EMANCIPATION ACT 1833

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An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies received Royal Assent on 28 August 1833 and took effect 1 August 1834.

​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 Service of such Slaves (also known as the Slavery Abolition Act) received Royal Assent on 28 August 1833 and took effect 1 August 1834. The Act abolished enslavement in most British colonies, freeing over 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa as well as a small number in Canada.

Several factors led to the Act’s passage. Britain’s economy was in flux at the time, and as a new system of international commerce emerged, its slaveholding Caribbean colonies — which were largely focused on sugar production — could no longer compete with larger plantation economies such as Cuba and Brazil. Merchants began to demand an end to the monopolies on the British market held by the Caribbean colonies and pushed instead for free trade. The persistent struggles of enslaved Africans and a growing fear of slave uprisings among plantation owners was another major factor.

British abolitionists had actively opposed the transatlantic trade in African people since the 1770s. (Several abolitionist petitions were organized in 1833 alone, which collectively garnered the support of 1.3 million signatories.) Such anti-slavery views spread to Upper Canada, influencing the passage of the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery, the first legislation that aimed to dismantle slavery in the British colonies.

individual legal challenges first raised in the late 1700s undermined the institution of enslavement in these areas. One important case came in February 1798, when an enslaved woman named Charlotte was arrested in Montréal and refused to return to her mistress. She was brought before James Monk, a justice of the King’s Bench with abolitionist sympathies, who released Charlotte on a technicality. According to British law, enslaved persons could only be detained in houses of corrections, and not common jails, and as no houses of correction existed in Montréal, Charlotte could not be detained. She and another enslaved woman named Judith were freed that winter. Monk stated in his ruling that he would apply this interpretation of the law to subsequent cases. Another significant 1798 case came before the courts in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, when a local military officer Frederick William Hecht sought to establish his title to an enslaved woman named Rachel Bross. After a lengthy trial, the jury rejected Hecht’s claim, ruling instead that Bross was a free servant.

Rulings in such cases did not always favour emancipation, however. Only two years after the trials of Charlotte and Bross, an enslaved woman named Nancy petitioned for her freedom in the New Brunswick courts. Fourteen years earlier, Nancy had run away with her son and three others, but they were caught and returned to her previous owner, a farmer and Loyalist settler named Caleb Jones. The challenge filed by her attorneys was that slavery was a socially accepted custom, but was not officially recognized in New Brunswick. The judges’ decision was split, and Nancy remained enslaved.

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