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The Last Shackle of Empire, Episode 40 - 10/02/06


Slaves in transit (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Slaves in transit
(Getty Images)
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In 1807 Britain published the Slave Trade Act. This did not ban slavery in the Empire. It simply stopped the British transatlantic trade. Figures are not entirely reliable, so a conservative estimate would be that British merchants sent more than 330,000 slaves to the New World.

Banning slavery had an economic consequence rather than moral implication for plantation owners. The Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions recognized their aims had to be pragmatic. The Society's literature declared moderately, "Slaves should be allowed to marry. Slaves will be allowed to own property. A slave's word must be accepted as evidence in court. Bible study will be encouraged. Working on Sundays will end."

As a by no means unusual example of the callousness towards slaves, further study of the so-called Zong Affair is recommended. Briefly, the Liverpool-owned slave ship, Zong, sailed from Africa bound for Jamaica. The skipper Luke Collingwood had taken on too many slaves for the size of vessel. Sixty had died during the crossing and Collingwood threw any weak slaves overboard. Slaves were considered cargo so London insurers allowed that if a slave went over the side alive, then the Liverpool ship-owners could claim. If a slave died on board, then the insurers wouldn't pay because that was bad cargo management. Collingwood and his crew threw 133 ill-looking slaves into the sea. The owners cited lack of water as the need to dump their human cargo. The insurers said that was bad management and challenged the claim in the courts and won.

It was not until the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act that legislation banned slavery in all British colonies.

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Historical Figure

Granville Sharp (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Granville Sharp
(Getty Images)
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Granville Sharp 1735-1813

Granville Sharp was a Durham youth apprenticed to a London draper whose sense of revolution was awoken by the American cause for independence in 1776. He became an anti-slavery activist and it was largely his efforts to defend the freedom of a slave in Britain, James Somersett, that led to the famous judgment from Lord Chief Justice Mansfield that effectively declared slavery in England illegal. Through Sharp's association with other anti-slavers including Clarkson and Wilberforce, that Sierra Leone was established as a refuge for freed slaves.

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Did You Know...

The British government had to compensate West Indies planters for losing their cheap labour. They were given £20 million (more than £1 billion in today's money). To help raise some of the money freedom medals were struck and the profits went towards underwriting the compensation claims. The British felt good about banning something most of them had felt good about having - or at least their parents and grandparents had.

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Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in the West Indies region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

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Contemporary Sources

Reflections on the abolition of slavery

A diary entry from the novel John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Craik

"Friday the first of August, eighteen hundred and thirty four. Many may remember that day, what a soft grey summer morning it was, and how it broke into brightness, how everywhere bells were ringing, club fraternities walking with bands and banners, school children having feasts and work people holidays, how in town and country there was spread abroad a general sense of benevolent rejoicing because honest old England had lifted up her generous voice, nay, had paid down cheerfully her twenty millions, and in all her colonies the negro was free. Many may still find, in some forgotten drawer, the medal, bought by thousands and tens of thousands of all classes, in copper, silver, or gold, distributed in charity schools and given by old people to their grandchildren. I saw Mrs Halifax tying one with a piece of blue ribbon round little Louise's neck in remembrance of this day. The pretty medal with the slave standing upright stretching out to heaven free hands, from which the fetters are dropping. As I overheard John say to his wife, he could fancy the freeman Paul would stand in the Roman prison when he answered to those that loved him 'I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept my faith.'"

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