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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

Emancipation

An opening from the bill listing provisionsGreat Britain. Parliament. A bill for the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies, for promoting the industry of the manumitted slaves, and for compensating the owners of such slaves. [London: HMSO, 1833] [FCO Historical Collection]The rising tide of domestic public opinion in favour of emancipation, the Jamaican slave revolt of 1831, the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill by Grey’s Whig government and the subsequent general election, which substantially altered the political make-up of Parliament – all these factors combined to bring about in 1833 the passing of the bill that would abolish slavery throughout the British Empire.

Agreeing the terms of the bill was not easy. Mindful of the precedent of Haiti, where emancipation had led to bloodshed and economic disaster, the government wished to find a way of giving the slaves freedom, while at the same time avoiding confrontation with the planters and ensuring that the sugar plantations were sufficiently provided with labour to continue effective production.

Four different plans were proposed and debated by Parliament. In the end that formulated by Edward Stanley (1792-1862), secretary of state for the colonies and future Conservative prime minister (as Lord Derby), was adopted, with some modifications, and the Colonial Office official James Stephen the younger was given the formidable task of drafting the final bill in 48 hours.

The bill had three main provisions. First, all slave children under the age of six would be freed immediately and unconditionally. Second, all other slaves could be required to serve a period of ‘apprenticeship’ of between four and six years before gaining their freedom outright; during this time they had to work without pay for their former owners for three quarters of the working week.

They would be paid for the remaining quarter and, if they amassed sufficient savings, could buy their freedom at any time before the end of the apprenticeship term. Third, the British government would pay a total of £20 million in compensation to the West Indian planters.

The bill was passed and on 1 August 1834 slavery was officially abolished in the British West Indian colonies.

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