On This Day in History Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act becomes law in 1833

It has been factually inferred that the centuries long trade in Africans and in the products of the plantation system created the circumstances for Britain’s commercial dominance which has lasted for generations.  It has been estimated that between 2 or 4 million of 15 million Africans who were enslaved had been forcibly taken to the Caribbean.  British ports had thrived in the 16th through 19th centuries, as they provided vast profits for British industry and society, merchants, and some Africans and African states.

Of those who set sail from Africa, more than 2 million or 10% perished en route and another 4 million are estimated to have died during their capture and captivity in Africa before sailing across the Atlantic. The conditions of enslavement also hastened the deaths of Africans who had survived the trip.  Estimates propose that 30% of those who survived the Middle Passage perished within two years of arriving in the new world.

Opposition to the trade in Africans was immediate, almost as soon as the first captive was taken.  Individual Africans resisted their capture, their shackled march to coastal holding cells, being shipped through the Middle Passage and their enslavement a foreign world.  Resistance was common on the ships. A Bristol Ship, the Marlborough set sail in 1752 with 400 Africans, days later 28 men overwhelmed the deck and killed eight of its crew of 35. Incidents such as these occurred with regularity.

Their resistance continued for generations in the form of marronage and daily acts of sabotage and wars of resistance.  Many resistance wars were waged in Jamaica in the 18th and 19th centuries as they struggled to end not only the trade in Africans but the system of slavery itself.

The Campaign

The period spanning 1780 to 1817 is noted as the rise in the intensity of the abolition movement in England.  In 1788, the Privy Council began a comprehensive enquiry of the slave trade which included investigations into the conditions in which the enslaved lived in the colonies. Orlando Patterson’s The Sociology of Slavery[i], noted that the movement to emancipate the enslaved occurred in two phases; the early 1770s through to the abolition of the trade in 1808; and secondly the era between 1808 and total emancipation in 1838.

In the waning years of the 18th century, the Trans-Atlantic trade and system of enslavement was vilified by a combination of legal, religious, economic, moral and spiritual views.  The St. Domingue Revolt of 1791 had manifested the ideas of the movement and delivered a profound blow against the trade and enslavement, in particular with the drafting of the 1805 Haitian Constitution.  The document declared any enslaved person who made their way to Haiti would be declared a citizen.  Haiti had not only abolished slavery on its shores but replaced it with nationhood and a citizenry, a development that affected slave systems in the entire Americas as persons sought to flee to their freedom in Haiti.  From Jamaica, boatloads sailed for Haiti. Despite the ideological victory in Haiti, the TTA continued to the rest of the Caribbean.

Although these developments had taken place, the trade continued to be legally sanctioned in Britain and only an Act of Parliament would terminate it.  The first petitions to the British Parliament began in 1776, when David Hartley’s Bill was rejected in the lower House. The TTA was again debated in 1783 on moral grounds but was voted down because its termination would undermine the British economy.

In 1788, a committee led by Thomas Clarkson was founded, as a two point plan they would first lobby to end the trade and secondly the system of slavery.  However, when the politician William Wilberforce proposed his Bill in 1791, it was outvoted by 163 votes to 88.  In 1804, the Slave Trade Abolition Bill was passed by the lower house but rejected by the upper house.  An Order-in-Council was granted in 1806 to William Pitt, the British Prime Minister that discontinued the importation of slaves to specific Crown Colonies.  These colonies were Berbice, Demerara, Essequibo and Trinidad.

With William Pitt’s death in 1806, Prime Minister, Lord Grenville now helmed an administration that was opposed to the TTA. Pitt’s successor Charles Fox moved for the immediate and wholesale abolition of the trade but despite his resolution, no Bill was passed in that year in 1806.  Not until 25 March 1807 was The Slave Trade Abolition Bill passed in the upper house or House of Lords by 41 votes to 20.  In the lower house, the House of Commons, the Bill was carried by 114 to 15.  The instrument became law in May of 1807 and was in effect by January 1st 1808.

The passage of the Order-in-Council in 1805 and Abolition Act of 1807 did not result in total abolition of the trade as English slavers continued to bypass the law by raising the flags of France, Portugal or Spain, still involved in the trade, on British ships.  As a result, if a ship faced being caught, the captains would seek to reduce their fines by throwing their human cargo overboard.  The Abolition Act of 1807 became effective for ships clearing out of British ports as of 1 May 1807, and for those vessels arriving in the West Indies as of 1 March 1808. Engaging in the slave trade was later made a felony and later, piracy.[ii]

Penalties were issued in 1811 to undermine these illegal sailings and after 1824 the price paid for evading the law was a death sentence.  Barry Higman noted in Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica[iii], the humanitarians believed slavery was ‘created and sustained’ by the slave trade, rather than the reverse. Once the supply of slaves from Africa was cut off, said Wilberforce, ‘they hoped that the amelioration of the state of the slaves in the West Indies would follow as a matter of course’.  Thus, when it became clear that the abolition had not provided this expected change, the humanitarians argued that the planters continued to think that the Act might be evaded and a supply of replacements obtained.

