1800-1859 | Slavery

Abolition Act – Biggest pay-out in British history for slave owners

Slaves working on a plantation in Antigua – 1823 –
William Clark – The British Library.

1 August 1833

On 1 August 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act finally passed the House of Lords, authorising a handout of some £20 million to the slave owners. The sum would be equivalent to either £17 billion or £100 billion in 2017 terms, depending on whether it is measured by changes in wages or GDP.  The government funded the pay-out by borrowing three quarters of the sum from the bankers Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Moses Montefiore, and the loan was only finally paid off in 2015.1 The compensation was an enormous windfall for Britain’s slave owners, many of them absentee plantation owners who reinvested it in everything from railways to textile factories to the lavish refurbishment of their stately homes.

As for the slaves, they were not entitled to a penny nor were they allowed their liberty for another five years, during which their free labour would continue under a form of compulsory ‘apprenticeships,’ thereby contributing to the economic cost of their emancipation.  When that hour of freedom finally approached, a Baptist preacher in the small Jamaican port town of Falmouth pointed to the clock on his chapel wall and informed his congregation ‘The hour is at hand, the monster is dying.’ The following day he oversaw a ritual funeral at which a coffin containing a whip, a chain, a collar and a pair of shackles was lowered into the ground and afterwards a headstone placed above it which read ‘Colonial Slavery died 31 July 1838, Age 276 years.’2


  1. Kris Manjapra, When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity,’ the Guardian, 29 March 2018 accessed online at https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/29/slavery-abolition-compensation-when-will-britain-face-up-to-its-crimes-against-humanity
  2. David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History, Pan Books, 2017, p. 231.

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