When was slavery abolished in the UK? Britain's role in the slave trade outlined following the removal of Edward Colston's statue

As Black Lives Matter protests spread around the world, many have been reflecting on the history of racism in UK and its roots in slavery

The Slave Compensation Act of 1837 saw plantation owners across the British colonies receive millions of pounds in compensation after the abolition of slavery, while those who had been enslaved received nothing.
The Slave Compensation Act of 1837 saw plantation owners across the British colonies receive millions of pounds in compensation after the abolition of slavery, while those who had been enslaved received nothing.

Following the death of George Floyd last month at the hands of a white police officer in the US, thousands joined protests around the UK to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

On Sunday, 7 June, protesters in Bristol pulled down the statue of Edward Colston, an infamous slave trader, before dragging it through the streets and throwing it into the Bristol harbour.

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Meanwhile, during demonstrations in London, protesters defaced a statue of Winston Churchill in Westminster, with the words “Churchill was a racist” graffitied onto the pedestal.

The statue of Edward Colston on the ground after it was pulled down by Black Lives Matter activists

Such actions have since sparked a renewed debate about the proper treatment of colonial symbols still present and celebrated in the UK, while the protests as a whole have caused many to reflect on the UK’s history of racism, along with its roots in the slave trade and colonialism.

Who was Edward Colston?

Colston was a member of the slave trade company known as The Royal African Company, which abducted roughly 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas.

It is estimated that 19 thousand black lives were lost during the unhygienic and cramped journeys.

The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, called the statue of Colston a “personal affront” to black people

Many buildings and memorials around Bristol are named after him following his death in 1721, upon which he bequeathed his wealth - made with his profits from the slave trade - to charities.

When did slavery end in the UK?

According to the National Archives, the first English slave trader was a man named John Hawkins, who “left England in 1562 on the first of three slaving voyages.”

From 1660, the British Royal Family, who headed The Royal African Company, granted several charters allowing companies to supply slaves from the west coast of Africa to the American colonies.

This continued for several centuries before the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act made the British Atlantic slave trade outlawed in 1807.

However it wasn’t until 1833 that the British government passed the crucial Abolition of Slavery Act, that ordered the abolition of slavery to gradually take place in all of the British colonies.

According to The Encyclopædia Britannica’s website, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 “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.”

However, merely four years later, this act was followed by the The Slave Compensation Act of 1837.

Despite its misleading name, this act saw plantation owners across the British Colonies receive millions of pounds in compensation, while those who had been enslaved received nothing.

How many Africans were sold into slavery by the British?

While it is impossible to know the exact figures, it has been estimated that Britain abducted around 3.1 million Africans in total, transporting them to North and South America, the Caribbean, and to other countries that made up the British colonies.

It has also been estimated that only 2.7 million of those abducted and sold into slavery arrived at their enforced destinations alive.

When was slavery abolished in the US?

In the US, the movement to abolish slavery first gained strength in the northern states from the 1830s to the 1860s.

The movement was led by free black people such as writer Frederick Douglass as well as white supporters such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the popular antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Slavery existed in America for hundreds of years until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 abolished slavery in any capacity, except as punishment for a crime.

What was the last country to abolish slavery?

The last country in the world to abolish the slave trade, was the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in northwest Africa.

Mauritania abolished the practise in 1981, however, it did not introduce any criminal laws to enforce the ban until 2007, following international pressure.

Comparatively, 230 years prior in 1777, the state of Vermont - which at the time was an independent Republic following the American Revolution - became the first place to abolish the slave trade.

What has been the response to the UK’s recent protests?

Members of the black community and its allies had called for statues such as that of Edward Colston, and the imperialist Cecil Rhodes - found at the University of Oxford - to be removed, long before the death of George Floyd.

In Bristol, campaigns calling for the statue of Colston to be removed has spanned several years, with no result.

Bristol’s own Mayor, Marvin Rees, who is black, called the statue of Colston a “personal affront” to people like him, due to the unaddressed and overt associations with the slave trade and racism.

However, members of the government have been less understanding, with Home Secretary Priti Patel condemning the removal of the statue by protestors as "utterly disgraceful", and Boris Johnson saying the protests were “subverted by thuggery”.