Abolition Of Slavery In Britain Essay Checker

The Windmill of Slavery: The British and Foreign Antislavery Society and Bonded Labor in East Africa


Traditionally, scholars of British initiative against slavery and the slave trade have focused more upon the Caribbean and the trans Atlantic slave trade but have devoted less attention to British endeavors in other non Western parts of the world.   For example, the historian Howard Temperley’s much cited book, British AntiSlavery, only devoted six pages in the epilogue to British anti slavery in East Africa.   Although Suzanne Miers gives the East African slave trade more extensive treatment in her book, Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade, the slave trade from East Africa and, for that matter, other non Western slave trades, are still treated as appendages to a more central metropolitan based British anti slavery project.   This omission gives the impression that the end of the trans Atlantic slave trade in 1808 and slavery in the British territories in 1834 marked the end of British abolition.   This narrow focus elides, the fact that, slavery and slave trading continued in other non Western parts of the world shaded by the British empire after the trans-Atlantic abolition.  Moreover, unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the British efforts against slave trading in these areas were more lethargic and gradual and were conditioned more by specific, local circumstances than some amorphous but inexorable anti slavery logic.  Even after the eventual abolition of slave trading in these non Western societies, economic, social and political realities undermined British ideological support for free labor after abolition which made the application of free labor inconsistent.  As the East Africa labor historian, Frederick Cooper, has noted in his own work, the opposition of free versus slave labor was not always so fixed and was a social construction that was historically defined.    In fact, as Seymour Drescher sarcastically notes,“for most of human history the expression ‘free labor’ was an oxymoron.”    The universalization of free labor was an outgrowth of humanitarian action against the slave trade and slavery and not a transcendent value.      
Through the activities of the British and Foreign Anti Slavery Society, this paper provides an alternative analytical framework to these traditional constructions of British anti slavery by focusing upon British anti slavery activities of the coast of East Africa during the 19th century.  Spurred on by lurid tales of the East African slave trade, where the explorer David Livingstone proclaimed, “Satan has his Seat,”   the British and Foreign Anti Slavery Society (BFASS) had been pushing the British government to end the slave trade, and then later slavery, in East Africa since the mid nineteenth century.  The ethical foundations of the organization were rooted in a strong tradition of opposition to slavery and the slave trade.  This antagonism to bonded labor also included an assumption concerning the positive benefits of free labor.  The, seemingly, self evident morality that valorized free labor over slave labor, however, was one assumption by the Society that was continuously challenged by the social and economic vagaries on the East African coast.  Although the British government gradually ended the slave trade and slavery, it did not do so unilaterally, as had been the case with the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  As a result, BFASS' attempts to lobby the British government for immediate cessation of the slave trade and slavery ultimately failed due to the cultural, economic and diplomatic contingencies that governed the pace of abolition.          

The Origins of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society

The passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 was the culmination of the British anti slavery project and marked the nadir of the anti slavery movement.   However, despite emancipation, the problematic of bonded labor still remained.  What was to be done to protect the interests of newly enfranchised “child peoples?”  One positive answer that emanated from British humanitarian organizations was to continue the struggle but shift focus to the protection of former slaves and aboriginal inhabitants of British dependencies.  Now, the goal would be “native”  protection.   
In the wake of the emancipation act, the “burden” of “native” protection would now be carried by the ghosts of the old anti slavery lobby.  The BFASS was a direct outgrowth of the anti slavery movement.  Founded in 1839, many of its original members, like Joseph Sturge (1793-1849), Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) and Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845), had been prominent in the old anti slavery movement.   Furthermore, the core of the leadership of the organization were mainly Quakers, Baptists and Methodists with a decidedly Middle Class air. These, of course, were the main social groups that bolstered the anti slavery movement.
The inchoate form of the Society actually began as a  “Committee on Slavery” created by William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton to discuss the slave trade and slavery in general in British territorial possessions.   This committee soon began to publish a journal, The Anti-Slavery Reporter, and eventually changed its name to “The Society for the Amelioration and Gradual Abolition of Slavery.”   Following the decree abolishing slavery in 1833, this committee  met in Exeter Hall in London on 17 and 18 April 1839 and passed certain resolutions which became the basis for the newly organized British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.  Its stated focus was to continue to work for
. . . the universal extinction of Slavery and the Slave Trade and the Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Enfranchised population in the British possessions, and all persons captured as slaves.

