Skip to content

Emancipation Day

Authored by British Online Archives
Published on 1st August, 2023 3 min read

Emancipation Day

On this day (01/08/2023) in 1834 slavery was officially abolished throughout Britain’s colonies as a result of the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act twelve months earlier. Since the sixteenth century Britain had perpetrated appalling crimes against humanity, participating in a trade that saw the forced removal of at least twelve million people from Africa to the Americas. Having endured horrific conditions on board slave ships, these people 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). Those who reached the Americas were enslaved for life and their descendants entered slavery at birth. 

Britain played a leading role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This reached its peak in the middle of the seventeenth century. Although many other European countries were involved — including Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden — British ports became epi-centres 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 riches 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 has been lauded for its role in the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. In recent years, however, this narrative has been subject to 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 (many formerly enslaved people were "apprenticed" and therefore received no wages at all). Following emancipation in 1834, moreover, 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 on 1 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. In Bermuda, Emancipation Day is celebrated on the last Thursday before August.  

Though the event is not observed officially in the United Kingdom, there have been growing calls for its establishment so as to acknowledge the prominent role played by the UK in the enslavement of Africans and people of African heritage. There have also been renewed demands to recognise and to raise awareness about the oppressive nature of British imperial rule across Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australasia. These include 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 stressed the need for such payments on numerous occasions, whilst public figures in Jamaica (another Commonwealth country that has recently pledged to become a republic) have done likewise. Against the backdrop of the Windrush scandal, and in the wake of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK, it is more important than ever that we engage critically with the history and legacy of the British Empire. After all, history involves both learning about and from the past.

Authored by British Online Archives

British Online Archives

British Online Archives provides unique collections of primary source documents for students and researchers studying the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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