Ahead of Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Michael Taylor, the author of The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery (2020). He will be responding to your questions about his research on the parliamentary resistance to the abolition of slavery between 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on 3 November 2020. Details on how to join the discussion are available here or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog, which explores the parliamentary context of the abolition of slavery, is based on Michael’s full-length seminar paper, ‘The West India Interest and Colonial Slavery in Parliament, 1823-33’, which is available here.
It might be natural to think that, when Parliament abolished the British slave trade in 1807, it also abolished slavery itself. But it did not. In fact, when the Slave Trade Abolition Act came into force on New Year’s Day, 1808, there were more than 700,000 enslaved Africans in the British West Indies. In Jamaica alone there were more enslaved persons than the total population of any British city save London. Moreover, at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain even expanded its slaving empire by annexing both Trinidad and Demerara from the French.
For much of the fifteen years following the abolition of the trade, the anti-slavery movement was moribund. And when the abolitionists finally stirred themselves in late 1822 and early 1823, slave emancipation was far from practicable, let alone a fait accompli.
Indeed, on the night in May 1823 that Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) first proposed the gradual abolition of slavery to the House of Commons, he spoke to a Parliament that was – in William Wilberforce’s words – ‘made up of West Indians, Government men, a few partisans, and [only] a few sturdy Abolitionists’.
The ‘Government men’ of Wilberforce’s description could not have been more influential: the home secretary, Robert Peel (1788-1850); the president of the Board of Trade, William Huskisson (1770-1830); the under-secretary for the colonies, Robert Wilmot-Horton (1784-1841); and especially George Canning (1770-1827), who in 1823 was both foreign secretary and leader of the House. These ‘big beasts’ of Lord Liverpool’s Tory administration gave front-bench support to dozens of MPs who were involved either directly or through commercial contacts in colonial slavery.
The ‘Jamaican’ lobby included the Tory slaveholder Alexander Cray Grant (1782-1854), the Wiltshire playwright George Watson Taylor (1771-1841), and the pro-slavery polemicist John Rock Grossett (c.1784-1866). Demerara’s leading agent was a coarse and foul-mouthed Irishman, William ‘Black Billy’ Holmes (c.1777-1851), who as the government’s chief whip had curated an intimate knowledge of the ‘tastes, wishes, idiosyncrasies, weaknesses, and family connections’ of other MPs.
The eastern ‘Spice Isle’ of Grenada was represented by Joseph Marryat (1757-1824), ‘a forceful and innovative chairman’ of Lloyd’s who was, in Wilberforce’s words, a pro-slavery ‘fanatic’. Antiguan MPs included Thomas Byam Martin (1773-1854), a future Admiral of the Fleet, and George Henry Rose (1770-1855), a diplomat whose missions included Berlin and Washington. St Kitts meanwhile connected two major financial figures: William Manning (1763-1835), a former governor of the Bank of England, and Alexander Baring (1773-1848), a senior partner in the eponymous bank.
It was a dizzying, daunting roster of pro-slavery politicians who were landowners, bankers, businessmen, sailors, judges, lawyers, and intellectuals, and they were but a portion of the pro-slavery party in parliament.
For the next seven years, the abolitionists faced fierce resistance to any of their proposals. When Buxton proposed gradual abolition in 1823, Canning stepped in to bind the Commons to a pair of meaningless resolutions that promised progress without effecting anything. In 1824, when the government enacted an ‘ameliorative’ Order in Council in Trinidad, it gave force only to measures that the West Indian planters themselves had crafted, safe in the knowledge that they would not diminish the productivity of the slave colonies.
At the election of 1826, as Buxton fended off pro-slavery Tories at Weymouth – and as Wilmot-Horton stared down abolitionist protestors in Staffordshire – the anti-slavery party made few, if any gains. And under the successive administrations led by Canning, Goderich, and Wellington, the West Indians knew they were safe from censure.
It was not until the Tories’ implosion over Catholic Emancipation in 1829, and the subsequent entry of Grey’s Whigs in late 1830, that the abolitionists had even the scarcest hope of pushing through emancipation. Even then, they knew it would be a merely secondary concern for the Whigs, who, although friendlier to the idea of slave emancipation, were preoccupied with the reform of Parliament, not of the colonies.
So, the abolitionists bided their time. This was torment for some of the younger, more impetuous members of the anti-slavery lobby, in particular for George Stephen (1794-1879) – the brother of the Colonial Office bureaucrat – who in 1831 founded the abolitionist Agency Committee as the vanguard of a growing movement for ‘immediate emancipation’.
Yet while the slaveholders in the House of Lords attempted to rally their forces by convening an utterly partisan select committee to ‘investigate’ colonial slavery, events in the West Indies began to persuade politicians in London that slavery was simply unsustainable. The Christmas Rebellion in Jamaica, which saw 60,000 enslaved people rise up against the white colonists, struck a note of fear into ministers that, without emancipation, the Caribbean would be lost to civil war.
It followed that the first election to the reformed House of Commons, during the winter of 1832 marked the demise of the pro-slavery lobby at Westminster. Stephen and his immediatist allies bound hundreds of candidates to pledges in favour of emancipation, and with the West India Interest losing dozens of allies as rotten boroughs were disfranchised, the Commons that met in 1833 was the first in British history with a majority in favour of abolishing slavery.
Within seven months the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act – legislation which compensated the West Indian planters to the tune of £20,000,000 – had received royal assent.
Michael will be responding to your questions about his research on the parliamentary resistance to the abolition of slavery between 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on 3 November 2020. Details on how to join the discussion are available here or by contacting email@example.com.
This blog is based on Michael’s full-length seminar paper, ‘The West India Interest and the Parliamentary Defence of Slavery, 1823-33’, which is available here.
Dr Michael Taylor is the author of The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery (The Bodley Head, 2020). He is a historian of colonial slavery, the British Empire and the British Isles. He graduated with a double first in history from the University of Cambridge, where he earned his PhD – and also won University Challenge. He has since been Lecturer in Modern British History at Balliol College, Oxford, and a Visiting Fellow at the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies.