King's College London
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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

The abolitionists

Title page of pamphlet showing motif of the kneeling slaveTitle page of Joseph Ivimey's The utter extinction of slavery an object of scriptural prophecy. London: sold by G Wightman ... [et al], 1832 [FCO Historical Collection HT1165 BRO]After the American War of Independence the British government had been careful to give local colonial legislatures near-complete autonomy in domestic matters and this policy contributed largely to the long interval that ensued between the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and the eventual abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833.

The colonial legislatures, dominated by the planter interest, were generally opposed to emancipation and London was unwilling to exercise its right to legislate for the Empire. Instead the British government pursued in the 1820s a policy of amelioration, urging the West Indian legislatures to bring in measures to improve the lot of the slave population – providing religious instruction, stopping Sunday labour, prohibiting flogging and permitting and legalising marriages between slaves.

The newer Caribbean colonies, such as Trinidad and St Lucia, had no local legislatures; they were Crown colonies ruled directly from London and Britain was thus able to introduce these ameliorative measures there with some success. In the older colonies it was another matter; the local assemblies were deeply resentful of interference by a remote imperial power which they felt had no understanding of their situation. They delayed the passing of local amelioration acts for as long as possible and, even when such acts were passed, took no great pains to ensure their enforcement.

By 1830 it was clear to the abolitionists in Britain that only direct legislation by the London government would secure emancipation in the colonies, and they renewed their campaign with increased vigour. The Anti-Slavery Society set up an Agency Committee, staffed by its younger, more radical recruits, to generate public interest in the cause, and within a year the number of affiliated abolitionist societies had risen from 200 to 1,300.

In Britain, as in the Caribbean, the voice of the nonconformist movement was one of the loudest to demand emancipation, but it was joined, in this turbulent period of political reform, by the newly emancipated Catholics (the Roman Catholic Relief Act had been passed in 1829) and by many more individuals and societies up and down the country. Dozens of pamphlets calling for emancipation were published, many of them deploying religious arguments to support their cause.

The pamphlet on display contains the text of a lecture delivered by one of the Anti-Slavery Society’s itinerant speakers, Joseph Ivimey, to the Chelmsford Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association. The motif of the kneeling slave, with the words ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ underneath, had been the emblem of the abolitionist movement since the 1780s.

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