The strategies developed during the campaign against the trans-Atlantic slave trade would prove useful in the fledgling society’s new business of “native” protection.  To combat slavery and the slave trade on the perimeters of the British Empire, the BFASS convened conferences, wrote memorials and editorials, distributed pamphlets, petitioned the home government and was active in many issues that affected the treatment of indigenous peoples. 
Free labor Ideology and the BFASS

Although BFASS agitation against slavery and the slave trade also extended to, so-called, aboriginal rights, the main focus of the BFASS always remained slavery and the slave trade.  The ideological attack of the BFASS emphasized free labor.  The society sought to influence governments to use “free grown produce, as far as practicable, in preference to slave grown and to promote the adoption of fiscal regulation in favour of free labour.”   Free labor was the decisive issue that stimulated BFASS concern for aboriginal peoples.  The Society believed in the virtuous opposition of free labor against slave labor that, paraphrasing the historian David Brion Davis, progress in human civilization had apparently made self evident.   Slavery was seen as an archaic form of labor organization that had been bounded and made non appropriate for civilized Europeans through the efforts of humanitarianism and the will of God.   An early statement from the Anti-Slavery Reporter is illustrative:

The Formation of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society constitutes an era in the history of human benevolence. . . . it identifies the two things, Slavery and the Slave-trade . . . equally to be abhorred and jointly to be exterminated.

Slavery was the horror, but it was, also, seen as a less efficient form of labor and therefore an economic anachronism as well.
The aforementioned Joseph Sturge echoed the sentiments of many in the organization when he stated that, “the superiority of free over slave labor, is in fact now so generally known. . .”  there was no need to prove it.   After the formation of the organization, a BFASS conference in 1840 on slavery, the slave trade and emancipation quickly reaffirmed the efficacy of free labor over slave labor.    During the 1840s the Central Committee of the BFASS campaigned vociferously against the lowered sugar tariff of 1841 precisely because the lowered tariff increased domestic demand for sugar grown with slave labor in non English colonies in the Caribbean.   England had ended slavery in its colonies in 1834.  
For the BFASS, then, commerce and free labor underpinned any strategies for ending the East African slave trade.   On the East African coast the BFASS attempted to put theory into practice.  During its campaign against the East African slave trade, the BFASS proposed several schemes designed to promote commerce and hence undermine slave trading by creating a so called “Liberia on the East Coast.”   As early as 7 September 1838, T. F. Buxton wrote a letter to his friend Lord Gleneld in the British Cabinet proposing that the British assume control of the island of Mombasa and turn it into “commercial settlement.”   Buxton’s involvement with the scheme was part of his so called “New Africa” policy, which involved using commerce and Christianity to end the slavery in Africa.   Practically, Buxton proposed using a treaty system with African leaders and establishing British settlements in Africa for the purposes of commerce and cultivation of the land.  Although this particular Mombasa scheme of Buxton’s was dismissed as “a wild and crude idea” by Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, the idea did not die.    
Later, In March 1877, Gerald Waller of East African Expeditions delivered a letter to T. F. Buxton which contained an interesting draft of certain business concessions to be proposed to the Sultan of Zanzibar for the eventual suppression of the slave trade.   The draft concession called for the occupation of the Lake Victoria and Nyanza regions in the Sultan’s name to check the spread of the Egyptian government.  When Buxton visited Zanzibar, he forwarded the plan to the Sultan through the British Consul at Zanzibar, Sir John Kirk, but nothing came out of this plan.  Despite these unsuccessful free labor adventures, the BFASS did not waver in its attempts to undermine the East African slave trade.  It merely returned to the tried and true methods developed during the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade as it attempted to vanquish the chimera of slavery?
It is also of interest to note that, perhaps indicative of Britain's commitment to ending the slave trade, earlier in 1824, the British Captain William Owen had actually declared protectorate over Mombasa on the east African coast partly for the suppression of the slave trade.   Owen's Protectorate, as it became known, pressured the the ruling Mazrui governors of Mombasa into recognizing British protection in exchange for abolishing the slave trade in that area of the coast.  Owen, however, declared the protectorate without prior government approval and this short lived adventure came to an end after only two years.

