28 August 1833: Slavery Abolition Act enacted

Samuel Sharpe on Jamaican $50 bill © Getty images
Samuel Sharpe on Jamaica’s $50 bill

From the late 16th century a ‘triangular trade’ developed between Europe, Africa and North America. British goods were shipped to Africa, slaves were shipped to the new world, and cash crops such as sugar and tobacco returned to Britain.

The 1772 Somerset case established that slavery was not supported by English law, effectively freeing all slaves in England, but it remained legal in the colonies. In 1807, William Wilberforce and his allies persuaded parliament to outlaw the trade. However, slavery itself remained legal in the British Empire.

In 1831, a Jamaican slave and Baptist preacher, Samuel Sharpe, inspired a major slave revolt. Sharpe was executed, but parliamentary enquiries focused attention on the brutality of the slave owners and the ongoing threat of revolt. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, receiving royal assent on 28 August.

It banned slavery in the Empire, except for India and St Helena (it was fully abolished in 1843). However, £20m (nearly £17bn in today’s money) was provided to compensate slave owners – 40% of the Treasury budget for a year. It’s been described as the largest ‘bailout’ in British history, prior to the 2008 bank bailouts.

Some of Britain’s wealthiest families gained huge pay-outs. John Gladstone (father of William) got £83m in today’s money, while ancestors of George Orwell and David Cameron were also compensated.

The funds were reinvested in Britain’s booming industries, financing the early railways. The cost of paying for the compensation came from consumption taxes, whose burden fell disproportionately on the poor. Ex-slaves, of course, got nothing.

Also on this day

28 August 1837: Lea & Perrins begin making Worcestershire sauce

On this day in 1837, Lea & Perrins started to manufacture its famous Worcestershire sauce for sale the following year. Read more here.

  • marylyn ford

    No change there then, fat cat villains get fatter, innocent tax payers pay and the victims get nothing.
    Time to abolish politicians and have voting on the telly.

  • ArthurPendragon

    One element not included prior to the railways was the growth of trade caused by canals between 1790 and 1840. Wealth is generally created by cutting overheads and transportation costs of production.

    As for slavery white slavery did not end within the British Empire until 1970’s in Australia. Even in late Victorian times families dependant on charity were broken up and dispersed around the colonies. Wives stopped being chattels in 1850’s.
    Some immigration employment practices today come close to serfdom if not slavery.