The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73) abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. This Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, expanded the jurisdiction of the Slave Trade Act 1807, making the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire, with the exception "of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company", Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Saint Helena. The Act was repealed in 1998 as a part of wider rationalisation of English statute law; however, later anti-slavery legislation remains in force.


In May 1772, Lord Mansfield's judgement in the Somersett's Case emancipated a slave in England, which helped launch the movement to abolish slavery.[1] The case ruled that slavery was unsupported by law in England and no authority could be exercised on slaves entering English or Scottish soil.[2] In 1785, English poet William Cowper wrote:

We have no slaves at home – Then why abroad?
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free.
They touch our country, and their shackles fall.
That's noble, and bespeaks a nation proud.
And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then,
And let it circulate through every vein.[3]

By 1783, an anti-slavery movement to abolish the slave trade throughout the Empire had begun among the British public. In 1793 Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada John Graves Simcoe signed the Act Against Slavery. Passed by the local Legislative Assembly, it was the first legislation to outlaw the slave trade in a part of the British Empire.[4]

In 1807, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which outlawed the slave trade, but not slavery itself. Abolitionist Henry Brougham realized that trading would continue and as an new MP successfully introduced the Slave Trade Felony Act 1811 which at last made slave trading criminal throughout the empire. The Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa. It did suppress the slave trade, but did not stop it entirely. Between 1808 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.[5] They resettled many in Jamaica and the Bahamas.[6][7] Britain also used its influence to coerce other countries to agree treaties to end their slave trade and allow the Royal Navy to seize their slave ships.[8][9]

illustration from the book: The Black Man's Lament, or, how to make sugar by Amelia Opie. (London, 1826)

In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in London. Members included Joseph Sturge, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton, Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Elizabeth Pease, and Anne Knight.[10] William Wilberforce had prior written in his diary in 1787 that his great purpose in life was to suppress the slave trade before waging a 20-year fight on the industry.[11]

Protector of Slaves Office (Trinidad), Richard Bridgens, 1838.

During the Christmas holiday of 1831, a large-scale slave revolt in Jamaica, known as the Baptist War, broke out. It was organised originally as a peaceful strike by the Baptist minister Samuel Sharpe. The rebellion was suppressed by the militia of the Jamaican plantocracy and the British garrison ten days later in early 1832. Because of the loss of property and life in the 1831 rebellion, the British Parliament held two inquiries. The results of these inquiries contributed greatly to the abolition of slavery with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.[citation needed]

The Act

The Act had its third reading in the House of Commons on 26 July 1833, three days before William Wilberforce died.[12] It received the Royal Assent a month later, on 28 August, and came into force the following year, on 1 August 1834. In practical terms, only slaves below the age of six were freed in the colonies. Former slaves over the age of six were redesignated as "apprentices", and their servitude was abolished in two stages: the first set of apprenticeships came to an end on 1 August 1838, while the final apprenticeships were scheduled to cease on 1 August 1840. The Act specifically excluded "the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company, or to the Island of Ceylon, or to the Island of Saint Helena." The exceptions were eliminated in 1843.[13]

Compensation for slave owners

The Act provided for compensation for slave-owners. The amount of money to be spent on the compensation claims was set at "the Sum of Twenty Million Pounds Sterling".[14] Under the terms of the Act, the British government raised £20 million (£16.5 billion in 2013 pounds, when calculated as wage values)[15] to pay out in compensation for the loss of the slaves as business assets to the registered owners of the freed slaves. In 1833, £20 million amounted to 40% of the Treasury's annual income[16] or approximately 5% of the British GDP[17] (5% of the British GDP in 2016 was around £100 billion).[18] To finance the compensation, the British government had to take on a £15 million loan, finalised on 3 August 1835, with banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild and his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore. The money wasn't paid back until 2015.[19]

Half of the money went to slave-owning families in the Caribbean and Africa, while the other half went to absentee owners living in Britain.[15] The names listed in the returns for slave compensation show that ownership was spread over many hundreds of British families,[20] many of them of high social standing. For example, Henry Phillpotts (then the Bishop of Exeter), with three others (as trustees and executors of the will of John Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley), was paid £12,700 for 665 slaves in the West Indies,[21] whilst Henry Lascelles, 2nd Earl of Harewood received £26,309 for 2,554 slaves on 6 plantations.[22] The majority of men and women who were awarded compensation under the 1833 Abolition Act are listed in a Parliamentary Return, entitled Slavery Abolition Act, which is an account of all moneys awarded by the Commissioners of Slave Compensation in the Parliamentary Papers 1837-8 (215) vol. 48.[23]

Protests against apprenticeships

On 1 August 1834, an unarmed group of mainly elderly people being addressed by the Governor at Government House in Port of Spain, Trinidad, about the new laws, began chanting: "Pas de six ans. Point de six ans" ("Not six years. No six years"), drowning out the voice of the Governor. Peaceful protests continued until a resolution to abolish apprenticeship was passed and de facto freedom was achieved. Full emancipation for all was legally granted ahead of schedule on 1 August 1838.[24]

Exceptions and continuations

As a notable exception to the rest of the British Empire, the Act did not "extend to any of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company, or to the Island of Ceylon, or to the Island of Saint Helena."[13] Slavery was abolished in India by the Indian Slavery Act of 1843.[citation needed]

A successor organisation to the Anti-Slavery Society was formed in London in 1839, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which worked to outlaw slavery worldwide.[25] The world's oldest international human rights organisation, it continues today as Anti-Slavery International.[26]

