The Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire
Abolished in 1833
Victoria became Queen in 1837 at a time when the slaves of the British were being given their freedom. In 1833 Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act which gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. The British government paid compensation to the slave owners. The amount that the plantation owners received depended on the number of slaves that they had. The process of freeing the 768,000 slaves in the British Empire lasted for four years until 1 August 1838. Abolition of slavery marked a new phase in the history of the empire and marked the end of an empire, based on slaves and located in the Americas. The empire of Victoria’s reign was based in the eastern hemisphere and had a moral element to it. For the rest of Victoria’s reign, the British believed their empire was a force for good in that the purpose of empire was to bring civilisation to its colonies. It was the abolition of slavery that enabled the British to claim that their empire unlike all others past and present had a moral dimension. Abolishing slavery and also the slave trade was a source of pride for the British and led to a sense of cultural superiority.
The Abolition Campaign
The Abolition of Slavery had come as a result of a campaign that had begun in the 1770s and was supported by all classes but had been led by evangelicals who saw such a campaign as offering them salvation through the saving of others. The campaign was led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson and focused on the humanitarian aspects of the slave trade and the terrible conditions in which the slaves were transported across the Atlantic. The campaigners believed that once freed the slaves could lead useful and prosperous lives. Wilberforce and Clarkson joined the sponsors of an experimental colony – that of Sierra Leone founded in 1787- which was founded to introduce freed slaves to civilisation. The experiment was deemed a success for in 1808 it became a crown colony. The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was the campaign’s first success but Parliament had passed the act not only for humanitarian concerns but because by 1807 the Atlantic economy was no longer a vital national interest for Britain. Only 150 ships out of 1000 were in 1804 involved in the slave trade and the West Indies’ economy was experiencing a recession due to wartime losses, bad weather, rising slave prices and declining profits and increased indebtedness.
The campaign to abolish the slave trade coincided with the development of the missionary movement. There had been a debate amongst non-conformists throughout the c18th about whether ‘uncivilised’ natives could be converted. By the 1770s it was accepted that it was not necessary for native peoples to become’ civilised’ and this led to the establishment of many organisations devoted to converting native peoples. The first society was the English Baptist Missionary Society established in 1792 followed by the London Missionary Society in 1795, the Scottish Missionary Society, 1796 and the Church Missionary Society in 1799. The men were earnest and stressed the need for individual salvation through personal redemption. They believed the bible to be a system of truth and saw their task to preach the word of God through the bible. The motives for establishing these organisations was the arousal of interest in the world as a result of Cook’s voyages and the expansion of the British Empire in India and southern Africa in the late c18th and early c19th and the decline of French missionary groups. The missionaries were pioneers, in that they were often the first in an unexplored area but they were not the agents of government although it could be argues they were agents of imperialism. They were not politically minded although there were times when the missionary societies sought to influence government decisions which affected the lives of those they were seeking to protect.
In 1890 various missionary groups campaigned against Cecil Rhodes being granted a charter to administer the land of the Matabele and the Shona because they had no faith in Rhodes being able to provide good government. Missionaries though did believe that they could generate whole races. They regarded themselves as civilisers as well as preachers and where they lived established schools, taught crafts as well as use their medical training.
The Influence of the Evangelicals
The Anti-Slavery Society was established in 1823 and campaigned on the need to redress wrongs and played on a sense of guilt. They regarded slavery as a sin and abolition as a Christian question. The campaign used petitions, marches, letters and pamphlets to convince parliament of their case. To persuade Parliament was more difficult than it had been in 1807 for plantation owners fought against abolition but eventually the presence of Radical MPs in Parliament and the success of the campaign led to abolition in 1833. The evangelicals who led the campaign to abolish slavery and founded the various missionary societies were by the 1830s a power in the land – they dominated the established Church, Parliament and their passion for reform led to changes in child labour, prisons and criminal punishment. The influence of the evangelicals led to the idea that Britain use its power to guard the welfare of backward peoples, protect them from exploitation and guide them in a Christian way. Lord Russell, in Greys 1830 government and then himself Prime Minister in 1846 defined the imperial purpose towards native people as to ‘encourage religious instruction, let them partake of the blessings of Christianity, preserve order and internal peace, induce the African race to feel that wherever the British flag flies they have a friend and protector, check oppression and watch over the impartial administration of the law’.
Lord Glenelg worked to pevent the Exploitation of Native people
In the Colonial Office, then a department of the War Office, Lord Glenelg a man of real intellect although rather dilatory and indecisive, worked to prevent the exploitation of native people. He ordered the abandonment of Queen Adelaide province in South Africa to prevent its exploitation by settlers and ordered that aboriginal rights in Australia be fully acknowledged. He ordered that inquests be held whenever any aborigine was killed. It was Glenelg’s influence that led to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 whereby the Maori of New Zealand were given rights to their land.
Glenelg’s under-secretary in the Colonial Office was James Stephen who was an evangelical and was hugely influential in making the Colonial Office responsible for the treatment of native peoples. Even after the 1840s when humanitarian concern for native peoples lessened, the influence of Stephen remained and many administrators appointed by the Colonial Office ruled over their territories in the spirit of Stephen.
In parliament in the 1830s the Select Committee on Aborigines chaired by Foxell Buxton produced a report which asserted that it was an imperial duty to safeguard native rights and it proposed that a share of colonial revenues be set aside for native education and religious instruction. It concluded that Britain’s main concern should be to carry civilisation and humanity, peace and good government to the ends of the earth. It also made the point that civilised people desire the benefits of trade.
Abolition was a factor in the British beginning to feel superior
The Abolition of Slavery came at a time when Britain was rapidly industrialising and building the firs factories in the world. The radical acts of the 1830s on slavery, child labour, crime and punishment, and education led to a certain smugness by the British who believed that they were a superior nation chosen by God to help others to improve. Attitudes to native peoples changed as the British abroad believed it was their duty now to bring western values and civilisation to their colonies. In the c18th there was little racism towards native peoples. There was a belief in the homogeneity of mankind yet as a result of evangelicalism and industrialization, and Britain having economic and military dominance of the world, attitudes to other peoples changed, giving way to arrogance and censoriousness.
The British believed the British Empire was different from past and existing empires in that there was a concern shown for native peoples that had not previously existed amongst powers. This moral feature of imperialism remained for the rest of the century although in reality concern for native peoples was never what it was claimed. Settlers rarely had the same level of concern for native people as had the Colonial Office, and given the difficulty in maintaining control of far away colonies, exploitation of native peoples usually went unpunished. This moral dimension was to become a feature of the British Empire and in the late c19th.