August 1st should be celebrated as one of the most glorious days for liberty in world history.
You’re scratching your head about now, wondering what happened on this date that was so memorable.
Slavery had been outlawed within Britain itself in 1772.
One hundred eighty-four years ago today, slavery officially disappeared in nearly every corner of the greatest and most far-flung jurisdiction of its time, the British Empire. The Slavery Abolition Act, passed a year earlier, took effect on August 1, 1834. It liberated some 800,000 slaves in the British lands of the Caribbean and South America, as well as the remaining few dozens in Canada. Slavery had been outlawed within Britain itself in 1772.
What Britain did 184 years ago ranks as one of the largest, peaceful emancipations of enslaved peoples ever, second only to Brazil’s a half-century later in 1888. (Freedom for America’s four million slaves occurred with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, as a result of the Civil War).
In his riveting 2006 book, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild reveals an engrossing detail about that fateful summer day: The night before, slaves by the thousands gathered on the nearest high points. They wanted to be there when the sun came up because it ordained a new day in more ways than one.
Many tears were shed that morning, just as they had flowed in London and around the globe on the day abolition passed. That blessed moment was the culmination of almost five decades of ceaseless labor by men and women—both black and white—who were convinced that no man possesses the right to own another.
It was a simple but revolutionary concept, widely accepted and seldom questioned today. By the dawn of the 19th Century, though, it had been a minority view for at least two millennia.
A dozen good souls gathered around a print-shop table in London to discuss how to change the conscience of a nation.
The world’s first think tank (albeit a single-issue one), the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, launched the abolitionist cause in May 1787. That’s when a dozen good souls gathered around a print-shop table in London to discuss how to change the conscience of a nation. Great men I’ve written about, such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, as well as great women like Mary Morris Knowles and Mary Birkett Card, poured their hearts and treasures into the effort to free people they never met from lands they never saw. They secured the end of the legal slave trade in 20 years (1807), but it took another 26 for them to convince Parliament to extinguish bondage altogether.
What a tribute to the power of ideas! Root them in moral purity, advocate them with boundless courage, carry them forth with an optimism that proclaims victory is inevitable—that was the formula that stamped out the scourge of slavery in the British Empire. Liberation in 1834 is proof of Victor Hugo’s famous truism: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”
So complete and thorough was the transformation of public opinion that abolition seemed almost like an afterthought to many. No one of any significant influence was left on the other side. Three decades later it would take a violent civil war to end slavery in America. In 1834 Britain, however, not even paying off slaveholders was sufficiently controversial to prevent emancipation’s passage.
The former slaves themselves received no payment for their suffering—a lamentable aspect of the law that freed them.
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. It finally paid the loan off just three years ago, in 2015. The former slaves themselves received no payment for their suffering—a lamentable aspect of the law that freed them.
Today, we can argue over the terms of the 1833 Act, but no decent human being can question the moral wisdom of terminating a ghastly, ancient injustice for 800,000 fellow humans.
In 1791, William Wilberforce didn’t know that another 43 years would pass before Parliament would finally abolish slavery. It wouldn’t have deterred him in any event, for he was committed to it as thoroughly as anyone convinced of anything. In the House of Commons, he pressed the case on his reluctant colleagues with powerful and haunting words. Upon presenting horrific evidence condemning the cruelty of the slave trade, he pronounced, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.”
August 1, 1834, was indeed a very great day for liberty. We should never forget it.