Slavery Abolition Act 1833

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 ended slavery within the British Empire — well, most of the empire — a few decades before the American Civil War ended slavery there. It was expensive, but not as expensive as a civil war:

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.

The Act provided for compensation for slave-owners who would be losing their property. The amount of money to be spent on the compensation claims was set at “the Sum of Twenty Millions Pounds Sterling”. Under the terms of the Act, the British government raised £20 million (£69.93 billion in 2013 pounds) to pay out in compensation for the loss of the slaves as business assets to the registered owners of the freed slaves. The names listed in the returns for slave compensation show that ownership was spread over many hundreds of British families, 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, whilst Henry Lascelles, 2nd Earl of Harewood received £26,309 for 2,554 slaves on 6 plantations. 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 Vol. 48.

In all, the government paid out over 2 separate awards. The £20 million fund was 40% of the government’s total annual expenditure. In the Cape Colony, where farmers had loans estimated at a total £400,000 (£1.4 billion in 2013 pounds)[14] secured against their slaves, the Dutch-language newspaper De Zuid-Afrikaan first campaigned against abolition and then for a compensation package to enable farmers to pay their debts.

(Hat tip to Scott Alexander.)


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    Speaking of slavery, people should read James LaFond’s recently released book Stillbirth of a Nation and the companion volume America in Chains.

    I didn’t even know that “black slaves would be sought directly from Africa, so that their lack of English language ability—and ability to understand one another’s tribal languages—might prevent their conspiring with each other and white slaves to turn on their mutual oppressors” to prevent things like the Powhatan uprising in Virginia where “White runaways banded together with Indians to wipe out the plantations in 1622-23, coming close to success. The war that crowns this period, Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, in which White renegades, White slaves, and black slaves, allied against colonial officials, the plantation owners, Indian tribes and even pirates, in a knock down drag out fight which resulted in the burning of Jamestown, also came close to victory for the rebels.” to quote James LaFond, who explains further “For the first 100 years the plantations were staffed almost exclusively by English children, Scottish kidnapping victims, along with Irish of all ages rounded up in a massive slave-catching initiative that removed five out of every six Irish persons from their homeland.”

    And his series of blog posts on this topic can be found here.

  2. Elkanahaon says:

    “Irish of all ages rounded up in a massive slave-catching initiative that removed five out of every six Irish persons from their homeland”

    Does that sound remotely plausible to you?

  3. Isegoria says:

    I can imagine certain regions or certain clans losing five out of six members, but not the whole island. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

    Following the Irish uprising in 1641 and subsequent Cromwellian invasion, the English Parliament passed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652 which classified the Irish population into one of several categories according to their degree of involvement in the uprising and subsequent war. Those who had participated in the uprising or assisted the rebels in any way were sentenced to be hanged and to have their property confiscated. Other categories were sentenced to banishment with whole or partial confiscation of their estates. While the majority of the resettlement took place within Ireland to the province of Connaught, perhaps as many as 50,000 were transported to the colonies in the West Indies and in North America.[21]

    During the early colonial period, the Scots and the English, along with other western European nations, dealt with their “Gypsy problem” by transporting them as slaves in large numbers to North America and the Caribbean. Cromwell shipped Romanichal Gypsies as slaves to the southern plantations and there is documentation of Gypsies being owned by former black slaves in Jamaica.[22]

  4. Trading says:

    What would you say about this document if you were a British abolitionist working for the total abolition of slavery?

  5. Slovenian Guest says:

    “In 1641, one of the periodic wars in which the Irish tried to overthrow the English misrule in their land took place. As always, this rebellion eventually failed. As a result, in the 12 years following the revolt, known as the Confederation War, the Irish population fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000. Over 550,000 Irishmen were killed, and 300,000 were sold as slaves. The women and children who were left homeless and destitute had to be dealt with, so they were rounded up and sold, too.

    But even though it did not seem that things could get worse, with the advent of Oliver Cromwell, they did. In the 1650’s, thousands more Irish were killed, and many more were sold into slavery. Over 100,000 Irish Catholic children were taken from their parents and sold as slaves, many to Virginia and New England. Unbelievably but truly, from 1651 to 1660 there were more Irish slaves in America than the entire non-slave population of the colonies!”

    And fun fact: “The cheapest slaves were Irish, as they had no government to protect them and were under foreign rule and English courts did not charge fees to authorize their shipment, such as in Scotland.”

    But I’ll ask on the five out of six specifically.

  6. Those numbers seem to be at the extreme upper end of the historically accepted figures, to the best my admittedly cursory research can turn up, with the exception of the “300,000 sold as slaves” which seems almost an order of magnitude higher than I’ve been able to find anywhere else.

    I find myself waffling on whether there’s an equivocation going on here between indentured servitude and chattel slavery. Indentured servitude was no picnic, certainly, and on average chattel slavery was less brutal than many seem to imagine, but I’m still not sure I’m comfortable with saying the Irish in colonial North America were “slaves” in the full sense of the term.

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