The East African Slave Trade

As mentioned previously, after the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in British territories, humanitarian organizations like the BFASS would turn their attention to other non Western slave trades.  The strident anti slavery, free labor orientation of the Society would be seriously challenged by slave trade in East Africa.  The trade, itself, evolved around the Indian Ocean basin and was much older, dating from at least the 1st century C.E., than the more notorious trans-Atlantic slave trade.   Before the 19th century slaves were traditionally taken from mainland East Africa and sold in markets in Southwest Asia, inclusive of the Persian Gulf, and India.  Unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the East African slave trade to Asia concentrated mostly on women and young boys and was small in volume before the 19th century.   During the nineteenth century, however, the qualitative and quantitative structure of the East African slave trade changed dramatically.  
The 19th century slave trade actually consisted of two parts.  The southern slave trade of East Africa centered around the Portuguese colony of Mozambique.   It fed markets for slaves on the sugar plantations in Brazil and Cuba but also the French Mascarene Islands in the Indian ocean.   Slaves were captured in the hinterland of Mozambique and shipped to entrepots like Quelimane on the Mozambique coast and then on to the New World or parts of the Indian Ocean.  It is estimated that between 1815 and 1830, ten thousand slaves were shipped annually to Brazil and another seven thousand annually to French possessions in the Indian ocean.    Although the volume of the Southern slave trade was significant,  BFASS attention was more focused on the northern or Muslim slave trade since it dealt more directly with territories under British control and perhaps, more importantly, was in the hands of non Christians.  As the English historian Reginald Coupland noted with patriotic fervor, “. . . the old Abolitionist movement in England. . .had done so much to kill the European Slave Trade and was now to kill the Arab.” 
The northern, or Islamic slave trade, historically fed markets in South West Asia.  Slaves were shipped to destinations on the Arabian peninsula and in the Persian Gulf region and performed a variety of functions.  In southern Iran they worked mainly as farm laborers.   In other parts of the Persian Gulf region slaves were used as soldiers, concubines, pearl divers and domestic servants.  During the 19th century, however, the northern slave trade transformed as it began to supply the labor demands of the burgeoning clove industry on Zanzibar and Pemba islands off the East African coast.    The volume increased to a peak of approximately twenty thousand per year according to Abdul Sheriff, but now most of the slaves were retained in East Africa. 

Great Britain and the East African Slave Trade

Through its informal influence in Zanzibar , Great Britain had been gradually limiting the Muslim slave trade in the Indian Ocean since the 1820's.   However, its approach to ending the East African slave trade reflected a deeper commitment to political and economic factors than actual abolition.  The British were more concerned about the economic impact on slave owners that an abrupt cessation of the East African slave trade would have upon Zanzibar.    
In 1822 and 1845, respectively, The British imposed the Moresby Treaty  and the Hamerton Treaty  upon Zanzibar to gradually limit the trade in human cargo.  The Moresby treaty was intended to restrict the East African trade to Muslim countries while the Hammerton was intended to further restrict the trade to the East African littoral.
However, the treaties were ineffectual and did little to actually reduce the trade in slaves.  Although the Sultan of Zanzibar passed these decrees limiting the slave trade, he could not enforce them.  Many Arab dhows sailed under different flags, such as that of the French, to avoid capture.   The vaunted anti slavery patrol of the Royal Navy in East Africa never had more than six ships, with three active at all times, to patrol the vast 6,000 square miles of the African littoral.   The vast East African coastline coupled with a dearth of British cruisers, ensured that the British only intercepted roughly 3 percent of the traffic.    
Due to the ineffectiveness of these earlier treaties, on 5 June 1873, after much negotiation and intimidation, the British pressured Sultan Seyyid Bargash of Zanzibar  to pass another decree ending the slave trade by sea.  With this new anti-slavery paper lion, slave traffic merely diverted to land routes.  One contemporary witness noted that after the decree in 1873, the slave traffic increased along the East African littoral.   The gradualist process that began in 1822 with the signing of the Moresby treaty finally culminated in formal decrees prohibiting the sale, exchange and purchase of slaves on 1 August 1890.   However, the illegal trade in slaves continued to 1899.    The decree of 1890 was kept secret and was not actually enforced until 1896. 
The Issue of Slave Porters in the East Africa

The winding pace of diplomatic abolition frustrated the BFASS, as mentioned previously.   Before the 1890s there was trail of protest against the East African slave trade. However, during the 1890s BFASS protest against the East African slave trade dramatically increased after the Anglo-German Agreement of 1890 effectively made Zanzibar a protectorate of Great Britain.  First under the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) and later the Foreign Office, British involvement with bonded labor in East Africa, juxtaposed against the ideals of its anti-slavery initiatives, became more insufferable for the Society.  The contradiction came to a head over the issue of porterage.

