Aug. 4, 2021

Government in the dark about emancipation history

The pretentiousness of our federal government to designate August 1 as Emancipation Day in Canada is ridiculous. The government didn’t invent it and does not know or recognize the history behind it.

The movement to abolish slavery started in England in the late 1700s. It took until 1833 to abolish the slave trade. Slavery – ownership of another person - was not abolished until 1838.

Canada has a different slavery history that will appear in Part Two.


The English drive to abolish slavery had worldwide repercussions. William Wilberforce, Hannah More, Granville Sharp, James Eliot, Zachary Macaulay and Henry Thornton formed the Anti-Slavery Society. Key figures were referred to by many as the Saints and, later, the Clapham Sect.

On 13th March 1787, during a dinner involving several important figures among the Clapham Sect community, Wilberforce agreed to bring the issue to Parliament.

Wilberforce subsequently gave many speeches in the House of Commons, including twelve motions condemning the slave trade. The biggest obstacle was not the ins and outs of the motion but Parliament itself, which continued to stall on the matter.

By 1807, with slavery garnering great public attention and in the courts, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act. This was a momentous step; however, it still was not the end goal as it simply outlawed the trade of slaves but not slavery itself.

Once enacted, the legislation worked through fines, which sadly did little to deter slave owners and traders. By 1811, a new law helped curb this practice somewhat by introducing the Slave Trade Felony Act, which made slavery a felony.

The Royal Navy was called to assist by establishing the West African Squadron, which patrolled the coast. Between 1808 and 1860, it successfully freed 150,000 Africans bound for a life of enslavement.

One often-overlooked factor in bringing an end to the practice of the slave trade was the role played by those already enslaved. A growing resistance movement was developing among the slaves. The French colony of St Domingue was seized by slaves leading to the establishment of Haiti.

This era for significant social change, the Age of Reason, was ushered in by the Enlightenment, which brought together philosophies that catapulted social injustices to the forefront of people’s minds. Europe was experiencing great upheaval: the French Revolution had brought ideas of the equal rights of man and challenged the previously accepted social hierarchies.

This new European social conscience and self-awareness also impacted enslaved communities who had always resisted but now felt encouraged to claim their rights. Toussaint Louverture leading the revolt in Haiti was not the only example of such a stirring of feelings; rebellions in other locations followed, including Barbados in 1816, Demerara in 1822 and Jamaica in 1831.

The Baptist War, as it became known, in Jamaica originated with a peaceful strike led by the Baptist Minister Samuel Sharpe; however, it was brutally suppressed, which led to the loss of life and property. The extent of the violence was such that the British Parliament was forced to hold two inquiries that made essential inroads in establishing the Slavery Abolition Act a year later.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Slavery Society had its first meeting back in the UK, which helped to bring together Quakers and Anglicans. As part of this group, a range of campaigns involving meetings, posters and speeches were arranged, helping to get the word out and draw attention to the issue. This would ultimately prove successful as it brought together a range of people who rallied behind the cause.

By 26 July 1833, the wheels were in motion for new legislation to be passed.
As part of the act, slavery was abolished in most British colonies, which resulted in around 800,000 slaves being freed in the Caribbean and South Africa and a small amount in Canada. The law took effect on August 1, 1834 and put into practice a transitional phase which included reassigning roles of slaves as “apprentices,” which was later brought to an end in 1840.

The act did not include territories “in possession of the East India Company, Ceylon, or Saint Helena.” By 1843 these conditions were lifted. However, a longer process ensued, which not only included freeing slaves but also finding a way to compensate the slave owners for the loss of investment.

The British government sought around £20 million to pay for the loss of slaves. Many of those receiving this compensation were from the higher echelons of society.

While the apprenticeships were enforced, peaceful protests by those affected continued until their freedom was secured. This was finally achieved with complete legal emancipation granted on  August 1, 1838.

The events leading to the abolition of slavery are an essential chapter in British and global history, with important lessons for humanity.