On this day 28 August 1833 – Abolition of Slavery Act

An black and white image of two hands in a pair of handcufffs

This post was first published on 27/08/2021.

Author: Sandy Dutczak, IALS Digital Projects and Publications Manager

On 28 August 1833, the Act to abolish slavery was given Royal Assent. Its full bill title was  

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 Services of such Slaves 

Although the Act received royal assent on 28 August 1833 it did not come into force until 1 August 1834 when the first step was to free all children under six. Enslaved people in the British Caribbean finally gained their freedom at midnight on 31 July 1838. 

Background to the Act 

The Mansfield Case 

Somerset v Stewart (1772) 98 ER 499 is a judgment in 1772, relating to the right of an enslaved person on English soil not to be forcibly removed from the country and sent to Jamaica for sale. In the case Lord Mansfield decided that: 

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged. 

Slavery had never been authorized by statute within England and Wales, and Lord Mansfield found it also to be unsupported within England by the common law. Lord Mansfield’s judgment was deliberately expressed in narrow terms, and scholars and later judges have disagreed over precisely what legal precedent the case set. 

The implications of the judgment in the Somerset case were far-reaching, but did not emancipate slaves, or free them to work for any employer once in Britain. What it did do was remove the element of compulsion by providing slaves with the legal right not to be forcibly removed from the country. 

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was enacted in 1807; see further Parliament abolishes the Slave Trade ; Abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain.

But although this act abolished the trade of slaves nothing was done to free the existing enslaved workforce in the British Empire so in 1823 the Anti-Slavery Society was set up. 

Modern day slavery 

In 1998, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was repealed in its entirety by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1998.  

The prohibition on slavery has now been incorporated into The Human Rights Act 1998 and The European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits the holding of any person as a slave (Article 4); see also Guide on Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights. 

In 2015 Parliament enacted the Modern Slavery Act which was originally entitled  

A Bill to make provision about slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour; to make provision about human trafficking; to make provision for an Antislavery Commissioner; and for connected purposes 

In 2019 the High Court decided, in the case of Antuzis v DJ Houghton Catching Services Ltd,  that the claimants were victims of the conduct criminalised in sections 1 – 3 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015  when they were employed  as chicken catchers on chicken farms. 

Modern Slavery (Amendment) Bill

A private members’ bill was introduced on 15 June 2021 which seeks to address modern slavery, including establishing minimum standards of transparency in supply chains, and to prevent companies using supply chains which fail to demonstrate minimum standards of transparency.

It is rare for a private members’ bill to progress through both Houses of Parliament due to constraints on parliamentary time and the failure to achieve cross-party support but if enacted the legislation would give the independent anti-slavery commissioner the power to issue warnings to commercial organisations if they fail to meet the relevant transparency obligations.

Modern Slavery (Amendment) Bill [HL] – Parliamentary Bills – UK Parliament


Mapping out London’s shame – the slave owners 

The Layers of London website, which peels back the capital’s story with maps and local data to enrich public understanding of the past, has released a new map revealing the slave owners of 19th-century London.

University of London Press – Open Access texts available to download 

Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London 

by Simon Newman

Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London reveals the hidden stories of enslaved and bound people who attempted to escape from captivity in England’s capital.

In 1655 White Londoners began advertising in the English-speaking world’s first newspapers for bound and enslaved people who had escaped. Based on the advertisements placed in these newspapers by ‘masters’ and enslavers offering rewards for so-called ‘runaway slaves’, this book brings to light- for the first time- the history of slavery in England as revealed in the stories of resistance to slavery by enslaved workers.

Featuring a series of case-studies of individual ‘freedom-seekers’, this book explores the nature and significance of escape attempts by the enslaved (mainly African and South Asian), and the significance of their resistance. The book demonstrates that not only were enslaved people present in Restoration London but that they resisted their bondage by attempting to free themselves.

The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy

by Stephen Mullen (October 2022)