Historically, Britain had used Zanzibar as a proctor for political and diplomatic influence in the Indian Ocean since the Moresby treaty in 1822.  In essence, the British used anti slavery ideology, through Zanzibar, as a cheaper way of promoting political and diplomatic influence in East Africa and the Indian Ocean basin.  However, when Germany entered the diplomatic arena in East Africa during the 1880's, this byzantine  pace of diplomacy came to a halt and signaled the end of Britain’s “informal empire” on the East African coast and the beginning of dejure colonialism in East Africa.   Between 1880 and 1895 Britain and Germany divided up East Africa into Spheres of influence. 

Initially, both Great Britain and Germany manifested their political influence through chartered companies.  The IBEAC was responsible for administration of British territories while the Society for German Colonization played a similar role for the Germans.  Although the Sultan of Zanzibar nominally controlled a ten mile deep strip of coastal territory in both spheres of European influence, it was actually leased by both the IBEAC and the Germans.  Slavery existed in both the islands of the Sultan’s domains and on the mainland.  Consequently, the IBEAC inherited the problem of slavery in East Africa.
When the IBEAC assumed its charter in East Africa, slavery and the slave trade were entrenched in the society.  The company's allies on the coast, like the Mazrui governors of Mombasa, owned many slaves and were heavily involved in trading slaves themselves. In addition, fugitive slaves and maroon societies were quite prevalent on the coast.
Initially, when the IBEAC took control, it made a symbolic gesture by releasing 1421 fugitive slaves of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) station at Rabai on the coast. 
Despite this fact, as the historian Fred Morton has noted, the IBEAC was never committed to ending slavery in its coastal territories.   The company could not maintain policies which weakened slavery on the mainland, and it could not enforce them, anyway, against such powerful recalcitrant chiefs like the Mazruis.  Instead, the company focused on a strategy of gradual amelioration of slavery.  The need for labor in East Africa was too great and the company had a vested interest in maintaining a stable labor force.  In East Africa, porters were frequently employed for expeditions and caravans.  On many occasions, the porters were slaves that were hired out their labor for the duration of the caravan journey with the stipulation that half of their wages would go to their masters.  The company, itself had a high demand for porters that could not be met by free labor alone.  For example,  the IBEAC itself was quite active in hiring slave porters and, actually, had a contract with Salim bin Khamis of Takaunga on the East African coast for the supply of slave porters.  

The IBEAC thus tolerated slavery with a slow pace of diminution.  For example, on 15 May 1890 the MP, Sir George Campbell, asked, the Under Secretary of State  whether the IBEAC had actually abolished slavery in the territories under its influence.   Sir John Ferguson, the Under Secretary was forced to admit that  “it is understood that the proclamation does not affect the status of slavery as now existent.” 

The BFASS, with its long tradition of opposition to slavery in all its forms, readily criticized the British government for countenancing the use of slave porters.   On 6 May 1890 Joseph Pease, an MP and member of the BFASS,  questioned the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir John Ferguson, concerning the use of slave porters by the explorer H.M. Stanley’s expedition to relieve Emin Pasha.    According to Pease, slave porters hired by Stanley were immediately returned to their owners upon completion of the expedition.  The porters wages were then garnished by their owners.  The reply from the Foreign Office, on this occasion, was that the slaves “voluntarily went back.”    The BFASS followed up with a formal letter to Salisbury bringing attention to the use of slave porters by the Stanley expedition and by Harry Johnston, the British Commissioner for the Nyasaland Protectorate.   The BFASS criticized British official for using slave porters on the grounds that it led to an augmentation of slavery and the slave trade, but they also criticized it for another reason.  The hypocrisy of British officials using slave porters according to the BFASS might “create confusion in the minds of the great Slave-trading chiefs.”    The matter was not decided by these protests, however.  On 1 June, Pease questioned the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs again about Harry Johnston’s use of slave porters.  This time the Under Secretary replied that :
There is no regulation against the engagement of Slaves as porters, provided that contracts are made direct with them, nor would it seem desirable to deprive Slaves of the advantage of free labour under European leaders.
The reply from the BFASS was predictable.  It pointed out that even though slaves were introduced to the advantages of free labor, the transaction still amounted to recognition of slavery.   In addition, the Society made an even more salient assertion.  British officials were forbidden from using slaves by governmental precedent.  The Society alluded to a 8 May 1841 circular letter by Viscount Palmerston of the Foreign Office issued to British officials in slave holding countries stating that it would be “unfitting” of any officer of the British Crown to hold interests in slave property.  

