In the history of the former British territories in the Caribbean, the term Amelioration (literally, "making better") refers to the efforts of the Imperial government to improve the situation of the enslaved people in its colonies during the decade between 1823 and the abolition of slavery by Parliament in 1834. The relative failure of this London-driven program of reform pushed both the British antislavery movement and the British government and Parliament to abandon "gradualism" and opt for outright abolition of slavery by 1834.
The abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 did not produce the improvements in the slaves' situation that the antislavery movement expected. In 1823 the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions was established. As its title suggests, gradualism was dominant in the British antislavery movement until 1830. Its parliamentary leader, Thomas F. Buxton (1786–1845), decided to move resolutions in the House of Commons in May 1823 calling for immediate amelioration of the slaves' situation and eventual emancipation. The Tory leader in the House of Commons, George Canning (1770–1827), countered with resolutions of his own, reflecting a previously agreed-upon compromise between the antislavery lobby and the West India Interest, which represented the absentee slave-owners in London (many of whom were members of Parliament). These resolutions committed the House to emancipation "at the earliest period that shall be compatible with the well-being of the slaves themselves, with the safety of the colonies, and with a fair and equitable consideration of the interests of private property." They also envisaged "a progressive improvement in the character of the slave population, such as may prepare them for equal rights and privileges, as enjoyed by others of His Majesty's subjects" (Green, 1972, p. 102).
But how was a program to improve the slaves' lives and "character" to be implemented without abolishing the basic elements of chattel slavery? Any such program looking toward emancipation, even in the distant future, would certainly be resisted furiously by the planters and their organs, the elected Assemblies. The British government did not want to "coerce" them by enacting laws in Parliament and imposing them on the colonists; this, it was felt, was how the mainland American colonies had been lost fifty years before. So the Amelioration reforms would be imposed by direct legislation only on the "Crown Colonies," which had no elected Assemblies; the other colonies would be "persuaded" to enact similar laws themselves. This refusal to use the power of Parliament, as well as the strong resistance of the planters, ensured that the Amelioration program would have only limited success over the next ten years.
The main points of the program were circulated to the Caribbean governors in mid-1823. Slaves were to be given Christian instruction, and Sunday markets were to be abolished to encourage religious worship on that day. Marriages were to be encouraged, and slave families were not to be broken up by sale. Slave evidence, under certain conditions, was to be admitted in the courts. Enslaved persons were to be allowed to purchase their freedom, even against their owners' wishes. The informally recognized right of slaves to own property was to be backed by law. And corporal punishment, the core of plantation discipline, was to be limited: the flogging of women was to be absolutely prohibited, that of men restricted, and the whip was no longer to be carried (and used) by the drivers (gang foremen) as an instrument to coerce labor in the field. These were the major planks of the Amelioration policy. To the antislavery lobby, they were designed to prepare the slaves for freedom; to the government, their aim was to remove the most objectionable features of slavery and thus stave off emancipation for the foreseeable future.
To the planters in the colonies, these policies were wholly unacceptable. West Indian Assemblies responded with fury to the proposals: such reforms would undermine owners' control over their property, overturn plantation discipline, and incite slave rebellion. The uprising in Demerara (modern Guyana) in August 1823 seemed to vindicate their arguments. But London persisted. Despite strong objections from the planters of Trinidad, one of the Crown Colonies, an Order in Council—a law coming directly from the British government—was issued in March 1824 embodying all the main elements of the 1823 program. It was first to apply only to Trinidad—the "model colony" chosen because its Spanish legal heritage was believed to be especially favorable to the slaves—and was then to be extended to the other Crown Colonies; the colonies with Assemblies were expected to enact laws similar to the Trinidad Order.
