Abolitions of slavery


In the Caribbean, as across the rest of the world, the 19th century was the century of the successive abolitions of slavery. For the main colonial powers of the Caribbean, namely those of Britain, France and Spain, abolition represented an undertaking of major economic, social and political significance.

Although unrelenting, the march towards abolition proved both chaotic and complex, the result of a convergence and conjunction of a number of factors linked as much to particular developments, in each Caribbean territory and colonial parent state as to relations between the latter. Beyond the impact of slave revolts and wishes for autonomy, indeed the independence of the Colonies themselves demanded by the minority local rulers, one can cite the impact of philosophical and religious movements in support of abolition, the development of political regimes within colonial governments which were more democratic and respectful of individual rights, or again general arguments emanating from free-market economics questioning the profit earning capacity of servile as opposed to free labour, as well as the competition between the farming of sugar beet and sugar cane, arguably reducing in turn the advantages of slave plantation agriculture. Neither should one ignore the political and strategic considerations facing colonial powers in competition with each other.1

The resulting interplay between such different factors produces a great diversity of situations in respect of abolition within the whole Caribbean. This paper will attempt to distinguish the main stages of the abolition of slavery, as well as its various forms of development.2

1. A century of abolitions in the Caribbean

The progressive abolition of slavery across the Caribbean region extends over a whole century, the first abolition being in Haiti in 1793 and the last in Cuba in 1886. One cannot fail to note in turn the relatively long time-scale in wowed, but also the geographical proximity between its point of origin and that of its conclusion, separated by only a few dozen nautical miles. Examination of the chronology of the abolition movement in the Caribbean (see table) suggested groupings based on adherence to particular colonial empires, dates of abolition and the geographical proximity of the territories in question. The resulting nine different categories have been mapped. Only the official dates of abolition have been used in this exercise. All the same, as will be observed later, these only partially translate the complexities of eventual emancipation.

In Haiti, the cruelty towards slaves and the intransigence of the colonists who refused the integration of the newly freed coloureds as part of a more open regime, and their participation in the assemblies born of the French Revolution, would culminate in the great insurrection of 1791. Faced with this delicate situation and the threats of both British and Spanish invasions, the commissioners of the Convention Assembly, Santhonax and Polverel proclaim the general abolition of black slavery in 1793. The national Convention confirms and applies this decision to all French colonies en 1794. However, this decree3 would not be applied to Martinique, then occupied by the British. As a consequence, this island would not experience the re-establishment decreed by Bonaparte in 1802.4

The impact of the Haitian revolution on the situation in Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) allows these two territories to be grouped together. The successive abolition and re-establishments across the eastern part of the island at the mercy of political and military episodes, as well as occupations by colonial powers, would lead finally to definitive abolition in Santo Domingo in 1822. It should be remembered that in Haiti, the abolition of 1793 did not prevent the establishment of a forced labour regime, not far removed from that of slavery, and in the service of a rapidly constituted coloured landed aristocracy. In contradictory manner, the abolition in Haiti and its own independence led for a time, by favouring a rise in the price of sugar, to the slave-based plantation system becoming more profitable. For whatever reason, Haiti would thereby enjoy veritable prestige amongst those candidates aspiring to freedom.

Often forgotten amongst non-hispanicists was the fact that the small states of Central America, including Mexico, had abolished slavery in the 1820s.5 The numbers held in captivity were relatively small, and none of these states were economically dependent on slave labour for their prosperity and power. The influence of abolitionist Quaker movements and the progressive principles contained in the Declaration of the Rights of Man6 in the northern states of the American federation would prove decisive in their support of the abolitionist movement in these territories. Note that the abolition of slavery in Mexico in 1829 would lead in part to the break away and independence of Texas (in 1836), where slavery would persist for much longer.

