The British government paid out £20 million to slave owners in 1837 as compensation for the loss of the slaves as business assets to the registered owners of the freed slaves. There seems to be plenty of documentation on the fact that it happened but I can't find out why it was paid.

For example, good old Wikipedia states:

Up until then, sugar planters from rich British islands such as the Colony of Jamaica and Barbados were able to buy rotten and pocket boroughs, and they were able to form a body of resistance to moves to abolish slavery itself. This West India Lobby, which later evolved into the West India Committee, purchased enough seats to be able to resist the overtures of abolitionists. However, The Reform Act 1832 swept away their rotten borough seats, clearing the way for a majority of members of the House of Commons to push through a law to abolish slavery itself throughout the British Empire.

If enough power had been removed that the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 could go through then it seems possible their claims could have been ignored. Since they weren't I can surmise that without the carrot of compensation the slavery lobby would've fought harder against the Act and it may have failed but I can't find anything to substatiate it. Perhaps it's simply that such a law could not or cannot be made as it would violate some principle of legality of property - if the UK government made ownership of any other item illegal I can imagine compensation would have to be paid.

As you can see, these are all speculations.

If anyone has any pointers to info or some insights, I would be very grateful.

Edit: I'm not looking for answers (or comments) along the lines of "they were paid because there was an Act saying they will be paid". I mentioned the existence of the 1837 Act in the title!

  • 10
    Again, this might be a question of wording. What I think the OP means is "Why did the Commons insert the clause on reparations for slave holders into the Act?" or "Who presented arguments in the Commons for inserting reparation clauses for slave holders into the Act?" or "How was the insertion of reparation clauses into the Act reasoned in the Commons?". The OP clearly demonstrates they understand the "why" of providing reparations for appropriated property.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 6:43
  • 7
    I have voted to re-open as though five people thought that a single link provides the answer, none of them provided such a link. The Guardian and other articles from recent days that describe the Parliament payout are notoriously flimsy on evidence and don't actually reference history. Similarly, not a single answer (mine doesn't count as it was relatively difficult to find) is based on only one link.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 19:02
  • 3
    I don't know, but one possible reason for paying compensation might be so that the plantations could continue to operate, and the former slaves continue to work as paid laborers, instead of being unemployed and destitute?
    – bof
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 1:31
  • 2
    @sempaiscuba: I investigated that research project in detail yesterday and thought it describes very well who received the compensation, it doesn't go into any detail on why it was awarded (i.e., I don't consider "the vested interests represented both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords" an explanation as it doesn't bring in any detail on what sort of interests, etc).
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 9:35
  • 3
    I honestly can't believe people think that "because there's an Act" is a valid answer to this when I mentioned the Act myself but I'm going to try and reword the question for them instead of waiting for pedants to change their ways.
    – ian
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 22:45

5 Answers 5


Lord Wynford, though speaking in opposition, illustrated the reasons in the House of Lords, on Tuesday, June 25th 1833, why a payment was being considered and what arguments such a payment should be based on. I've quoted from that below, but the arguments he makes are:

  • the crime of slavery has been a crime committed by everyone so everyone should pay for it;
  • "the money voted is necessary for the support of the honour or interest of the nation";
    • this point can be misconstrued as implying that slavery was honourable; instead the point is that it would have been dishonourable to retroactively legislate on items:

      Consider, for example, if (for environmental reasons), it was suddenly made illegal to own a petrol or diesel powered vehicle, and they would all be taken away by the Government. If compensation is not given, then it would be considered akin to an ex post facto law (punishing people for an act which was legal at the time, but since made illegal) - that's the "dishonourable" bit (and, in fact, is currently prohibited under Article 7 of the ECHR). i.e. "We can't punish people for not predicting we would later move the goalposts"
      —Chronocidal, in comments.

  • to compensate for the owners potential loss they "may sustain from not having any means of cultivating their estates";
  • to account for reduced production of sugar in the colonies which cause losses for the plantation owners;
  • previous attempts at emancipation without mentions of compensation had failed to pass in local assemblies.

