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It was a date to remember… and an astonishing feat of politics, given the cost

In the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Parliament committed the huge sum of 20 million pounds sterling to compensate slave owners for the loss of their “assets”. That was equivalent to 40 percent of the entire national budget (and five percent of Britain’s GDP at the time), requiring the government to borrow most of the 20 million from private sources.

Lawrence Reed. These numbers really put the political feat of achieving this in perspective.

24 comments to It was a date to remember… and an astonishing feat of politics, given the cost

  • -XC

    Note that the US congress blinked at this option several times, eventually leading up to the civil war.

    Interestingly this reluctance to commit the financial resources required was a strong legacy of Andrew Jackson (president 1829-1837) who avoided the civil war during the Nullification Crisis (1832/33) by making sure that the south understood that he would stand up the army, defeat them, and hand the ringleaders summarily.

    If only Lincoln had had the same stones, we might have avoided the civil war.


  • AKM

    I’m not expert on US history, but I don’t think Lincoln had a chance to do anything similar. The Southern states declared secession before his inauguration.

  • Bob Grahame

    I like the fact that 40% of the national budget was only 5% of GDP back then, rather than somewhere north of 40% as now.

    That’s where we need to get back to.


  • A few months ago, after an ill-judged tweet on the subject by the Treasury, there was a flurry of comment pieces in left wing outlets saying how bad it was that the UK government paid this compensation. Here was the Guardian’s offering, by David Olusoga: “The Treasury’s tweet shows slavery is still misunderstood.” Actually this was one of the better pieces of those I read: at least it acknowledged that, painful though it was that the ex-slaveowners should be rewarded, the offer of compensation was the only practical means to break down the political resistance of the powerful slaveowners’ party to abolition.

    Some of the other articles I read really seemed to think that it would have been morally preferable to leave the slaves in their chains for a few more years or decades until a war could be arranged.

  • terence patrick hewett

    The Scots of course dominated the West Indian slave plantations:

    “ Well-known Scottish sugar planters were Archibald Campbell, John Cunninghame, George Malcolm, Lewis Hutchinson (the so-called “mad-Master of Edinburgh Castle”), James Dawkins (Dawkins’ Caymanas), James Ewing (Ewing’s Caymanas) and James Wedderburn.”

    Caymanas is the generic word in Carib for crocodiles, alligators or lizards.

    The lovely Naomi and the athletic Sol are not called Campbell for no reason at all.

    James Dawkins and his brother Henry were of course direct ancestors of one Richard Dawkins whom we all know and love!

    I always think that the poor souls on the Dawkins ranch were not only subjected to the indignities of slavery but to the cruel and unusual punishment of interminable Dawkins lectures: cruel and unusual indeed.

  • The plantation owners were heavy borrowers from The City of London as part of the financial structure of the sugar etc. trade. The value of their slave holdings were critical to the security they offered for the loans and for probate. If they were not compensated they would effectively be bankrupt to an extent that would crash The City with all the ramifications involved. So the money went to the plantation owners and came straight back to The City. It is not unknown for British Governments to have high spending which somehow or other supports the key interests of The City of London.

  • Mr Ed

    painful though it was that the ex-slaveowners should be rewarded, the offer of compensation was the only practical means to break down the political resistance of the powerful slaveowners’ party to abolition.

    Perhaps, but as slavery was contrary to the Common Law and slaving was therefore unlawful in England, hence the writ of habeus corpus being used against it, where the holder of the ‘body’ has to prove that the detention of the captive is lawful, and there was no precedent showing it to be lawful in England, as Lord Mansfield put it in Somerset v Stewart.

    The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

    Now as the UK Parliament of the 1830s could legislate for the entire Empire (as it did here), one has to ask how it was that the local Parliaments or legislatures in the Colonies where slavery persisted after Mansfield’s judgment were competent to re-write the Common Law to make a positive law to make slaving lawful. Had English law remained true to Coke, and Dr Bonham’s Case, surely any law establishing slavery would be repugnant to reason and void.

    Let us not forget Judge Jeffreys, James II’s notorious judge, who at least did one good thing in his time. Whilst on Assizes at Bristol, with the Lord Mayor sitting on the bench beside him, he suddenly turned on the Lord Mayor and ordered him into the dock, before fining him £1,000 for being a kidnapping knave, selling people into slavery. A quick tour by a Judge Jeffreys of the day with say, transportation on conviction before a jury, might well have ended the practice forthwith at little cost.

  • terence patrick hewett

    @Mr Ed

    See the Somerset Case 1772 – and they have been arguing about it ever since!

