There were tremendous difficulties with ending the legal institution of slavery, and most centred around the vast profits that were derived in relation to it. From end to end, from employment in shipping to domestic import taxes, to the substructure of the early industrial textile revolution, slavery underpinned national economies from America to Europe, from West to East.

Few people wanted to see it abolished, especially in the Bahamas.

(from An Official Letter from the Commissioners of Correspondence Bahama Islands concerning the proposed Abolition of Slavery in the West Indies 1823)

In purely economic terms, England could not simply just end something overnight, which had been so profitable, for so long, for so many.

There were entire colonial economies at stake. There were crucial agricultural and trade agreements for raw materials which would have crippled agricultural exports, as well as, industries like textiles, if slavery had suddenly ceased.

It was estimated, in economic terms that for every slave toiling away in the British West Indies, he or she facilitated the gainful employment of at least six people in Britain.

Remove the labour contribution of the one slave through abolition, six jobs in Britain would be lost.


In the late 1700’s, a handful of representatives from the Protestant and Quaker religions, began an anti-slavery movement in England. They became known as ABOLITIONISTS. Their cause grew and in 1807, the British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

The wording of the Act was very specific, and related only to the narrow term TRADE.

The 1807 Act, only made the shipping business of transporting people from Africa and elsewhere, across the seas, for the purposes of slavery against the law. It was the transporting that was made illegal.

Slavery itself, remained perfectly legal.

For females slaves, this period became particularly onerous, as many were forced to produce as many children as possible. More children, more slaves. More slaves, the more wealth accrued to slave owners and slave colonies.

Despite the 1807 Act, many, like the Spanish, Portuguese and the Dutch, still carried on with the illegal transportation of slaves out of Africa. These slaves were mostly bound of South American slave colonies, Guyana, Cuba and the American colonies.

For Britain, a whole new employment industry sprang up after 1807. The European giant went from participant to essentially, high seas policemen. Unemployed young men, in their thousands, now found new employment as naval police in the suppression of the slave trade. Across the vast Atlantic Ocean, Britain was now the international anti-slave trade enforcers.


The Slave Trade. —From a return of last session, it appears that in the year 1842 there were 58 ships employed for the suppression of the slave trade; the number of guns, 945; and the men engaged in the service numbered 8,554. The total expense of the ships was £575,466, of which the wages of the men were £261,319.

(The Manchester Courier, Saturday, 02 December 1943)

The 1807 Act greatly affected the population numbers in the Bahamas. If slaver ships were apprehended by the English near the Bahamas, as per new laws, the nearest friendly British port, would become the recipients of any slaves rescued.

Some became liberated slaves.

Some were sold into slavery.

Some became apprentices.

By 1835 the population of the Bahamas was 25,000 people.

In March 1836 the slave ship Vigilante was bought to Nassau with 230 Africans on board.

In the following month, another ship, the Creole, landed with 314 slaves.

In 1838, some 1,043 slaves were rescued from various slave ships and brought to Nassau.


A PAINFULLY SLOW END TO SLAVERY

“In the language of the scriptures, they [slaves] are our money*” (New Providence 1823)

What was initially asked for by the British Parliament, was a complete registration of all slaves in the colonies. In other words, there needed to be an accounting of how many, of which gender and their usefulness.

These new changes were not well received by slave owners, as you might well imagine. In fact, many thought that abolition would result in the complete ruin of the Bahamas.

In a lengthy letter written in, Nassau, New Providence, in 1823, and printed as a booklet in Liverpool and sold in bookstores across England at the time, the advocates for slavery in the Bahamas made their displeasure known. The Bahamas was totally against the dismantling of the institution of slavery in the West Indies. They were against the efforts of famous abolitionist William Wilberforce. Most of all, they were against the offering of freedom to negroes.

The argument against abolition, based on free slaves and free people of colour in the Bahamas, not employing themselves, as William Wilberforce contends, but only working for wages.

Part of Wilberforce’s argument for the abolition of slavery was the added economic value free people would bring to the colonies. Wilberforce’s contention was that without having to carry the heavy burden of forced labour, the slave would find new industry in being made free. This new industry and will to work would only be economically beneficial.

The Bahamas Commissioners say Wilberforce is very wrong.

Free black soldier from America, hanged in Bahamas for burglary. This reinforces their argument that free blacks were lazy, unproductive and criminals, so why give them freedom.

Registration would begin the long process of putting an end to slavery. Registration, essentially a specialised type of census, was the only way of finding out how many slaves were owned and where.

Once England knew what the value of the slave stocks in its colonies, it could then assess the potential economic impact on emancipation would have. Plans could be drawn up for compensation. Britain needed to know who owned what, where and how much they were worth, in order to compensate slave owners for the loss of their property, the slaves.

In 1833 an Act signed by the English parliament abolished slavery. The long title of the Act of 1833 would shed more light on the matter, it stated…’An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves’.

Slavery was finally abolished in most of the British Empire on 1 August 1834 by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. But, there were some colonies of Britain where this Act did not apply, like India and Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka.

WHAT THE ABOLITION ACT ACTUALLY DID…

Britain could just not stop, in a single moment, on a single day, what had went on for more than 200 years. Despite compensating slave owners for the economic loss, England decided to double compensate slaveowners by giving them free slave labour for a further six years after the official end of slavery on 1 August 1834.

What the Abolition Act actually did:-

Slave property was legally annulled.

Around 80,000 slaves were freed in the British West Indies.

Gave absolute freedom to slave children under the age of six.

All other slaves over the age of six were now called ‘apprentices’. However, in place of slavery the negotiated settlement established a system of apprenticeship, tying the newly freed men and women into another form of unfree labour for fixed terms.

They would have to apprentice for specified periods of time, finally ending on 1 August 1840.

That is, six years of apprenticeship for farms workers and four years for all others.

In other words, they would have to serve six more years, before they could consider themselves to be totally free.


APPRENTICESHIP CONTRACTS IN BAHAMAS BOUGHT AND SOLD JUST LIKE SLAVES

What is interesting is that in the Bahamas, slave owners continued to benefit from the institution of slavery long after it was lawfully ended. Not only were they doubly compensated with a lengthy term of free labour, as well as monetary compensation by Britain, Bahamas slave owners created a sub-market for that labour and traded it, as though slavery had never ended.

Unexpired Apprenticeship terms were sold at Vendue House, the slave auction house.

Unexpired Apprenticeships formed part of former slave owners estates and properties. As such they held economic value and survived the death of their original owners. Unexpired Apprenticeships were also used to satisfy debts. Former slaves, now traded apprentices, had no say in the matter whatsoever.

Praedial apprenticeships were farm or land labourers.

On December 10th 1836, John A. Collie, a planter from Acklins Island had sixteen praedial apprentices labourers and seven non-praedial apprentices. All were being sold, as well as cattle and stock, by the General Court Executions, as part of debt recovery proceedings against by John A. Collie.

(The Bahama Gazette and Advertiser, Wednesday January 18, 1837)
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