The British Parliament
The British Parliament

Frequent rebellions, struggling economic realities, and intense humanitarian and political lobbying against slavery forced the British Parliament to pass legislation in 1833 that initiated the abolition of slavery itself but it was not until 1838 that full freedom was granted and later still before civil liberties began to become a realities for persons of African descent.


The Activists

In the mid 18th century the Trans-Atlantic Trade came under the glare of its detractors.  In Europe, the anti-slavery movement gathered steam with the partnership of religious groups, politicians, defiant philosophers and intellectuals, industrialists, workers’ and women’s organizations.  The Baptists, Methodists, Moravians, and Quakers spoke publicly against the system of slavery and were important members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  The Society was formed in 1787 by Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, both Anglicans.  The majority of its members were Quakers.

William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce

Adam Smith, an intellectual and the politicians William Wilberforce and William Pitt were critical patrons of the cause.  Thomas Fowell Buxton, George Fox, John Wesley, Joseph Sturge, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Woods, James Phillips, Joseph Hooper, John Barton, Richard Phillips, George Harrison, and Samuel Hoare were also devoted campaigners. Zachary Macaulay, a member of an anti-Trans-Atlantic Trade group, the Clapham Sect, had personal experience of slavery as a book keeper in Jamaica.  While John Wesley moved public opinion with his 1774 writing, Thoughts on Slavery, which was published in opposition to the trade.

The Society founded in 1787 was wholly a male organization, despite their exclusion from leadership women were 10% of the financial benefactors of the Society.  Mary Birkett, Hannah More, and Mary Wollstonecraft and many nameless women of working and middle-class means joined the campaign in its earliest stages.  They spoke publicly, boycotted slave-grown produce and wrote anti-slavery testimony to raise public attention on the inhumanity of enslavement.

Persons of African descent living in Europe were devoted to the cause to restore freedom and dignity to Africans. Several worked side by side with white abolitionists.  Ignatius Sancho, was aged 2 when he sailed to England in 1731; he is believed to be the first African to vote in Britain as a freeman man and shopkeeper.  Sancho was the first prose writer to publish his work in England as a vocal adversary of the profit-making trade in human beings, his prose recorded in the many letters he penned in his lifetime. He died in England in 1780.

Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, a polarizing figure though he was, was also an abolitionist. Kidnapped in today’s Nigeria at age 11 and sold to a Virginia planter, he was later bought by a British naval officer, Captain Pascal.  Eventually resold to a Quaker merchant, he bought his freedom and wrote and published an abolitionist autobiography and bestseller, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African.  He travelled widely across Britain making presentations on the evils of the trade.

Ottabah Cugoano was the first published African critic of the Trans-Atlantic trade. Born in today’s Ghana, he was kidnapped and then enslaved, but later migrated to England from Grenada by 1752 where he was granted his freedom.  Cugoano wrote in his book, In Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, “If any man should buy another man and compel him to his service and slavery without any agreement of that man to serve him, the enslaver is a robber and a defrauder of that man every day.”

It is noted that approximately 15,000 Black persons supported the abolition movement in London.  By the late 1700s letters to newspapers suggested that the Black community were increasingly literate and politically motivated.  Slave testimonies were shared publicly to fuel abolitionist activism and Black activists Robert Mandeville, Thomas Cooper, Jasper Goree and William Green became important contributors to the cause.











Buckley, Roger Norman (1998). The British Army in the West Indies. University Press of Florida: Florida.

Higman, B.W. (1995). Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica 1807-1834. The Press University of the West Indies: Kingston.

Patterson, Orlando (1967). The Sociology of Slavery: An Analysis of the Origins, Development and Structure of Negro Slave Society in Jamaica. Associated University Presses Inc.: Cranbury, New Jersey.

Shepherd, Verene (2007). Freedom Delayed: Britain’s Order-in-Council and Abolition Act, 1805 & 1807. The Jamaica National Bicentenary Committee 2007. Jamaica Information Service, Ian Randle Publishers: Kingston.


[i]  The Sociology of Slavery, page 76.

[ii] The British Army in the West Indies, page 188-189.

[iii]  Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, page 45.