The BFASS was equally critical of missionary groups that used slave labor.  An article entitled “Do British Missionaries Encourage Slavery in Madagascar” appeared in the Anti Slavery Reporter  in 1883.  In the article the BFASS criticized missionaries of the Church of England in Madagascar for using slave labor.   
Despite this general opposition to the use of slave porters, however, the BFASS was more forgiving of IBEAC transgressions regarding slaves porters, though.  As Joseph Alfred Pease mentioned, “I wish to say that I believe that Company have pursued the best policy with regard to slavery that an enterprising company could pursue in Africa.”   The reason for this good feeling towards the IBEAC was perhaps revealed more clearly by Reverend Horace Waller of the Universities Mission to Central Africa  in a paper entitled “White Ivory and Black.”  Referring to the IBEAC and slavery,  Waller stated that, “ . . . the East Africa chartered Company is doing everything in its power to pit freedom against slavery.  Sir Fowell Buxton’s connection with its efforts is alone a guarantee in this direction.”    Buxton sat on the board of the company, which was in keeping with his philosophy of promoting commerce and free labor in East Africa as a way of combating slavery.  In essence, the BFASS was able to look the other way regarding IBEAC use of slave porters in advancement of the greater good, promoting commerce and eventually free labor. 

The difficulties of transport, reflected in the use of slave porters, also brought to light the contradictory manifestations of free versus slave labor.  The BFASS had been preaching since 1840 that free labor was more efficient than slave labor.  As stated in the Anti-Slavery Reporter, “Free labour and Slave labour have never worked well together, and the experience of those countries which employed slave labour has been that after Slavery was abolished production increased.”   Slave porters contradicted this axiom, however.  In the East Africa it was very difficult to conduct the caravan trade without resorting to using slave porters.

This inherent difficulty of free labor in East Africa perhaps explains why the the BFASS threw its support behind the construction of the Uganda Railway (1896-1902) to connect the city of Mombasa on the east coast of Africa (modern day Kenya) to Lake Victoria in the interior of the East Africa Protectorate.  The Society saw the railway as a two pronged approach to both promote commerce but more importantly undermine slave labor by suppressing the need for slave porters.  Significantly, Joseph Pease argued, that the “. . .nation which first makes the railway will receive the commercial and political supremacy in Equatorial Africa.”    By way of footnote, however, the aforementioned Henry Morton Stanley, in a maiden speech as MP for Lambeth North in London, spoke out against the building of the Uganda railway by blasting the BFASS and other “fanatics” who would drive the government into rash action as he put it.    
BFASS support of the Uganda railway was in line with their support of British colonization of Uganda.  In 1893 the Foreign Office sent Sir Gerald Portal to Buganda to report on the political situation in that kingdom in light of IBEAC’s meddling in its political affairs.  When he returned, Portal presented his report to parliament in March 1894.  His report became the basis for the assumption of a protectorate over Uganda.  Portal’s report also pushed the issue of slavery in East Africa to the forefront, by way of Uganda.  In a despatch to the Earl of Rosebery, Foreign Secretary, on 1 November 1893, Portal called for the transfer of Buganda to the sphere of influence of Zanzibar as one of the ways of checking slave raiding and slave trading that was going on in the area.    Many humanitarian organizations, like the BFASS, called for Britain to assume a protectorate over Uganda as a way of stamping out slave trading and raiding.  The BFASS felt that colonization of Uganda would stop the slave trade in the interior of East Africa.  As the MP Joseph Pease stated in a House of Commons supply debate,

. . . if Great Britain declined to remain in Uganda a great opportunity would be afforded to the Arab slave raiders to pursue their horrible operations unrestrained in the center of Africa and to make Slave-raids in the district between Uganda and the Coast.

On 1 June 1894, in both houses of parliament, a debate on slavery erupted around the issue of British control of Uganda.  The basic question was should Britain assume a protectorate over Uganda or leave “the country to fall back into barbarism.”   The MP Joseph Pease, speaking on behalf of the BFASS, advocated British control over Uganda as a way of retarding the East African slave trade.   Ironically, despite his calls for the assumption of British control in Uganda, Pease did not favor immediate abolition of slavery in that territory as was the BFASS stated goal in Zanzibar.   In contrast to the BFASS' stance on slavery in Zanzibar, Pease maintained that domestic slavery was more prevalent in Uganda.  Consequently, domestic slavery required only the abolition of legal status as opposed to outright emancipation of slaves.    Pease argued that outright emancipation would lead to economic hardship due to the sudden withdrawal of labor.  Abolition of the legal status of slavery, however, would be a much more subtle and gradual liberation of labor.  Pease’s stance at this point would contrast with his later position on slavery in Zanzibar.  Pease's argument for gradual abolition of slavery in Uganda was a microcosm of the contradictions of BFASS protests against bonded labor in East Africa.  On the issue of colonization, however, Pease was consistent.  As H. R. Foxbourne, of the BFASS and Aborigines Protection Society, stated in a paper delivered to the Society’s Anti-Slavery Conference, “The sole justification for our exploitation of Africa, as of other uncivilised parts of the world, is that it shall, not merely aim at, but also result in the benefitting of the native populations.”     