It is believed that after 1833 clandestine slave-trading continued within the British Empire; in 1854 Nathaniel Isaacs, owner of the island of Matakong off the coast of Sierra Leone was accused of slave-trading by the governor of Sierra Leone, Sir Arthur Kennedy. Papers relating to the charges were lost when the Forerunner was wrecked off Madeira in October 1854. In the absence of the papers, the English courts refused to proceed with the prosecution.[27]

In Australia, blackbirding and the holding of indigenous workers' pay "in trust" continued, in some instances into the 1970s.[28][29]

Modern slavery, both in the form of human trafficking and people imprisoned for forced or compulsory labour, continues to this day.[30]


The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was repealed in its entirety by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1998.[31][32] The repeal has not made slavery legal again, with sections of the Slave Trade Act 1824, Slave Trade Act 1843 and Slave Trade Act 1873 continuing in force. In its place the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates into British Law Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits the holding of persons as slaves.[33][34][35][36]

See also


  1. ^ Peter P. Inks, John R. Michigan, R. Owen Williams (2007) Encyclopedia of antislavery and abolition', p. 643. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007 ' ' Blumrosen, Alfred W. and Ruth G., Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution, Sourcebooks, 2005
  2. ^ (1827) 2 Hag Adm 94.
  3. ^ Rhodes, Nick (2003). William Cowper: Selected Poems. p.84. Routledge, 2003
  4. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 February 2017. Retrieved 5 February 2017. 
  5. ^ http://www.history.ac.uk/1807commemorated/exhibitions/museums/chasing.html
  6. ^ "Chasing Freedom Information Sheet". Royal Naval Museum. Archived from the original on 10 December 2009. Retrieved 2 April 2007. 
  7. ^ "Chasing Freedom Exhibition: the Royal Navy and the Suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade". Archived from the original on 10 December 2009. Retrieved 25 September 2009. 
  8. ^ Falola, Toyin; Warnock, Amanda (2007). Encyclopedia of the middle passage. Greenwood Press. pp. xxi, xxxiii–xxxiv. ISBN 9780313334801. 
  9. ^ "The legal and diplomatic background to the seizure of foreign vessels by the Royal Navy". 
  10. ^ Slavery and abolition. Oxford University Press
  11. ^ William Wilberforce: A Man for All Seasons. CBN
  12. ^ "Slavery Abolition Act 1833; Section XII". 28 August 1833. Retrieved 3 June 2008. 
  13. ^ a b "Slavery Abolition Act 1833; Section LXIV". 28 August 1833. Retrieved 3 June 2008. 
  14. ^ "Slavery Abolition Act 1833; Section XXIV". 28 August 1833. Retrieved 3 June 2008. 
  15. ^ a b Sanchez Manning (24 February 2013). "Britain's colonial shame: Slave-owners given huge payouts after". The Independent. Retrieved 11 February 2018. 
  16. ^ https://www.ukpublicrevenue.co.uk/piechart_1833_UK_total
  17. ^ "UK public spending and GDP in 1833". Retrieved 3 January 2017. 
  18. ^ "UK public spending and GDP in 2016". Retrieved 3 January 2017. 
  19. ^ Kris Manjapra (29 March 2018). "When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity?". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 March 2018. 
  20. ^ British Parliamentary Papers, session 1837–38 (215), vol. 48. The manuscript returns and indexes to the claims are held by The National Archives.
  21. ^ "Rt. Hon. Rev. Henry Phillpotts". UCL, Legacies of British slave-ownership. Retrieved 11 August 2013. 
  22. ^ "Henry Lascelles, 2nd Earl of Harewood". UCL, Legacies of British slave-ownership. Retrieved 11 August 2013. 
  23. ^ UCL – Researching Slave-owners
  24. ^ Dryden, John. 1992 "Pas de Six Ans!" In: Seven Slaves & Slavery: Trinidad 1777–1838, by Anthony de Verteuil, Port of Spain, pp. 371–379.
  25. ^ Sharman, Anne-Marie (1993), ed., Anti-Slavery Reporter vol 13 no 8. P. 35, London: Anti-Slavery International
  26. ^ Anti-Slavery International UNESCO. Retrieved 12 October 2011.
  27. ^ Louis Herrman (December 1974). "Nathaniel Isaacs" (PDF). Natalia. Pietermartizburg: The Natal Society Foundation (4): 19–22. Retrieved 10 August 2010. 
  28. ^ "Stolen Wages Reparation Scheme WA". Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Government of Western Australia. Archived from the original on 17 August 2013. Retrieved 5 September 2014. 
  29. ^ Korff, Jens. "Stolen Wages". Creative Spirits. Creative Spirits. Retrieved 5 September 2014. 
  30. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/13/modern-slavery-uk-traveller-site-lincolnshire-judge-timothy-spencer
  31. ^ "Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1998". 19 November 1998. Retrieved 4 June 2008. 
  32. ^ "Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (repealed 19.11.1998) (c.73)". Retrieved 19 June 2009. 
  33. ^ "Slave Trade Act 1824". 24 June 1824. Retrieved 4 June 2008. 
  34. ^ "Slave Trade Act 1843". 24 August 1843. Retrieved 4 June 2008. 
  35. ^ "Slave Trade Act 1873". 5 August 1873. Retrieved 4 June 2008. 
  36. ^ "Human Rights Act 1998". 11 September 1998. Retrieved 7 September 2010. 

Further reading

  • Drescher, Seymour. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (2009)
  • Hinks, Peter, and John McKivigan, eds. Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition (2 vol. 2006)
  • Huzzey, Richard. Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain. (Cornell University Press, 2012) 303pp.
  • Washington, Jon-Michael. "Ending the Slave Trade and Slavery in the British Empire: An Explanatory Case Study Utilizing Qualitative Methodology and Stratification and Class Theories." (2012 NCUR) (2013). online

External links