Slavery was legally abolished throughout Britain's colonies in 1834, twelve months after the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. Since the 16th century, Britain has committed atrocities against humanity, taking part in a trade that has resulted in the forcible transportation of at least 12 million people from Africa to the Americas.
After enduring horrendous conditions aboard slave ships, these people frequently spent the remainder of their lives working on plantations to produce popular European commodities such as sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Many died on the middle passage' over the Atlantic (it is claimed that 15% died during the voyage), but those who did make it to the Americas were enslaved for life, and their offspring were born into slavery.
Throughout history, Britain has played a pivotal role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Although many other European countries were involved in the transaction, including Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, British ports became epicentres of this global enterprise, with Bristol, London, and Liverpool at the forefront of Europe's slaving ports.
Profits from the slave trade fueled the growth of British industry. They provided large sums to institutions and notable individuals, including banks, political leaders, and the British royal family.
While the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in 1807, slavery persisted in the British Empire for another quarter-century. Traditionally, Britain was celebrated for its involvement in the abolition of both the slave trade and slavery, but this narrative has increasingly faced criticism in recent years.
For example, researchers have noted that, even after slavery was abolished, the institution was frequently continued in all but name, with formerly enslaved people often forced to work for meagre wages (in fact, many formerly enslaved people were 'apprenticed,' and thus received no wages at all).
Furthermore, upon emancipation in 1834, the British government compensated former enslavers a considerable sum of £20 million (almost £17 billion in today's money) for losing their "property." This restitution was so massive that UK taxpayers still paid the debt to former enslavers' families as late as 2015.
Every year on August 1st, several former (and some current) British territories observe Emancipation Day to commemorate the official end of slavery in the British Empire. The Bahamas, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Canada are among them (Bermuda celebrates Emancipation Day on the final Thursday before August).
Though the anniversary is not officially recognised in this country, there have been growing calls for the UK establishment to acknowledge Britain's pivotal involvement in enslaving Africans and people of African descent. More broadly, there have been fresh calls to recognise and promote awareness of the repressive nature of British imperial authority in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australasia, including calls for reparations to former British colonies.
For example, Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, which recently deposed the Queen as head of state, has repeatedly emphasised the need for such payments, as have public officials in Jamaica (another Commonwealth country that has just promised to become a republic). In the aftermath of the Windrush affair and the growth of Black Lives Matter in the United Kingdom, it is more crucial than ever that we critically engage with the history and legacy of the empire. After all, history is about learning about and learning from the past.