Emancipation Act 1 August 1834
An act was passed to abolish the slave trade in 1807. This meant that trading slaves was illegal but it did not immediately end slavery as an institution in the British Colonies.
Anti-slavery organisations and slaves, themselves, continued the struggle to achieve complete freedom for those enslaved on plantations. Only after a further 27 years in which there were many slave rebellions and tireless campaigning from abolitionists was the emancipation act passed. This freed all slaves in the British Colonies.
Even then, freedom for slaves in the British Colonies was not immediate. To placate plantation owners, slaves, other than those under 6, would have to work full time without pay for 6 years for their former owners as apprentices before they would finally be free – in effect a continuation of slavery. The apprenticeship period failed and in the British Caribbean full emancipation was granted to slaves in July 1838.
Elizabeth Heyrick, female abolitionist, wrote,
‘let compensation first be made to the slave’.
As freedom for slaves became inevitable, the pro-slavery lobby switched tactics to request compensation for the human ‘property’ that was to be taken from Plantation owners.
Daniel O’Connell was opposed to compensation for the planters. He asked why should they be compensated for something parliament had declared illegal and wrong?
Parliament paid plantation owners £20 million in compensation for slaves which was one quarter of the national budget at the time. Slaves received no compensation and once emancipation was granted they were given no extra resources.
Amongst those slave owners from Ireland who received compensation was a Newry-born man who received £83,530-8s-11d for his 1,598 slaves. He claimed for more slaves and received more money than any other slave holder in the British Empire.
Ref: Rodgers, Nini (2007) Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612–1865. Palgrave Macmillan. P94.
Conditions for Slaves Post Emancipation
In the Caribbean material conditions were no better after slavery than during it. Slaves who arrived with nothing were left with nothing. Plantation owners charged for food and housing that had once been free. Shops were set up on estates that more than recouped any wages the slaves were paid, forcing them into debt. The government imposed taxes on ex-slaves. Free blacks found themselves increasingly unemployed and marginalised in post-slavery Caribbean society.
The end of slavery did not bring about equality for free blacks in British colonies. As emancipated Africans faced competition for jobs from increased mechanisation as well as the influx of indentured labourers so they became more marginalised in society.
Ex-slaves were exposed to, and alienated by, colonials and their attitudes of superiority without what little protection plantation society had afforded them. Outrage grew in the face of harsh labour laws that bore close similarities to the conditions that prevailed at the time of slavery. This resulted in people migrating out of the Caribbean to seek to try to make a life in other countries. Those who stayed were obliged to work in subservient roles as a means to survive.
Inequality, racism and the introduction of the system of indenture, led again to a number of revolts, particularly in those islands where slave uprisings had previously been strongest: Jamaica, Barbados and Demerara.
This racial inequality became a legacy of slavery and fuelled the wider Civil Rights agendas in Britain, the Caribbean and the North America.
Some plantation owners in areas such as Demerara, employed labourers from Caribbean islands such as Barbados, St. Kitts, Antigua, Montserrat and Nevis where there was either no apprenticeship system or already a fairly large free African population by 1834. Demerara even began contracting free Africans from Sierra Leone back to work on the plantations. This raised the concern, to those involved with the policing of the abolition of the trade and the institution of slavery, of the possibility of indentured labour being used to replace slavery in all but name.
Hundreds of thousands of penniless indentured labourers were imported to the Caribbean, to effectively subsidise the plantation owners. Groups included people from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine fleeing oppression from Turkey. But the largest numbers of indentured labourers were from India. Between 1845 and 1917 over a half a million Indians were taken to the Caribbean, particularly to British Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Indentured labourers were free to return to their homelands after five years, although few did. Those who were successful could return home with an average of two years wages in savings, but others returned with nothing. Many labourers who were successful opted to stay in the Caribbean after the five years of indenture, and developed their previous trades especially fishing, metalworking, merchandising and finance, and became an integral part of Caribbean society. In most cases, however, the economic success of plantation society did not benefit those who laboured on the land. Low wages and prejudicial attitudes excluded these communities from the more economically profitable occupations.
Women abolitionists convince male abolitionists to fight for immediate emancipation
There was a split in the anti-slavery movement between those who wanted immediate emancipation for slaves and those who favoured gradual abolition.
The Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions was formed in London 1823 to campaign for emancipation of slaves. It was led by Thomas Buxton. Women could join as members but not as leaders. The male leadership of the movement and the official policy favoured the strategy of gradual emancipation. Women activists came into conflict with the male leadership as they wanted immediate emancipation of all enslaved people in the British Colonies. Women formed their own anti slavery societies, though they contributed funding to the male society.
Elizabeth Heyrick, in 1824, published a pamphlet called ‘Immediate not Gradual Abolition’ which the male leadership tried to suppress. Elizabeth Heyrick as treasurer of the Female Anti Slavery society for Birmingham threatened to withdraw funding contributions to the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition throughout the British Dominions unless the male leadership changed their aims from gradual to immediate abolition.
In 1830 the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery agreed to drop the words ‘gradual abolition’ from its title and to support the Female Society’s plan for a new campaign to bring about immediate abolition.
Ireland and Slave Emancipation
In 1837 members of the Hibernian Anti Slavery Society, Richard Allen, Richard Davis Webb and James Haughton, travelled to London to present a petition of 75,000 Irish female signatures, pressing parliament for the abolition of apprenticeship.
Daniel O’ Connell supported the immediate emancipation of slaves.
O’Connell was part of a parliamentary committee set up to investigate conditions of slaves living under apprenticeship in Jamaica. This reported on flogging of women on the treadmill which brought apprenticeship to an end two years before its set date.
Ref: Rodgers, Nini (2007) Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612–1865. Palgrave Macmillan. P270.