The Order in Council became law in June 1824, with a protector of slaves appointed to implement its measures despite planter opposition. Yet even in the model Crown Colony, Amelioration achieved little by way of significant improvements in the slaves' lives. Only a handful of slaves were ever certified as competent to give evidence in court; very few slave marriages were legalized; manumissions did increase after 1824 but were made very difficult by the ridiculously high prices demanded by the owners. Solitary confinement, the stocks, and the treadmill were all used to punish women instead of flogging. Sunday work, prohibited by the order, generally continued, as did Sunday markets. Very few owners were ever prosecuted for breaches of the order, and it was extremely risky for a slave to make a complaint. The order had no teeth; and in the face of planter opposition and official indifference, Amelioration achieved little even in Trinidad, where all its main elements were enacted in law from mid-1824.
The colonies with their own Assemblies were able to resist the policy even more successfully, though eventually they were obliged, grudgingly, to comply with London's "persuasion" up to a point. Most limited the flogging of men, some removed the whip from the field, but few exempted women from corporal punishment—it was said to be impossible to "discipline" the women without flogging and, by the 1820s, the field gangs on West Indian plantations were predominantly female. Some colonies admitted slave evidence but (as in Trinidad) made it almost impossible to "qualify." Overall, the progress of Amelioration in the colonies with Assemblies—the majority of them—was difficult.
The Colonial Office in London worked hard to "persuade" and to bully the Assemblies, especially the two leading antislavery civil servants at the time, James Stephen (1789-1859) and Henry Taylor (1800–1886). Cases of ill treatment of slaves were reviewed and adjudicated with great care; voluminous papers were published for Parliament and disseminated in the antislavery press; many colonial laws were vetoed because they did not comply with the Trinidad Order; and the colonies were warned that direct parliamentary legislation would be inevitable if they did not pass the necessary laws themselves.
The years 1830 and 1831 were a watershed for the antislavery movement. Impatience at the slow progress and limited achievements of Amelioration was a major factor in the movement calling for immediate emancipation and more radical modes of agitation. But ministers persisted; in August 1831 the colonial secretary assured the colonists that he would not abandon "that course of progressive improvement, which has had for its avowed object, the ultimate extinction of Slavery (Green, 1976, p. 112)." The last serious effort to implement Amelioration was the ambitious Order in Council of November 1831, which applied to all the Crown Colonies. This elaborate law (no fewer than 121 clauses) strengthened the previous orders and introduced new and tougher regulations to protect the slaves' rights and guarantee better standards of food, clothing, housing, and hours of work. It also made it possible to bring criminal prosecutions against owners charged with breaches of the order. This "121-pronged scourge" (to quote a Trinidad newspaper) was greeted with fury, both in the Crown Colonies, where it became law early in 1832, and in the colonies with Assemblies, to which it was recommended as a model for legislation. Jamaica, and all the Leeward Islands, flatly refused to enact any similar law.
An impasse, therefore, seemed to have arrived by early 1832; Amelioration was clearly a failure. The great Christmas Rebellion of 1831 in Jamaica, and the terrible reprisals that followed, convinced even conservative legislators and ministers in London that the costs and risks of withholding emancipation and persisting with Amelioration were simply too high. Once the Reform Act became law and the Commons was reformed—and purged of most of its "West Indian" members—emancipation was politically possible. The passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of Emancipation in August 1833, to become law on August 1, 1834, marked the end of Amelioration.
If the main purpose of Amelioration was to secure some improvements in the slaves' lives while staving off immediate emancipation, it can be judged a short-term, and limited, success. A few improvements in material living conditions were probably achieved; punishments were reduced, especially in Trinidad, where flogging of women was more or less stopped; and the rate of manumissions accelerated. Emancipation was postponed for a decade. If its purpose was to prepare the enslaved people for freedom, however, it was clearly a failure, or, rather, hopelessly misconceived. In the long run, planter obduracy and ministerial timidity doomed what was probably always a misguided attempt to tinker with chattel slavery while preserving its essential elements. Its failure made legislative emancipation inevitable.
Brereton, Bridget. A History of Modern Trinidad, 1783–1962. London: Heinemann Education, 1989.
Green, William A. British Slave Emancipation The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment 1830–1865. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.
Ward, J. R. British West Indian Slavery, 1750-1834 The Process of Amelioration. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
bridget brereton (2005)