In Britain, in 1833, the King would sign the Emancipation Bill voted par Parliament. This abolition represented in particular an economic disengagement by the British Crown in favour of its Asian possessions, and notably the East Indies, with their much greater development potential than the small islands of the Caribbean. Abolition of slavery in the French colonies (1848) must be credited to the 1848 Revolution and the Abolition Laws of the Second Republic under the impulse notably of Victor Schœlcher. Abolition takes effect immediately and allows access to citizenship. Colombia and Venezuela finally abolish slavery relatively late by comparison with other states in the region, in particular those of Central America, despite their geographical proximity.

Further north, in the United States, the abolition issue is not viewed as a colonial problem, but as a question internal to the Federation itself. The strength of the abolitionist movement (viz the popular success of Uncle Tom's Cabin7 in 1852) but also the capitalist ambitions of the North aimed at subordinating the South, would play an important role in triggering the Civil War. President Lincoln proclaimed a general emancipation in 1863, confirmed in the 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1865. The victory of the North would lead to the end of slavery over the whole of the Union.

Finally, abolition took effect in Puerto Rico en 1873, then in Cuba in 1886. In Cuba, the economic conditions favouring the maintenance of sugar cane production in the context of large-scale, industrialised plantations, associating what remained of both slave and free labour, with the power balance between a landed aristocracy and a Spanish colonial power in decline, would allow more than elsewhere the survival of the slave plantation system. Here one sees the whole contrast with powers like Britain and France engaged in the process of capitalist industrialisation and Spain now in decline.

In short, as can be observed in the map, the geographical spread of abolition was not achieved uniformly across the Caribbean. Neither was the process of abolition itself similar everywhere. Indeed, the official dates retained for this cartographic exercise do not always reflect the complexity of the process of abolitions across the Caribbean.

2. The circumstances of emancipation

First attempts, partial abolitions, preparatory measures and apprenticeship

It should be noted at the outset that abolitions were sometimes only achieved after several attempts, as already seen in the case of certain French colonies (Guadeloupe, Guiana and the Spanish part of Santo Domingo,8 Hispaniola).

In France, following the re-establishment decided by Napoleon Bonaparte, the July Monarchy would introduce measures favourable towards emancipation during the 1830s. In 1845, the Mackau Acts9 “alleviate” the conditions of slavery, before its final abolition in 1848. In Venezuela, a first abolition is introduced by Bolivar in 1816. In this case, it represented one of the conditions of Haitian aid from Pétion, Haiti's first president, against Spanish power. Note also that the abolition in question was limited to single men accepting enrolment for military service. It would be repeated by the conservative ruling elites. Full abolition came in 1854. In Mexico, it full abolition came only in 1929, a partial abolition was introduced from 1821 onwards for individuals born in the country.

In the British colonies, abolition was paired with a period of apprenticeship, i.e. a progressive emancipation at the end of which the former slave would obtain real freedom. The length of the period of apprenticeship varied as between those slaves on the plantations, and those in domestic and urban service.10 In some British islands, this transition period towards a new individual status would only last one year (Antigua and Barbuda, St. Vincent). In practice, emancipation in the British islands was achieved in by 1838. In 1847, freedom was given to all the newborn in the Danish colony of St. Croix, before final abolition one year later. The Moret Act ushering in gradual abolition, voted by the Spanish Cortez in 1870, would only grant general emancipation in Puerto Rico in 1873 and in Cuba in 1886. In Cuba, children about to be born and slaves aged over 60 years obtained their liberty in 1870; the remaining servile population would have to wait more than another ten years.

Two models in use for bringing about emancipation are normally contrasted. The British model giving progressive freedom was the most widespread, whilst the French model granted immediate freedom. In contrast to Britain, abolitions in the French colonial empire are linked to revolutionary crises and democratic protest movements. By their very nature, these were subject to reconsideration driven by national political events.

The consequences of phased abolitions

Given the geographical proximity to each other of Caribbean territories, it seems natural to consider the consequences of such passed abolitions. Abolition in the British colonies led to the flight of slaves, notably from nearby French colonies, always a large-scale point of departure. But it would be wrong to consider abolition as marking the systematic onset of a new era. The latter did not resolve all problems and living conditions did not always radically change for the populations in question. Much more the case was that the proximity of “lands of freedom” reinforced the impatience of slaves.

