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The West Indian colonies and emancipation

By 1815 Britain controlled many of the key West Indian islands which had grown rich in the 18th century through the sale of sugar harvested and processed by the large number of enslaved Africans working on the plantations.

Many people in Britain became concerned with the human suffering which lay behind the production of this luxury good, and from the 1790s Parliament spent a great deal of time responding to the campaign to abolish the slave trade and, eventually, slavery itself.

West India men and abolitionists

In the 1780s the interests of those involved in and supporting the West India trade was represented in Parliament by a group of  MPs such as Edward Hyde East and Robert Sewell.

Against this was an abolitionist group led by William Wilberforce, who was able to harness public opinion to his cause through petitions and agitation.

In 1788 Parliament passed an Act regulating the number of enslaved Africans that could be transported on ships. In 1792 it  agreed to Wilberforce's motion for the abolition of the trade, but it was not until 25 March 1807 that the Bill  abolishing the British slave trade itself received Royal Assent.

Anti-Slavery Society

In 1823 abolitionists formed the Society for the Migration and Gradual Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions to call for the emancipation of all those enslaved in the colonies. Among the Society's members were Wilberforce and the MP Thomas Fowell Buxton.

The Society worked to ensure that abolitionist candidates were elected in the general election of 1832, and the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by Parliament the following year.

This created a fund of £20 million raised by the Rothschilds to compensate the planters and established an apprenticeship system, whereby those formerly enslaved would still be bound to work for their former masters for a number of years.


On 1 August 1834, 750,000 slaves in the British West Indies formally became free. The apprenticeship system was unpopular among former slaves and their masters, and it was not implemented in in Trinidad: Antigua and Bermuda freed their slaves immediately.

Under pressure from Westminster, the legislative assemblies in the colonies abolished the apprenticeship system and full freedom was granted to all former slaves on 1 August 1838.

Did you know?

Did you know?

One of the key elements in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade were the writings of members of the black community such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiographical 'Interesting Narrative' became famous.