  • Pat

    I wonder what percentage of US GDP was used up in the Civil war, and that’s before counting up the bodies.
    And I note it took blacks in the US the best part of a century to achieve equality before the law.
    Perhaps if Andrew Jackson had promised compensation instead of threatening to use the army the problem could have been solved very much sooner, at vastly less cost, and without the deaths, injuries and long lingering inequality that were the actual outcome.
    One suspects that the effective jurisdiction of British courts in British colonies was somewhat limited, at least prior to 1815, the locals adapted common law to suit themselves. Had the common law been rigourously applied say in 1700 that would likely have solved the problem, but by 1830 the problem was too big for simple law enforcement. Also remember that many colonists were Scots and would have applied Scots law rather than the common law.

  • bobby b

    Mr Ed
    August 2, 2018 at 3:50 pm

    “Let us not forget Judge Jeffreys . . .”

    Great link, thanks. Neal Stephenson deals extensively with Jeffreys in his Baroque Series (three 1000+ page books of fascinating historical fiction set in 1600’s GB) and this was the first writing I’ve seen that confirms that Stephenson was accurate in that work. I suspected that he was accurate, but suspicion just isn’t enough.

  • lucklucky

    “and an astonishing feat of politics”

    words that always scare me…

    In this case is rewarding people that enslave other people with other people money. Individuals. Persons.

    Then why we are shocked by bailouts?

  • In this case is rewarding people that enslave other people with other people money. Individuals. Persons.

    Yes. As opposed to either war (i.e. what happened in the USA) or not doing what needed doing because the consequences of bankrupting the sugar industry and the City would have killed the whole thing politically. Because those were the options.

  • Paul Marks

    Good post and good comments.

    Even in Roman times it was understood that slavery was against natural law – but it was held that the law of the state trumped natural law. The Romans developed justifications – but (for example) Saint Patrick was not educated enough to know the justifications (his Latin always had severe flaws – showing that his education had been interrupted), he just knew that slavery was wrong (partly from natural law thinking – partly from his own experience as a slave) and so helped banish from Ireland (the Vikings brought it back centuries later).

    It is hard to see how a Christian can take the view that state law can trump natural law (as, to a Christian, natural law is the law of God) – and as the Common Law was based, in part, on Christian thinking (Bracton and the others being priests) there were always times when selling people was declared unlawful – the difficulty was getting such declarations and judgements to STICK – getting them ENFORCED. And many “Christians” have proved to be not Christians when put-to-the-test – wave money in front of their noses and see how many hold to the doctrine that each individual human soul is FREE and this freedom is of ultimate importance to GOD. Islam faces no such tension between theory and practice – but for a very bad reason (it is a bad in theory as well as practice).

    There were declarations in London and many other places in Europe in the Middle Ages that selling people was wrong (indeed a crime) – but good luck trying to ENFORCE that. Although slavery was actually quite rare in Christian (as opposed to Islamic) Europe in the Middle Ages (you will not learn that on the BBC or in a university) and serfdom died out in France and England (Louis the Tenth would not tolerate slavery or serfdom in France – and he was not a man to be crossed – the sign of the Cross is not always peaceful, it is also the shape of the guard of a medieval sword).

    It took a campaign by the Royal Navy of a hundred years to limit (never to totally end) the Slave Trade.

    Pius words are often not enough – law sometimes needs men with guns willing to enforce it.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    And then governments go and overdo things. The Australian government is enacting laws to make companies ensure that slavery is no part of their supply chain. Don’t we have police forces for this?

  • XC (August 2, 2018 at 1:08 pm), Lincoln was not inaugurated until after 7 of the 11 states had seceded. As well as instructing the (tiny) standing army, he immediately called on the un-seceded states to furnish military contingents – whereupon 4 more states seceded, and secession or neutrality attempts were made by 3 others. Blaming Lincoln for inaction at the start of the crisis is like blaming Trump for the unmasking that happened under lame-duck Obama, or blaming Churchill for the fact that the UK’s prime minister and leader of the opposition were both pacifists in the early years of Hitler’s rearmament. (Both were inflicted on the country by the Labour party – politics were odd just then.)

    Mr Ed (August 2, 2018 at 3:50 pm), Mansfield’s repeated references to ‘positive law’ reflect precisely his awareness that colonial parliaments (including, at the moment of his ruling, those of American colonies) had the power to enact positive laws internal to their communities. Mansfield probably thought, as did Burke and others, that the UK parliament had a prerogative power to annul such laws by their own positive law, but he quite correctly saw that he, as judge, had no power to rule save on the case before him. In the UK, there was no such positive law, therefore Somerset (and anyone like him in the UK) was free. (Unusually, Somerset then took a first name – James – instead of a last name, to note his free status. A well-informed man, Somerset knew his name sounded geographical, and so prestigious, as a last name in the UK, even though it was probably an american form of somersault and reflected a childhood habit.)

