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Emancipation


Campaigning for Freedom

With the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by the British Parliament in 1807, the attention of campaigners against the slave trade switched to slavery itself. For although the slave trade had been banned, nothing had been done to free the existing enslaved workforce in the British empire. In 1823 religious groups, politicians and supporters from around the country came together to form the Anti-Slavery Society.

Women's Anti-Slavery Associations

During the 1820s and early 1830s, a strong network of women's anti-slavery associations developed. The Birmingham Society played a particularly active role in helping to promote and establish local groups in many parts of Britain. Influenced by the Birmingham Society, over 73 women's associations were founded between 1825 and 1833, which supplied a constant stream of information to rouse public opinion against slavery.

 

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Birmingham's
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In the anti-slavery movement, women found a basis from which they could pursue their own liberation. They were able to use the terminology of the anti-slavery campaign as a way to articulate some of the inequalities they suffered; and the anti-slavery campaign in many ways set the scene for the women's rights movement.

One way in which enslaved Black women in Britain fought against their status was by running away. One such woman was Mary Prince, a Bermudan who escaped from her owners shortly after her arrival in London in 1828. Although very particular about the enslaved women it chose to support, the Abolition Society was instrumental in the writing and publishing of Prince's narrative The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself.

This text, which was one of many used by the abolitionists to further their campaign, was in fact the first slave narrative by a woman from the British Caribbean. The preface to it states that the 'idea of writing Mary Prince's history was first suggested by herself. She wished it to be done, she said, that good people in England might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered.'

Poignantly, Mary Prince describes her purpose in making her experiences public, despite the painfulness of recalling and articulating her suffering:

Oh the horrors of slavery! - How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave - I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free.

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The Road to Emancipation

By 1824 there were more than 200 branches of the Anti-Slavery Society in Britain - an indicator of increasing support for the fight against slavery. The campaign was one of many taking place, for this was a period of great economic and social change both in Britain and in the British colonies. It was increasingly evident that the plantation system in the British Caribbean was in need of reform and transformation. Factory owners in England were being forced to consider the rights and needs of workers; and with shifts in international borders and trade, British planters were facing new forms of competition in a changing world market. Moreover, deprived of their cargoes of enslaved men and women, British ships now crossed the Atlantic fully laden - with raw materials such as cotton and sugar - on the return journey only. Thus, the abolition of slavery in Britain was waged in a society already in a state of economic, political and social flux. As C. L. R. James was to later argue, the abolition of slavery was to be an integral part of the development of modern British society.

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Rebellion and Retaliation

While William Wilberforce, Lord Brougham and others pushed the debate forward in Parliament, enslaved people in the Caribbean continued to fight individually, as well as collectively, against slavery. As the reporting of the campaign gained momentum in the press - both in Britain and throughout the British Caribbean - rebellions and resistance increased. For example, in 1823 in Demerara, in British Guiana, over 13,000 slaves joined a rebellion because they felt that the local plantation owners had refused to obey British orders to free them.

Planters in the Caribbean and their supporters and pro-slavery representatives in the British Parliament continued to argue for slavery. From time to time this opposition erupted into violence, and in some cases missionaries in the West Indies who were in favour of emancipation found their churches burned by aggrieved planters.

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Emancipation Achieved

In the 1830s, a number of Acts were passed that fundamentally changed British society and the lives of millions of people living in British colonies. The Reform Act of 1832 brought an end to the old system whereby most MPs were allowed to buy their seats in Parliament. The new Parliament of 1833 included men (women were not as yet allowed to become MPs) who were connected with the new textile industries based in Britain. In August 1833, the Slave Emancipation Act was passed, giving all slaves in the British empire their freedom, albeit after a set period of years. Plantation owners received compensation for the 'loss of their slaves' in the form of a government grant set at £20,000,000. In contrast, enslaved people received no compensation and continued to face much hardship. They remained landless, and the wages offered on the plantations after emancipation were extremely low.

The 1833 Act did not come into force until 1 August 1834. The first step was the freeing of all children under six. However, although the many thousands of enslaved people in the British West Indies were no longer legally slaves after 1 August 1834, they were still made to work as unpaid apprentices for their former masters. These masters continued to ill-treat and exploit them. Enslaved people in the British Caribbean finally gained their freedom at midnight on 31 July 1838.

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Planters' Insatiable
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References and Further Reading

Clarkson, T., History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament, London, 1808

Gratus, J., The Great White Lie: Slavery, Emancipation and Changing Racial Attitudes, London, 1973

Edwards, P. and Rewt, P., The Letters of Ignatius Sancho, Edinburgh,1994

Midgley, C., Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870, London and New York, 1992

Myers, N., Reconstructing the Black Past, London, 1996

Prince, Mary, The History of Mary Prince. A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself , Michigan,1993

Walvin, J., An African's Life: The Life and times of Olaudah Equiano 1745-1797, London, 1998

Williams, E., Capitalism and Slavery, 1994

Wilson, E. G., Thomas Clarkson: A Biography, London, 1989

For the text of Mary Prince's The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself, see:
http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/prince/prince.html

For more about the Reform Act of 1832, see:
http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/getting_vote.htm


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