Abolition and independence

Whatever the case, it is important to underline that slavery constitutes a strong element in the construction of national identities across the Caribbean. Given that not all the territories of the Caribbean today have achieved full independence, it would seem of particular interest to relate chronologically dates of abolition with those of independence, in the attempt to see ways in which the former would leave its mark on future decolonisation. However, it is first necessary to acknowledge two distinct chronologies. In the case of the mainland territories, independence precedes the abolition of slavery as against the contrary situation for the island territories where, with the exception of Haiti, the question of abolition does not directly impact on that of independence. In effect, the island territories only achieve independence during the 20th century, in several cases more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery... For the major geopolitical powers that dominate the Caribbean in the 19th century, in no case was abolition associated with independence, i.e. as synonymous with the loss of colonial status. Should one then see in the earliest abolitions achieved across the already independent continental mainland territories, a will to rally whole populations around the idea of “the nation”? In reality, liberty does not necessarily chime well with equality.

Finally, Haiti and Cuba – points à both departure and arrival in the whole history of propagating the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean – constitute two cases apart. Haiti is at one and the same time the original model for those aspirants of liberty, but also a pathway to avoid for representatives of the political leaders of these regions, whether or not for or against abolition... Cuba, fort its part, represents the last symbol of abolition, stemming without any doubt as much from the strength of the conservatism of the Creole elites, as from their capacity to develop the industrialisation of sugar cane production. Note that today these two states still continue each to maintain their singularity within the Caribbean.

Finally, it should noted that the abolitions almost everywhere across the Caribbean would seek recourse to a so-called “free” labour force, under contract, and originating from Asia, a process that no one would immediately recognise as a second slavery.


Chronology of the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean
  First abolition Final abolition of slavery
Date of independence
Haiti   1793 1804
Dominican Republic
 1801 1822 1844
Costa Rica
  1824 1821
El Salvador   1824 1821
Guatemala   1824 1821
Honduras   1824 1821
Mexico   1829 1810
British West Indies
Antigua and Barbuda
Cayman Islands
Virgin Islands
Turks and Caicos Islands
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Lucia
St. Vincent and Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago




Nicaragua   1838 1821
Danish Virgin Islands
Saint John
Saint Thomas
Saint Croix
Swedish Antilles
Saint Barthelemy
French Antilles
Saint Martín (French zone)
Colombia 1814 1851 1810
Panama   1851 1903
Venezuela 1816 1854 1811
Netherlands Antilles
Saint Eustatius
St. Martin (Netherlands zone)


United States
  1863-1865 1776
Puerto Rico   1873  
Cuba   1880-1886 1898
NB: Names of national boundaries and states are those in use today. At the time of abolition, Panama was part of Greater Colombia; Belize was part of British Honduras.

1 Britain did not hesitate for example to view abolition as a destabilising element against rival powers, notably France.

2 Without doubt it might have been interesting to suggest a typology of abolition based on ways in which freedom was achieved (by force, concession, negotiation...), however the different circumstances quickly appeared highly complex and not easily reduced to a global approach by historians. Elsewhere they remain the subject of widespread “politicised” polemic as to the implicit degree of direct line descent of present population with the rebel slaves of the past.

3 Decree of the National Convention “who abolished slavery of the negroes in the colonies.”

4 Any implication that Josephine played a role in the re-establishment of slavery is pure fantasy.

5 Well before, it should be emphasised, Britain and France.

6 Reference to the 10 first amendments of the United States Constitution.

7 By the North American author, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

8 In Haiti, it is generally accepted that freedom was fully acquired across the whole country under the presidency of Jean-Pierre Boyer (1818-1843).

9 These laws remain limited in extent: the right to education, possibility of creating savings and buying one's freedom, defined hours of work.

10 Ended in 1840 for plantation slaves and 1838 for urban and domestic slaves.



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Author: Yvan Bertin