    In this case is rewarding people that enslave other people with other people money. lucklucky (August 2, 2018 at 10:04 pm)

    As a point of accuracy, the enslaving was done in Africa; there is no record of a British trader on the slave coast ever seizing on a free African . Slave-owners in British colonies bought people who were already slaves and – by definition – did not free them (or only a few). That is their moral offence, not enslaving.

    It is of course very proper that assets taken by compulsion of law be paid for if those assets were acquired legally.

    The problem in the US was that the south would not have submitted to a federal law of compulsory purchase. (And its constitutionality might have been an issue.)

  • David M Davies

    It might have been nice if they had given some compensation to the ex-slaves as well.

  • It might have been nice if they had given some compensation to the ex-slaves as well.

    Yes, it might have been nice, but as getting the politics to line up in order to actual free them cost 40% of the entire national budget, I can see why that didn’t happen.

  • -XC

    Ya’ll, Lincoln was elected in November 1860, the first state (SC?) seceded in December 1860. Lincoln did not take the oath of office until March.

    My point stands – the south did not look forward to Lincoln’s policies, but they were not afraid of him like they had been of Jackson. For good reason, it turned out. If not for Grant (“Get my other generals whatever he is drinking) and a few others who suddenly flourished under him, the war would have ended (I think) in a truce.


    PS – This gap between election/oath was used by FDR to dump as much of the blame as possible on Hoover. This was changed by FDR’s second term.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Actually, the South feared Lincoln a lot more than Jackson. That is, they were far more afraid of what might happen to the control of blacks by slavery under anti-slavery President than of enforcement of a somewhat excessive tariff by a President who didn’t really care about it.

    The possibility of being massacred in uprisings by slaves who outnumbered the whites in many areas was a lot more worrying than having to pay more for imported iron and wool.

    In both cases, the lead was taken by South Carolina, which had the highest proportion of slaves (over 60%). In 1832, though, their fear of slave rebellion manifested as an extreme “state sovereignty” position, which in turn was expressed as the claim to nullify the tariff. This was way too indirect for the rest of the South, much of which actually supported higher tariffs (1/5 of slave-state Representatives had voted for the “Tariff of Abominations”). Jackson himself was a slave-owning Southerner, and of course rejected it. South Carolina stood alone, and backed down.

    In 1860, the apparent threat to slavery was obvious, and so the Deep South states, all about 50% slave except Texas, immediately joined South Carolina.

    However, to be fair, in 1860, many militant Southerners asserted that the Yankees would be afraid to fight, and that “gallant Southern gentlemen” would easily thrash them if they did.

    That same underlying motive was also the reason the US never attempted compensated emancipation such as Britain imposed on its colonies. There was a great difference between abolishing a practice found only in a small and remote area, and abolishing a social institution considered fundamental to civil order in a third of the country.

  • Tedd

    I’m glad I read this. I had been under the impression that ending slavery was more or less a convenient gesture for the British Empire–that it was no longer of much economic significance, and so relatively easy to abolish. This essay puts the scale of the achievement in better perspective.

  • Tedd (August 4, 2018 at 9:48 pm), ending slavery within the British empire as it was in the early 1800s was merely the start. During the long victorian peace, the anti-slavery war had higher annual casualties than any other naval task. After the navy’s undeclared war against Brazil forced the last resistant nation on the American continent to outlaw the trade (and later slavery itself), the work moved eastward, to fight slavery in the muslim world, Africa and elsewhere. That war continued into the 20th century – historians correctly talk of the ‘abolition’ of slavery in the west, at specific dates in specific areas, but of its gradual ‘decline’ to the point of death in areas of the near east under British pressure – but by the time the communists, and then the national socialists, started to reintroduce slavery in the years between WWI and WWII, it had become astonishingly rare in the world compared to the whole of previous history, thanks in huge part to the direct and indirect effects of this century of pressure.

    (I wrote a post related to this a while back.)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Yes, Niall. Thanks for the reminder–one of your best.

  • Stephen K

    The Royal Navy West Africa Squadron deserves to be better remembered. According to Christopher Lloyd (The Navy and the Slave Trade) the loss of life was in the thousands, mainly due to disease, during the period 1808-67; their sacrifice deserves some significant memorial. There is none that I know of.

  • Nico

    Some U.S. States, and some other countries in the Americas passed laws that ended slavery for people born after a certain date. If I understand correctly, such laws never included compensation.