Why did the British Government, and the British people, pay the planters and not the slaves when slavery was abolished in her Caribbean colonies?
In the emancipation settlement of 1833, British slaveholders were given money to compensate them for the end of slavery. A lot of money. They were granted £20 million outright to be shared amongst those who could prove a claim (resulting in the wealth of information on British slave ownership that has only recently begun to be exploited by researchers and historians).
The slaves received no money. They were instead re-classed as “apprentices” in an attempt to ensure continuing productivity on the colonial plantations up to 1840. (Apprenticeship would in fact end 2 years early, in 1838.)
So why is it that the planters, whose family fortunes had often been made in the colonies through the exploitation of their fellow men, were the ones being granted compensation? Because the planters had a legal right to hold their property, and if the state was going to take away their property, then the property holders were entitled to compensation.
To understand this argument, we have to try to put ourselves in the mind-set that, legally, enslaved human beings were the property of their masters, and that their “owners” had as much legal right to compensation for the removal of this class of property as they did to any other.
This legal argument proved particularly effective in the final years of the slavery debates in Parliament. Outright proslavery arguments had faded from the parliamentary debates soon after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Instead, we see a rise in legal and pro-colonial arguments that were put forth to defend the planters’ careers and possessions.
As abolitionists worked to humanise enslaved Africans and those of African descent in the colonies, often employing sentimental rhetoric and emotionally-charged imagery in their work, and framing the issues of abolition and emancipation as humanitarian goals, anti-abolitionists continued to turn to supposedly-rational legal arguments to make their claim to compensation, in case the day were to come that slavery were ended in the colonies. This was a smart road to take, and it was highly effective.
Parliament was made up of landowners. If they had ended slavery without compensation, the British government would have been confiscating millions of pounds of property without giving anything in return. For them, this would have been setting a dangerous precedent! As Robert John Wilmot Horton remarked on March 6, 1828:
“In this country, if a canal were cut, or a street built, the interest of the individuals was made to yield to the public interest; but then it was well known that individuals always received compensation. Now, the West-Indian has property which he could only work by means of slave labour; and was he not, therefore, equally entitled to compensation, if deprived of that labour, as the man in this country was who had his property destroyed, either by the building of a street or the construction of a canal?”(Parliamentary Debates New Series XVIII col. 102)
Note that Wilmot Horton here emphasises land rather than human property, possibly as a means to avoid being drawn into to moral debate over slave ownership. But not everyone felt the need to dance around the matter:
“God forbid that there should be any thing like a forcing of a master to abandon his property in the slave! Once adopt that principle, and there was the end of all property.” – Lord Wynford, 17 April 1832 (Parliamentary Debates 3rd Series XII col. 630)
If some humans were considered property, and that property had been obtained through legal means such as financial investment and inheritance, than the owners, and not the property, would need to be compensated in the case of that property being removed or destroyed. And so we find that the masters, and not the slaves, were granted substantial financial compensation as slavery was abolished in the British Empire.
Draper, Nicholas. The Price of Emancipation: Slave-ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Drescher, Seymour. The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Dumas, Paula E. Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Green, William A. British Slave Emancipation: The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment, 1830-1865. 1976. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.