Much of the legal debate surrounding ending slavery in the British West Indies didn’t turn on the question of morality, as some may think. If it were left to just the moral debate, William Wilberforce, the Quaker Abolitionists and other negro liberation groups, would have lost, and slavery would have continued probably until the question was answered with civil war, like in the United States.
No, much of the debate on slavery hinged on the vital question of right to property. On this, property idea, many modern day thinkers are stumped. It seems almost incredulous, in the present day, to consider human as property, but for hundreds of years, we were.
Many fail to consider the long road Europe took to arrive at the very idea of personal property rights endowed by law. Prior to personal property rights, everything was considered property of the monarch, or whichever king happened to be on the throne. Anything of personal value, even one’s own life, did not belong to the possessor, only to the ruler of the land.
Ideas of personal property in law, developed as a means of ushering in economic development. People work harder and produce more if they had an ownership interest in something.
By 1441, when the Portuguese began bringing over the first negro slaves from Africa, into Europe, personal property laws were a firmly entrenched legal doctrine.
Slaveowners were endowed with the highest level of property ownership.
The first level of property ownership would be possession.
The second level would be possession and use.
The third and highest level would be possession, use and disposition.
Endowing slaveowners with the highest level of property ownership in human beings, classified as chattel, allowed people like Lord John Rolle, the absentee Exuma slave owner, to sell his slaves at will from the comfort of his Devonshire estate. He didn’t have to be in physical possession of them or be in direct command of their use to still retain his legal claim of personal property.
It was this legal idea of the right to personal property, all luxuries and benefits which flowed from it, that underpinned the angry response sent by the Bahamas government of 1833, to the passing of the Abolition Bill in England.
When Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Bill, as it related particularly to the colonies of the West Indies, the Bahamas government was opposed to it. Abolition represented an overstepping of the colonial Mother Country on the property rights of its colonists.
The Assembly seems to have reluctantly passed the abolition of slavery, removing the civil disabilities of the free coloured and black population of the Bahama Islands.
In an article appearing in the Philadelphia newspapers of Thursday, November 7, 1833, reprinted from the Bahama Argus on the 19th October 1833, we read the following:
We have received a file of the Bahamas Argos, down to the 19th instant inclusive. The editor says of the Slavery Abolition Bill passed by the British Parliament—
“Upon the whole, we consider it as a most arbitrary Bill, and in direct opposition to the spirit of the resolutions, brought forward by the Minister, in the spring of the year—- totally subversive of the rights of property—- impracticable in its operation—- and as such one as no Legislature in the West Indies, can frame laws to meet, without clashing with various enactments, contained therein.”
The legislature of the colony has passed an act for the removal of the civil disabilities of the free coloured and black population of the Bahama Islands.