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Why was Slavery finally abolished in the British Empire?

Ending of Slavery

In July 1833, a Bill to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire passed in the House of Commons, followed by the House of Lords on 1st August. There has been a lot of debate over the factors that contributed to the final success of the bill:

  • A change in economic interests.  After 1776, when America became independent, Britain's sugar colonies, such as Jamaica and Barbados, declined as America could trade directly with the French and Dutch in the West Indies. Furthermore, as the industrial revolution took hold in the 18th century, Britain no longer needed slave-based goods. The country was more able to prosper from new systems which required high efficiency, through free trade and free labour. Cotton, rather than sugar, became the main produce of the British economy and English towns, such as Manchester and Salford, became industrial centres of world importance. 
  • Resistance by enslaved people. Enslaved people had resisted the trade since it began. However, the French Revolution brought ideas of liberty and equality, which inspired those seeking an end to slavery (for example, Toussaint L'Ouverture who led a successful slave revolt in Haiti). Major slave revolts followed (Barbados 1816, Demerara 1822 and Jamaica 1831-1832); they reduced profitability and gave a strong indication that, regardless of politicial opinion, the enslaved people were not going to tolerate enslavement. The revolts shocked the British government and made them see that the costs and dangers of keeping slavery in the West Indies were too high. In places like Jamaica, many terrified plantation owners were finally ready to accept abolition rather than risk a widespread war.
  • Parliamentary reform. When parliament was finally reformed in 1832, two-thirds of those who supported slavery were swept from power. The once powerful West India Lobby had lost its political strength.
  • Abolition campaigns and religious groups. The demand for freedom for enslaved people had become almost universal. It was now driven forward, not only by the formal abolition campaign but by a coalition of non-conformist churches as well as Evangelicals in the Church of England.

The act, however, did not free enslaved people immediately; they were to become "apprentices" for 6 years. Compensation of 20 million was to be paid to the planters. Protests finally forced the government to abolish the apprenticeship system on 1st August, 1838. 

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