Lord Wynford on June 25th 1833:

We say you are proceeding with so much haste, and so incautiously, that instead of doing any good, you will do much mischief ; instead of putting an end to a system of cruelty and injustice, you will increase it ;—that whilst you emancipate slaves who live under English laws, you will increase the numbers of those persons in countries in which they will not have the protection of those laws ;—that whilst the endurance of a state of slavery has been the crime of the whole British nation, and, therefore, the loss that may arise from putting an end to this detestable state should be equally borne by us all, we are proceeding to legislate without any proof that the compensation which is to be made to the owners of slaves is anything like a fair equivalent for the sacrifice of property that they will now be required to make. ... It is first proposed that we should resolve that 20,000,000£ should be granted to the West Indian proprietors, for giving up their interest in their slaves. Compensation to slave-owners will remove my strongest objection to immediate emancipation. I heard, with great satisfaction, the Noble Lord who began this debate state, a few days ago, that he would not consent to emancipation unaccompanied with compensation to the slave-owners. I only did the Noble Earl justice when I said, upon that occasion, that I was sure the Noble Earl was too candid a man when he talked of compensation, to mean the compensation that has been mentioned in another place, which was,—taking a part of the services of the slave, and by money raised by the employment of the part of the services so taken, compensating for the whole of the services left for a time to the master. No, instead of what was originally proposed, namely, a loan of 15,000,000£ to be repaid by property fraudently taken from the labourer, the slave-owners are now to have an absolute gift of 20,000,000£. We ought, on the other hand, to take care that the compensation made them be a just compensation. I suspect, from a few words that fell from the Noble Earl, that 20,000,000£ will not be a just compensation. He said something about paying for the value of the negroes. If you only pay for the negroes, and make no compensation for the injury that the owners may sustain from not having any means of cultivating their estates, you will give them nothing like a just compensation. If you direct the stream from a mill, do you compensate the owner by paying him for the water, without giving anything for the mill, which the taking of the water has rendered useless ?

... It is not only the right but the duty of both branches of the Legislature not to vote for the imposition of any new burden on the people, until they are satisfied that the money voted is necessary for the support of the honour or interest of the nation. ...

In that answer of my Noble Friend to the Noble Duke, he seems to admit that so much sugar will not be produced in our colonies after the emancipation of the slaves as now. Indeed, if that is not expected, where is the ground for compensation? But I must tell my Noble and Learned Friend, that although the same quantity of sugar should be consumed in Great Britain, and the duties on importation be the same as they are at present, if sugar is not cultivated in our islands the revenue must be diminished. The lands in these colonies can be used for no other purpose but the cultivation of sugar. If sugar cannot be cultivated on them they will be useless to their owners, and the compensation proposed to be granted for the loss of their slaves is nothing like an equivalent. The proposing such a compensation is offering them an insult at the moment that you are accomplishing their ruin. They will have nothing to export to Great Britain, and they will be unable to pay for any imports from Great Britain. ...

As to the refusal of the colonial legislatures to emancipate slaves, was it ever proposed to them to make them a compensation for this sacrifice of the property of their constituents? No such proposition was ever made to them, and they have, therefore, done right in refusing to pass a law which would have the effect of making their constituents bear the whole loss that must attend the measure. If the 20,000,000£ be anything like a fair compensation for the loss they must sustain in one part of their property, and the danger they are in of having all their property rendered of no value, I am persuaded they will emancipate the slaves. It is unjust to them to propose these resolutions to Parliament before any offer of compensation has been made to the colonists.
'The Debates in Parliament, Session 1833 - on the Resolutions and Bill for the Aboliton of Slavery in the British Colonies'

  • 1
    Good find, but I'm bemused by ""the money voted is necessary for the support of the honour or interest of the nation". Honour? Slavery? I know those were different times but still... Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 8:19
  • 6
    @LarsBosteen: I think he is weighing on the side of "interest" here and doesn't want the slave-owners to suffer economically, causing further damage to the country. I don't think he implies that slavery was honourable.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 8:34
  • 3
    @gktscrk Yup, that's fine; this is what comments are for, after all :) Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 10:11
  • 10
    It's amazing that "the crime of slavery has been a crime committed by everyone so everyone should pay for it" lead to the conclusion of paying the slave owners but not the slaves.
    – epa095
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 15:10
  • 4
    @epa095 I think this answer explains that conclusion precisely - nothing amazing about that.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 9:41

To safeguard legal system and rule of law

While it may sound strange to us, slavery was considered as something usual and almost natural for a long time during human history. This is especially true considering Blacks, who were deemed to be less intelligent, primitive and savage, and had to be "under care" of White Christians. As we could see from this study, laws about slavery were developed gradually, and codification of slave status, gradual differentiation between Black slaves held for life and White indentured servants, was a long process.

