailed-out the slave-owners, avoided a costly military campaign in the Caribbean and took the high moral ground.
*This £20 million is subject to lurid inflation calculations which range from £1 billion (http://discoveringbristol.org.uk) to David Olusoga’s £16 billion (Guardian 12th July 2015). These calculations serve little purpose and are ‘tabloid’ headline grabbers.
**W E Gladstone HC Debate 3rd June 1833 c.334
***UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership A superb on-line database
****Admiral Fleming HC Debate 3rd June 1833 c. 326 see also www.abdn.ac.uk North East Story: Scotland, Africa and Slavery in the Caribbean
“They were beings of the same flesh, bone, and muscle as ourselves—they were imbued with the same immortal spirit—they were rendered heirs, by the same blood, to the same glorious eternity as we—and was it to become in these days a question and a doubt whether they were entitled to the first birthright of mankind—freedom? He would put a case: suppose that the hon. member for Lancaster who had so ably and eloquently defended the cause of the West Indians, was taken prisoner on his way out to the West Indies, by a corsair, and sold for a slave, should he remonstrate and say he had primitive as well as rational rights which interdicted his being considered as a slave, he would doubtless be told there was a law in that country making him a slave, and thirty-nine lashes would be his least reward for talking reason to his master.” Mr O’Connell Col. 316 HC Deb 3rd June 1833 Ministerial Plan for the Abolition of Slavery 1833