August 1 Was Emancipation Day in Britain, but Abolition Didn't Create FreedomRoundup
tags: slavery, racism, British Empire, emancipation
Padraic X. Scanlan is assistant professor at the University of Toronto, and the author of Slave Empire: How Slavery Made Modern Britain.
While the United States recently made Juneteenth its newest federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery, another date was previously celebrated by U.S. abolitionist societies: Aug. 1.
That date, in 1834, marked the end of slavery in the British Empire, when the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act came into force. In many of Britain’s former colonies in the Caribbean, as well as Canada, Aug. 1 is still celebrated as Emancipation Day.
Yet Emancipation Day commemorates a struggle to overcome slavery that did not end with its abolition. Rebellions against slavery, in Barbados in 1816, Demerara (later a part of British Guiana) in 1823 and Jamaica in 1831-32 forced Parliament toward granting emancipation. But the freedom enslaved people received on Aug. 1 was not the autonomy and dignity for which they had fought. In fact, in key ways antislavery sentiment and policies helped disguise — and prolong — the exploitation of formerly enslaved people. After slavery, freed people were denied access to land and expected to work for low wages. Emancipation policies also proved to be a useful justification for imperialism.
The Caribbean was the center of British imperial political economy in the 18th century. Between 1619 and the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, at least 365,563 enslaved people disembarked in British North America and what would become the United States of America. By comparison, more than 2,221,000 enslaved people disembarked in Britain’s sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean, including more than 1 million people in Jamaica alone.
Sugar production and slavery went hand in hand. Sugar cane juice spoils quickly. Cutting and processing canes required large, heavily disciplined workforces of enslaved people toiling in horrific conditions, sometimes in near darkness, among large fires and heavy machinery.
Demand for sugar was inexhaustible. While enslaved people produced it, some Caribbean enslavers became incredibly rich and retired to Britain to manage their plantations from the comfort of a chic townhouse or country estate.
Enslaved people opposed slavery from its beginning, dramatically in armed rebellions on slave ships and plantations, and subtly by emptying stores, slowing work or satirizing the authority that enslavers claimed over them.
Opposition to slavery was a fact of life among enslaved people, but growing imperial power prompted Britons to examine their consciences. Some worried that the horrors of mass enslavement didn’t suit a “mature” empire. Others worried that slavery impeded Britain’s ability to spread the Gospel. Still others argued that slavery was economically inefficient, and that Britain’s empire would be better served by cheap wage labor on sugar plantations and aggressive investment in raw materials produced in West Africa.
Rather than supporting enslaved rebels in the colonies, the leaders of Britain’s antislavery movement argued that rebellion proved that enslaved people required “civilization” to prepare them for freedom. One abolitionist wrote that enslaved people “know and feel nothing of society, but the hardships and punishments that it cruelly and capriciously inflicts.” Emancipation, by these lights, needed to be gradual to end slavery without disturbing the social hierarchy.