In that period of time, buying and selling slaves was not considered to be immoral. Recent case of Edward Colston, who was a slave trader, but also by all accounts very decent man, good Christian and philanthropist, illustrates that. Idea that slavery could be immoral appeared in earnest only in late 18th and early 19th century. Yet, even in those last days of legal slavery in British empire, it was not illegal to own slaves and legally they were property. Slave owners more often than not were upstanding citizens, backbones of the society.

At the time we are talking about, Britain took pride in its rule of law. British abhorred excesses of French Revolution, and tried to build society that protects private property from usurpation of the state. They simply didn't want society where all powerful government could take your possessions on a whim, without you breaking some prior law. And, as said before, slave owners where not criminals under British law. They had legal possession of slaves, which was now abolished. Therefore, there was a obligation on part of the state to compensate them for their lost property. Otherwise, whole affair would be revolutionary and could create precedent. Today the slaves, tomorrow land and other real estate, money etc ...

  • 9
    And let's not forget that all the industries suddenly becoming bankrupt wouldn't do well for the economy. The owners will have to hire new workforce, which needs money. Unless they had a lot of extra capital lying around, that money was needed to continue operating.
    – vsz
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 9:21
  • 21
    "White Christians" seems like a seems like a sweeping generalization in one sense. Then again, folks like John Newton, who as an Atheist, found slavery to be perfectly acceptable, only rejecting and fighting against it after becoming a Christian, and William Wilberforce, whose opposition to slavery was founded on his belief in the infinite value of every human as made in the image of God are perhaps the exception, rather than the rule. They, of course, did consider slavery to be immoral, based Jesus' attitude towards all people, especially the oppressed and downtrodden. Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 13:30
  • 36
    "...slavery was considered as something usual and almost natural for a long time during human history. This is especially true considering Blacks". On attitudes towards people of African origin, this is certainly true during the time of the Atlantic slave trade, but not for "a long time during human history". Since at least ancient times, people of any colour could be slaves, and most slaves (though certainly not all) in Ancient Greece and Rome were European. The Saxons, the Jutes, the Norse, the Irish etc. all traded and owned slaves, and almost all those slaves were European. Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 14:34
  • 15
    Again, true for the Atlantic slave trade period but certainly not for most of history. Have a look at, for example, The Cambridge World History of Slavery for a broader perspective. Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 1:44
  • 9
    @Pixelomo: Because cancelling a bond lawfully issued and the money lawfully spent is not wise.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 15:44

I think the compensation is simple to understand with two basic facts in mind. First, in the eyes of British elites at the time, slaves were considered "property". It would have been far more radical to take away this "property" without compensating people who were widely considered legitimate "owners". (I completely disagree with Pieter's comment that compensation was "the right thing to do", but this is presumably what he is referring to.) Second, many of the recipients of the compensation were politically connected. In fact, according to this article in The Independent at least two of the recipients of compensation were themselves MPs.


To quote from The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. The Prince

  • 1
    It's not the kind of answer I was looking for but I like it nonetheless.
    – ian
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 23:01

The 1833 act required the payment of compensation and there was probably not the political will in 1837 to go back on that

The other answers have covered what the political arguments around slavery were at the time, I'll instead look at the Parliamentary mechanics behind the payment of compensation.

Most immediately, the 1833 act required the payment of compensation to (ex-) slave owners, specifically:

'WHEREAS divers Persons are holden in Slavery within divers of His Majesty's Colonies, and it is just and expedient that all such Persons should be manumitted and set free, and that a reasonable Compensation should be made to the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves for the Loss which they will incur

The fact that a significant proportion of the 1833 act is concerned with the payment of compensation suggests that it was a significant issue for many in Parliament and so it is likely the act may not have passed without this provision.

In theory, Parliament in 1837 could have amended the 1833 act to remove compensation. However, it appears there was no political will to do so. By 1837 the (mostly overtly abolitionist) Whig majority in the commons had been reduced, whilst the composition of the Lords will have been largely unchanged. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the 1837 Parliament was, if anything, less opposed to the interests of ex-slave owners than their predecessors in 1833.

  • It's perhaps worth mentioning the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants who were the main lobby group for the interests of the British West-Indian plantocracy, and who had a significant presence in both the Commons and the Lords. Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 13:11
  • Do you have specific backing for the statement that anyone in Parliament might have wanted to go back on the 1833 promise given you say that the will wasn't strong enough to do it?
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 13:12
  • @gktscrk No backing. Empirically the number of MPs and Lords who wanted to remove the compensation was less than a majority in one or both houses. Zero MPs or Lords would be less than a majority
    – stuart10
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 15:54

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