On the 1st August 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act came into force in the United Kingdom, although it had received royal assent a year earlier. The Act outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire, although there were some exceptions such as in areas controlled by the East India Company.
Although Parliament had outlawed the slave trade itself in the Slave Trade Act of 1807, that Act only served to stop the creation of new slaves. It did not address the issue of existing slaves working in the colonies. It was these existing slaves that the new Act sought to address, and although it did abolish slavery the impact took a long time to be felt.
A key problem facing the government was what to do with the former slaves. The Act addressed this issue by stating that former slaves over the age of six became ‘apprentices’ and continued to work on largely the same plantations in largely the same conditions as before. Many of them were only fully emancipated six years later in 1840.
The former slave owners themselves were also dealt with in the Slavery Abolition Act. It’s important to remember that the Act effectively stripped slave-owners of their property. The logic therefore went that the slave-owners needed to be compensated for their loss of property, so the Act established the Slave Compensation Commission who awarded the equivalent of £17bn in today’s money – funded by the taxpayer – to 46,000 slave owners. A searchable online database of every slave-owner who was awarded compensation is available to view at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/