The BFASS and the Abolition of Slavery in the EAP

In early 1895, due to lagging economic fortunes and mismanagement, the British government bought out the charter of the IBEAC for 250,000 pounds and also bought out the Sultan of Zanzibar’s interests on the ten mile strip of the East African coast.  The East Africa Protectorate (EAP) was born. With the declaration of the East Africa Protectorate (EAP) on 1 July 1895 the requisite question of slavery on the coast of Kenya became more of a pressing issue. 

Slavery still existed in Zanzibar and on the ten-mile strip of coastal Kenya in 1895. 
Despite the 1890 decree that ended the exchange and sale of slaves, slaves were openly bought and sold.  An agreement of 1889 that ostensibly freed slave children born after 1 January 1890 was also flouted

Slavery Abolition Act, (1833), in British history, act of Parliament that abolished slavery in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa as well as a small number in Canada. It received Royal Assent on August 28, 1833, and took effect on August 1, 1834.

Legal challenges to slavery in British North America

British abolitionists had actively opposed the transatlantic trade in African people since the 1770s. (Several abolitionist petitions were organized in 1833 alone, which collectively garnered the support of 1.3 million signatories.) Such antislavery views spread to Upper Canada, influencing the passage there of the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery, the first such legislation in the British colonies.

In the eastern colonies of Lower Canada (what is now Québec), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, however, abolitionist attempts had been unsuccessful. In 1793, for instance, Pierre-Louis Panet introduced a bill to the National Assembly to abolish enslavement in Lower Canada, but the bill languished over several sessions and never came to a vote.

Instead, individual legal challenges first raised in the late 1700s undermined the institution of enslavement in these areas. One important case arose in February 1798, when an enslaved woman named Charlotte was arrested in Montréal and refused to return to her mistress. She was brought before James Monk, a justice of the King’s Bench with abolitionist sympathies, who released her on a technicality. According to British law, enslaved persons could be detained only in houses of corrections, not common jails, and no houses of correction existed in Montréal. Charlotte and another enslaved woman named Judith were accordingly freed that winter. Monk stated in his ruling that he would apply this interpretation of the law to subsequent cases. Another significant 1798 case came before the courts in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, when a local military officer, Frederick William Hecht, sought to establish his title to an enslaved woman named Rachel Bross. After a lengthy trial, the jury rejected Hecht’s claim, ruling instead that Bross was a free servant.

Rulings in such cases did not always favour emancipation, however. Only two years after the trials of Charlotte and Bross, an enslaved woman named Nancy petitioned for her freedom in the New Brunswick courts. Fourteen years earlier, Nancy had run away with her son and three others, but they were caught and returned to her owner, a farmer and Loyalist settler named Caleb Jones. The challenge filed by her attorneys was that slavery was a socially accepted custom but was not officially recognized in New Brunswick. The judges’ decision was split, and Nancy remained enslaved.

Impact of the Act

The Slavery Abolition Act did not explicitly refer to British North America. Its aim was rather to dismantle the large-scale plantation slavery that existed in Britain’s tropical colonies, where the enslaved population was usually larger than that of the white colonists. Enslaved Africans in British North America were relatively isolated and far smaller in number.

As an imperial statute, the Slavery Abolition Act liberated less than 50 enslaved Africans in British North America. For most enslaved people in British North America, however, the Act resulted only in partial liberation, as it only emancipated children under the age of six, while others were to be retained by their former owners for four to six years as apprentices. The British government made available £20,000,000 to pay for damages suffered by owners of registered slaves, but none of the money was sent to slaveholders in British North America. Those who had been enslaved did not receive any compensation either.

The Act also made Canada a free territory for enslaved American blacks. Thousands of fugitive slaves and free blacks subsequently arrived on Canadian soil between 1834 and the early 1860s.

Natasha L. Henry

The original version of this entry was published byThe Canadian Encyclopedia.


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