Fri | Jun 25, 2021

Mishandled Emancipation

Published:Friday | October 2, 2015 | 12:00 AM

The Slavery Abolition Act received royal assent on August 28, 1833 and came into force the following year on August 1. This was not an act of altruism, intended to right the wrongs of centuries of slavery. Just a few months before, the largest slave revolt in British Caribbean history broke out in western Jamaica. It did not begin as a rebellion; slaves led by Baptist deacon Sam Sharpe refused to return to work after the 1831 Christmas holidays without the promises of wages; i.e., they demanded their freedom.

In the end, more than 200 plantations across nine parishes were burnt. Apart from £175,000 spent on military operations to put down the revolt, the total cost of Sam Sharpe's Rebellion was approximately £1,154,589 or about £50 million in today's money (J$9 billion). About 200 slaves died in the fighting, and 300 more were executed in the aftermath.

Clearly, there would be more slave revolts by people agitating for their freedom, with more loss of life and property. Slavery was unsustainable! Besides, the business of sugar was not as profitable as it once was.




At the time, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords contained dozens of persons (several born in Jamaica) who owned slaves in the Caribbean, and they persistently blocked all efforts at Emancipation. Anti-slavery sentiment was a big factor in the British parliamentary election of 1830, which saw many pro-slavery Tories replaced by anti-slavery Whigs.

In 1831, the new Whig government conceded to abolitionist pressure by freeing all slaves belonging to the Crown across the Empire. But anti-abolition sentiment in Britain was strong; the King was personally against Emancipation, and many Whigs believed that the role of government was to protect property rights, not attack them. Strategic political contributions from the planters' lobby stalled the Emancipation effort.

Then came Sam Sharpe's Rebellion, which exposed how fragile these property rights in slaves and combustible sugar cane fields were.

In 1833, the British Parliament received anti-slavery petitions with more than one-and-a-half million signatures, with another election just over the horizon. The compromise worked out with the planters (there were many in the House of Commons and the House of Lords) was that slave owners would be compensated for the loss of their property to the sum of £20 million - £69.93 million in today's money (J$12.6 billion).

If the British Parliament had been genuinely concerned about the welfare of the slaves, serious steps would have been taken in 1833 to redress the social and economic disadvantages with which they would have been saddled at Emancipation.

The requirement for a period of Apprenticeship before full freedom was an insult to the former slaves; they were legally free, but still had to work without wages! Slavery by another name! And their former 'owners' had already been awarded their compensation money!

Tory Prime Minister David Cameron is quoted in The Gleaner saying that Britain was proud to have eventually led the way in the abolition of slavery. I do not believe that the conduct of the British Parliament - or the Tory Party - in this matter is anything for Tory Prime Minister Cameron to boast about too loudly. They caved in to the slave owners, treating them as victims rather than as scoundrels, and failing to provide for the welfare of the real victims.

The present economy of Great Britain - as well as the current fortunes of many Britons - has benefited to some degree from the profits of slavery and reparations. At the same time, the present poverty and misery of many Jamaican families have their origin, to some degree, in the disadvantages wrought by plantation slavery. The canons of morality and the principles of natural justice demand that reparations be made to the descendants of former slaves because many of them still suffer today from the greatest crime against humanity over the last 500 years.




We must be careful not to overstate the case. Jamaica's historically high illiteracy rate may be due, in great measure, to the legacy of slavery and to a colonialism managed and directed largely by the descendants of the slave owners. Our high debt burden, high unemployment and low economic growth since Independence may be traced to an inept and corrupt - and perhaps poorly educated - political leadership. We are singular among our post-slavery CARICOM colleagues in our astronomical murder rate, garrison communities and toxic political tribalism; we must not give slavery the credit for what the gangs of Gordon House have wrought.

Reparations are certainly due to the historically marginalised descendants of former slaves; but not to the Jamaican Government run by the two gangs of Gordon House, which themselves - and their allies in the private sector - owe much to our recently marginalised people.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to