A Guide to Sites, Museums, and Memory

Abolition of Slavery

<i>Monument to Abolition of Slavery</i>
Monument to Abolition of Slavery, Guadeloupe, circa 1848.

The end of slavery came to most parts of the Americas in the middle decades of the 1800s. From the 1820s through the 1860s, Great Britain, France, the United States, and independent Spanish American nations outlawed slavery. Haiti stands as a noteworthy exception with its revolutionary emancipation in the first years of the century. Despite growing international pressure, Cuba and Brazil retained their slave systems until the late 1880s.

The anti-slavery movement depended in part on the success of the movement to end the slave trade. While the two movements shared some of the same people and motivations, bringing an end to slavery proved more difficult than ending the trade. Plantation societies in the Americas provided great wealth to Europe, which some leaders were reluctant to abandon. More stringent ideas about race also made some leaders uncomfortable to accept a large, free population of African descent. Eventually, activist networks on both sides of the Atlantic brought positive legislative change to end the centuries-long practice of enslavement. Historians debate whether this change was due to humanitarian or economic impulses. Some policy makers clearly embraced the rights-based logic of the Enlightenment and revolutions when they voted for emancipation. Others believed that the plantation system was in decline and that states should turn their economic interests elsewhere.

The mechanisms of emancipation varied across the Americas. In Haiti, the enslaved population successfully freed itself from imperial rule. In the United States, a long civil war won a legal end to slavery. In many other places, the process took longer, with governments passing gradual emancipation laws that delayed freedom for many. Emancipation schemes often included some provision for compensating former slave owners. Haiti, for example, was forced to pay France millions in restitution for the loss of slave property. Gradual emancipation and “apprenticeship” policies could also be seen as a form of compensation, where slave owners’ interests were protected above those of their workers. In the end, however, the nineteenth-century Atlantic world saw a dramatic shift, as empires and nations dismantled the formal policies of enslavement.

  1. < Abolition of Slave Trade
  2. Slavery Remembered >