On 1 August 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act passed by Parliament the previous year came into effect, abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire, with the exceptions of the East India Company’s territories and the islands of Ceylon and Saint Helena.
The slavery abolition movement really got started in England in 1772, when Lord Mansfield, sitting in judgment in the Somersett’s Case, declared that slavery was unsupported by existing law in England and Wales. His ruling did not, however, cover the rest of the empire. In 1808, Parliament abolished the slave trade in the empire (though still not slavery itself) and the Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron to patrol the coast of West Africa and suppress the Atlantic Slave Trade.
With the trade abolished but the practice still tolerated outside Great Britain, the Anti-Slavery Society was established in 1823 and consisted of such well-known lawmakers and abolitionists as William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, and Anne Knight. As the name suggests, the Society pushed for abolition and, eventually, got what it wanted.
The Slavery Abolition Act, which received royal assent on 28 August 1833 and went into effect the following year, immediately freed all slaves under the age of six. Older slaves were redesignated as “apprentices”; the first set of apprenticeships ended 1 August 1838 and the second was set to cease on 1 August 1840, though in reality full emancipation was granted to all in 1838. Slaveowners who would be losing their property would be compensated through a 20 million pound fund allocated by the Act. Forty thousand separate awards were paid out.
The exceptions for the East India Company territories, Ceylon, and Saint Helena were repealed in 1843, and the law in its entirety was repealed under the Statute Law (Repeals) act 1998. Slavery and the slave trade remains illegal throughout Britain and its territories under later Slave Trade Acts which remain in force, as well as the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, prohibiting the holding of persons as slaves.
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