According to this article in the Guardian the UK Treasury tweeted in 2018:

"Did you know that in 1833, Britain used £20 million pounds - which amounted to 40% of the UK GDP to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn't paid off until 2015. This means that every living British citizen paid for ending the slave trade."

To which one angry British citizen, Lexington Wright, tweeted back:

"So basically my father, and his children and grand-children have been paying taxes to compensate those who enslaved our ancestors and you want me to be proud of this fact? Are you f****** insane???"

The Guardian adds as commentary to this exchange:

Few people in the 1830s would have seen it this way. Compensation was a mechanism of ending a system that millions of people had come to regard as abhorrent and a national disgrace. The abolitionists agonised over it ... the only people who saw a positive in it were the people who spent three decades campaigning for it and would be the beneficiaries of it - the slave owners.

They go on to add:

The slave owners not only recieved compensation from the British Taxpayer they won another concession, the euphemistically named 'apprenticeship' system. What this meant was that slaves were forced to work on the fields for another further six years without pay after the abolition of slavery.

The above is the background to the following questions:

Q. The compensation was paid for emancipating slaves in the Empire. How much of this was paid for the top five slave-owning nations? Who are they, and how many slaves were emancipated?

**Q. How much was this worth as a percentage of the top slave-owning nations GDP at that time? And in particular, the USA?

Q. Was any additional monies paid by any of those nations governments as compensation?

Q. How did they come up with the figure of £20 million pounds - was this solely based on the market values of slaves at the time or were other factors taken into consideration?

Q. How would one cost the six years of unpaid work by emancipated slaves and how much did this come to?

There are a number of questions but they are all interlinked and prompted by the initial tweet. I can ask them separately if people wish.

  • $\begingroup$ Only the last question seems to be economics. The others are straight history. And of the four quotes, only the first and last have anything to do with the questions. $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 10:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Brythan: I gave some background to the question. I think that's useful. I don't see how the last question is about economics and the others aren't. It's definitely about economic history. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ @brythan: And economic history is also about economics. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 18:29
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Voting to close as too broad. Please note the direction “avoid asking multiple specific questions at once” in the definition of a question that is too broad. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 23:54
  • $\begingroup$ @dismalscience: that’s a dismal definition of broad ... $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 2:10

3 Answers 3


Unfortunately, I'm not sure this will really answer the questions you raised to your satisfaction, but I can at least give some of them a try:

First Note: It wasn't 40% of the GDP of the Empire, but rather the 20 million GBP sum was equivalent to 40% of their annual governmental expenditures (or 5% of the Empire's contemporary GDP) source here.

Regarding your first couple of questions: unfortunately, there's no good, useful answer that I can find. If you were interested in calculating these numbers yourself, it might be worthwhile to look at this online database of payments made under the act. That said, it's important to remember that, as colonies of the British Empire, there might well be many reasons that could make the desired "contemporary GDP amount" difficult to calculate. For example, if there's an individual who owned plantations in Trinidad and the Bahamas, they themselves might live in London. Thus, for all practical matters, the compensation payment the plantation owner would receive doesn't flow to either colony, and shouldn't be considered in those colonies GDPs.

As for "how did they come up with 20 million GBPs?" While I haven't seen a specific answer, I'd imagine much the same way compensation pools are created today- by Parliamentary negotiation, estimation and extrapolation. The number itself is known exactly (that is, we know it's 20 million, and that's not an estimation on the part of the Guardian) since it's inscribed in paragraph XXIV of the act itself (have to scroll down a bit, or search on the page for "million"). That said, there's specific information in paragraph XLV of that act how the sum of 20 million GBP should be divvied up between the different colonies, and that's based on the local "value" of slaves in each colony for the previous eight years.

About additional compensation- no. Remember, there weren't really those "national governments" at the time. They all were, by definition of the act, only territories which were still completely ruled by the British crown. As far as I know, no regional governors supplemented that pool (I'm not even sure if they would have been allowed to, since the authorization for the payments in this case were from the British Parliament, and the vehicle to disperse the payments was a commission set up by the act).

