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August 28, 2018

ON THIS DAY IN 1833: William IV, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, signed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 into law. There was an exception for possessions of the East India Company (which was removed in 1843).

The British ended slavery quite differently from the way the Americans did. First of all, they compensated slave owners. Second, actual emancipation for slaves came in stages, with most slaves being converted to “apprentices” for a few years before they were able to exercise their actual freedom. Full emancipation is said to have been accomplished by August 1, 1838 (a bit ahead of the original schedule set in 1833).

Modern commentators have sometimes called Britain’s decision to compensate slave owners shameful. Maybe. But America’s alternative method—emancipation by civil war—was one of the greatest catastrophes in human history. The death toll was approximately 620,000 (or more by some estimates).  I’m not enough of a Puritan to see the British method as a source of shame.  Find another blogger to read if you want that.

I once sat down to write a counter-factual historical novel in which Alexander Hamilton survives Weehawken and persuades George Washington to support a British-style emancipation.  In the novel, Hamilton was going to be blamed for every trivial thing that went wrong in implementing the plan (by people who had no idea how ghastly the alternative would have been.)  Alas, writing novels is hard.

You never know … I might get back to it one day.  Not today though.