In Britain vast fortunes were made through the slave trade, which had begun in Tudor times. From the late 18th century, however a major campaign was underway to end slavery. This was led by Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Heyrick and others. Alongside this, many escapes and uprisings by enslaved people were also taking place.
With so much vested interest, the abolitionists had to be tactical and patient in changing both laws and public opinion. The first major step was the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. This made it illegal to carry enslaved people in British ships.
In 1833, The Slavery Abolition Act granted slaves in the Caribbean their freedom. Slaves elsewhere the British Empire had to wait longer than this. The Act set out how much compensation would be paid to former slave owners by the British government and you can find out more via a project by UCL. This compensation totalled around £17 billion in today’s money.
No apology, nor any compensation was granted to the freed slaves at this time.
The 1833 Act did not end of slavery though. Former slaves in the Caribbean were forced to join the ‘apprenticeship system’ and work for up to six years for very low wages. Those who refused to work as apprentices were imprisoned and punished. Accounts of mistreatment were followed up with an investigation by the Colonial Office, leading to the system’s abolition in 1838.
As early as 1810, there is evidence that the British had foreseen the end of slavery and had been considering how they could continue to profit from the sale of sugar. They looked to India and China to find a workforce to replace the Africans. These people were brought to the Caribbean under a system of indenture which bound them to an employer for a set number of years. While a few did well under this system and were able to set up their own businesses, the majority did not. There were many protests and uprisings, but the system was not abolished until the end of the First World War.
It is not surprising therefore that some questioned the commemorations in 2007, as 1807 had only the first step towards ending slavery. In the run up to 2007, the British government, led by Tony Blair offered the first apology for Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. However no reparations have ever been paid.
At Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies, we marked the 1807 anniversary with a project called Hidden Histories which explored the involvement of Hertfordshire people in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, both as beneficiaries and as activists working to abolish the trade. We also researched the parish registers to discover people of African descent living in Hertfordshire. An exhibition and DVD were created. The project was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
You can find links to other material about how Hertfordshire people campaigned for the abolition of slavery here.