1792-1879: Abolitionists make history by stopping slavery in the Caribbean islands

As anti-slavery sentiment grew in Europe, governments began to respond. The slave trade was outlawed before the practice of slavery itself was abolished. However, while the British were outspoken against slavery, they also had the toughest time ridding their islands of the objectionable practice.

One of the simplest ways to understand the changing sentiment over time in Europe is to view the changes by date:

Year Country Effect
1792 Denmark A partial ban on the slave trade is passed and put into effect in 1802.
1794 France Both slave trade and slavery were abolished during the French Revolution but were reinstated in 1802 for Guadeloupe and Martinique.
1806 Britain Sale of slaves to non-British colonies is banned.
1807 Britain Import of slaves to British colonies is banned and outlawed the following year.
1807 Denmark Total ban on slave trade.
1814 Netherlands Slave trade outlawed.
1818 France Slave trade outlawed.
1820 Spain Slave trade formally outlawed, but illegal trade to Puerto Rico and Cuba tolerated until the 1850s and 1860s.
1834 Britain Slavery abolished, though apprenticeship period was set to last until 1838.
1848 Denmark Slavery abolished.
1848 France Slavery abolished.
1848 Netherlands Slavery abolished on Sint Maarten.
1863 Netherlands Slavery abolished on other colonies.
1873 Spain Puerto Rico's slavery is abolished.
1879 Spain Abolition on Cuba, but unpaid labor required until 1886.

The abolition of the slave trade in Britain had a strong effect throughout the Caribbean, as the English were the suppliers of many other islands' slaves.

Religion and Slavery

In Britain particularly, religion became an important reason not to participate in slavery. However, religious motivations were not part of the abolition movements in other countries. In France and Spain, public officials and intellectuals made up the majority of abolitionists.

In these countries and other Roman Catholic nations, the majority of the religiously affiliated abolitionists were Protestants. In fact, the pope did not condemn slavery until 1839, and Britain was responsible for the pressure on other nations to stop using slave labor.

Rising Sugar Costs

One of the most important early arguments for slavery was that it kept the cost of sugar low. However, the British islands, particularly Jamaica, were having trouble proving this point. In fact, the British government headed a number of initiatives to help improve the quality of life for the colonial slaves, including the amelioration initiative in 1823.

Nothing could stop the price of British sugar from skyrocketing, and the increase in sugar consumption had made it difficult for Britain to handle the rise in cost. When it became clear that the rising price of sugar could not be stopped with slavery, Britain became more forceful with its most rebellious colony, Jamaica, whose Assembly had resisted all abolition measures at every turn.

Abolition in Britain

Rebellions were another drain on slavery. These increased greatly throughout the British islands after 1815. While some attribute these revolts to worsening conditions brought on by abolition, which forced harder work from already overworked slaves, others blame it on the rapid spread of Protestant Christianity among the slaves.

A slave rebellion led by Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe began just after Christmas in 1831, and more than 200 sugar estates on Jamaica were burned and pillaged. Regular troops fought the slaves, and 540 slaves died after the revolt was put down. This outraged the English, but they were wary of Haiti's rebellion by its slaves, so England created a period of compulsory work after abolition known as "apprenticeship."

In 1823, the historic Abolition Act was passed, and it ended slavery in August of the following year. Agricultural workers would be required to work for their former masters until 1840, but domestic staff would only have to work until 1838. They would be allowed to buy their own freedom at any time.

The former slaves would be given food, clothing, lodging, and medical care, and in return they would give 45 hours per week of unpaid labor. They could also work on their own, for pay, during their free time, and Britain sent special magistrates to settle any disputes. However, full abolition came about somewhat earlier than planned, in 1838.

The abolition of slavery in the British colonies had long-lasting and far-reaching effects. However, the remaining European nations did not place emancipation of their slaves as a top priority.

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