Skip to content

Emancipation Day

Authored by Nathaniel Andrews
Published on 1st August, 2022 3 min read

Emancipation Day

Hands breaking free from handcuffs.

On this date, in 1834, slavery was officially abolished throughout Britain’s colonies, following the approval of the Slavery Abolition Act, twelve months earlier. Since the 16th century, Britain had perpetrated appalling crimes against humanity, participating in a trade that saw the forced removal of at least 12 million people from Africa to the Americas. These people, having endured horrific conditions on board slave ships, usually spent the rest of their lives labouring on plantations, to produce popular European commodities such as sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Many did not survive the ‘middle passage’ across the Atlantic (it is estimated that around 15% died during the voyage), but those who did reach the Americas were enslaved for life, and their descendants entered slavery at birth. 

Britain played a leading role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, throughout its existence. The trade reached its peak from the middle of the 17th century, and though many other European countries were involved – 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 fuelled the development of British industry, and yielded rich rewards for institutions and prominent individuals alike, including banks, political leaders, and the British royal family. 

Whilst the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery itself endured throughout the British Empire for a further quarter of a century. Traditionally, Britain was lauded for its role in the abolition of both the slave trade and slavery but, in recent years, this narrative has increasingly drawn criticism. For example, researchers have pointed out that, even after the abolition of slavery, the institution often continued in all but name, with formerly enslaved people frequently forced to work for extremely low wages (in fact, many formerly enslaved people were ‘apprenticed’, and therefore received no wages at all). In addition, following emancipation in 1834, the British government awarded the enormous sum of £20 million (close to £17 billion in today’s money) to former slaveowners, as compensation for the loss of their ‘property’. This compensation was so large that UK taxpayers were still paying off the debt to the families of former slaveowners as late as 2015. 

To mark the official end of slavery in the British Empire, many former (and some current) British territories celebrate Emancipation Day every year on the 1st of August. These include: 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 (whereas, in Bermuda, Emancipation Day is celebrated on the last Thursday before August).  

Though the event is not observed officially in this country, there have been growing calls for the UK establishment to acknowledge the prominent role of Britain in the enslavement of Africans and people of African heritage. More generally, there have been renewed demands to recognise and raise awareness about the oppressive nature of British imperial rule across Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australasia, including demands for reparations to be paid to former British colonies. For instance, Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados – which recently removed the Queen as head of state – has repeatedly stressed the need for such payments, whilst public figures in Jamaica (another Commonwealth country which has recently pledged to become a republic) have done the same. Against the backdrop of the Windrush scandal, and in the wake of the rise of Black Lives Matter in the UK, it is more important than ever that we critically engage with the history and legacy of empire. After all, history involves both learning about and from the past.

Authored by Nathaniel Andrews

Nathaniel Andrews

Nathaniel Andrews is Senior Editor at British Online Archives, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Between October 2018 and September 2021, he taught in the Schools of History and Languages at the University of Leeds, and between September 2021 and June 2022, he was a Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester. His research centres primarily on the history of anarchism in the Hispanic World and North America, and he has several publications on the Spanish and Argentinian labour movements. He is currently working on his first monograph.

Share this article

Notable Days


The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

Get Social

Back to Top