slavery had existed in the British Empire long before it could have been
called an empire, but the sun seemed to set it as the nineteenth century
grew prosperous. Abolitionists had worked for years to end the practice by
lobbying Parliament, and a formal Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1823
with such members as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Elizabeth
Pease. Pitted against them were the wealthy plantation owners of the
empire whose fortunes were based on cheap labor.
force against the abolitionists was simple inertia. Slavery had worked for
so long that, while it may have been deplorable, that was simply the way
things were. Many noted the question of what to do with thousands of newly
freed, unemployed, uneducated former slaves. The status quo continued so,
until 1831 when a planned peaceful strike of Baptist slaves broke out into
violent revolt in Jamaica, put down ten days later with hundreds dead in
what became known as the Baptist War.
After the rebellion, an inquiry was sent to investigate, and the brutality
of the planters became known. While the abolitionists used the information
to push forward their agenda, businessmen became concerned. They had lost
the slave trade in 1807, but to lose all slaves would be a major financial
hit. When it became suspected that even the East India Company may suffer,
money acted. Through politicking and outright bribery, the years of work
of the Anti-Slavery Society were absconded and twisted into a new ideal:
governing the rights of slaves.
Before the abolitionists could effectively rebut it, the Slaves' Rights
Act was passed in 1833. The institution of slavery was thus legally
protected, and slaves were deemed a kind of lifetime apprentice.
Mistreatment of slaves was made stiffly illegal with fines and even
jail-time, but runaway slaves were also to be arrested and fined what
little money they had. A new office of civil servant was created as Slave
Inspectors (which became well paid and often relations of large slave
owners). Also key to the act was the point that slave may only be bought
or sold with a writ of permission from the slave. While not reigniting the
slave trade, this did open legal grounds for the transport and sale of
"If the end of slavery in the British Empire had
been delayed, that would hhave affected the history of the \"peculiar
institution\" in the U.S. as well, weakening abolitionism in North
America" - reader's comment
Abolitionists decried the act as "a
feeble bandage on a festering wound", and Thomas Clarkson was quoted as
saying that he was "happy Wilberforce did not live to see this day".
Still, the law improved conditions for slaves, and many were sold their
freedom. Even with fewer slaves per capita, slavery continued. Reinventing
themselves, many abolitionists began to use the "writ of permission" as
note that the slaves must be able to write effectively, and thus schooling
must be provided for all slaves, especially the young. When it was upheld
in the courts, many abolitionists became educators for the slaves.
With furthered education, the slaves of the British Empire became arguably
more politically significant than the uneducated masses in the large
cities of the Industrial Revolution. Following the reports of David
Livingstone in the 1860s about the Arab slave trade, a new push for
slaves' rights began and was furthered by the Emancipation Proclamation in
America during its Civil War. A long discourse in Parliament began, and
slavery was abolished in 1873. Newly freed, many slaves used their
education to better their position: opening businesses, buying land, and
employing other former slaves as workers in factories.
Toward the twentieth century, the centers of manufacturing shifted toward
former plantations. Throughout the British Empire, factories sprung up
beside fields, transforming towns to cities. Seaside cities solved their
energy needs with offshore drilling for oil and "wave generators," a
machine capable of turning tidal motion to electricity, invented by
Freedman John Stanwite of Jamaica. The Caribbean became known as South
Manchester for its manufactures, though the nickname was only economically
apt as its was a collection of light industry instead of heavy machines.
The colonies swiftly began to move away from Britain as a "motherland".
With the World War ending in 1918, Ireland led the colonies in searching
for freedom. With a marginal downturn in the world economy over the course
of the 1930s in the World Depression, political pressure forced the
British Empire to evolve into a commonwealth of republics. Socialism would
strike many of the former French and Spanish colonies as preferable
following the example of Stalinist Russia, but the political tug-of-war
between the capitalist west and the USSR could hardly be called a war,
even a cold one. Instead, widespread commercialism would dominate the
world by the beginning of the twenty-first century.