Finally, I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "how would you cost the six years of unpaid labor." Who are you referring to "costing" this? The value of this labor wasn't included in the payments by Parliament. If you were thinking about what the effective cost of this provision was (that is, how much it cost the slaves whose freedom was delayed by those six years) then again, I think it might be an open question.

Again, I'll check back later to see if I can help by refining my answer. Let me know how this aligns with what you were looking for. Also, these additional resources might provide a bit of useful info! NB: the total number of slaves freed uner this act is roughly 800,000

  • $\begingroup$ It's strange isn't it how errors pile on top of each other! The article doesn't say 40% of the British Empires GDP but 40% of the UKs GDP; newspapers aren't the same as scholarly journals so it's not really a surprise that they would use the headline grabbing term GDP instead of government income - people are more familiar with that. But you're right in that your answer doesn't really address the questions I'm asking. As for your own question as to who I mean by 'you' - I mean economists - I assume they had them then back in 1833. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 21:54
  • $\begingroup$ The article by Britannica is useful - but it's mostly anecdotal; in particular it doesn't say where the £20 Million (40% of UKs GDP) ended up! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 22:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MoziburUllah upon reviewing the article itself, it is interesting how errors can be perpetuated. The Guardian never mentions "GDP" at all (UK or British Empire)! Instead, it correctly mentions "40% of National Expenditure." Perhaps transcription is where the most serious errors end up- not in the editing room of a newspaper. As far as where that money went, I'd point you to the second link in my answer, which provides the most granular information available to answer your question. As for whether economists existed in 1833, your assumptions might not line up to expectations. While the> $\endgroup$
    – AndrewC
    Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ >discipline has roots back to antiquity, there was virtually no difference between "economists" as we'd use the term today, and social philosophers and political scientists. In fact, the term "political economy" wasn't even dropped from popular usage in favor of "economics" until Alfred Marshall's textbook was published in 1890. 1833 was still in the earliest years of the early "classical" period of economic thought, well before the field would be wholly recognizable as "economics" from today's standpoint. $\endgroup$
    – AndrewC
    Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ It actually says '40% of its national budget' - so I guess you didn't look at the original article I linked to. I'm pretty sure given the high profile of slavery in the popular and academic conscious that there have been serious scholarly studies of the economics of slavery and I was hoping for an answer from those kind of sources as opposed to a miscellany of documents. So thanks, but no thanks. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 23:16

Q. How would one cost the six years of unpaid work by emancipated slaves and how much did this come to?

According to Afua Hirsch's Brit(ish) it's not six years but four years, she writes:

The intersection of economic, socio-political factors and abolition is one of the most complex and protracted debates in modern historiography. What is not contested is that, when Britain did abolish the slave trade, the value of the 800,000 or so slaves still owned by Brits in the Caribbean was valued at £47 million. Of this sum, the £20 million so ‘cheerfully’ stumped up by the British taxpayer, after decades of black agitation, was not paid to compensate slaves for their abuse, loss of family, income, dignity, heritage, identity or life, but instead to compensate the slave owners for the loss of their chattels.

The remaining £27 million – a colossal sum at the time – was paid for by none other than the slaves themselves, who had to work for another four years for free after abolition, in order to raise the funds. The deprivation characterising their lives at the end of slavery, which left them illiterate, unskilled, psychologically traumatised and irreparably cut off from their African homelands, survives on an intergenerational basis to this day.

for which she refers to

Richard Hart (2002), Slaves Who Abolished Slavery: Blacks in Rebellion, University of the West Indies.

On that basis the annual value of slave labour works out to be at £27 million/4 which is roughly £6.5 million. This works out to be around 15% of Britains GDP then. To put this into context British GDP in 2017 was around £1.5 trillion and 15% of this works out to be £250 billion.

Afua Hirsch also notes:

I have no direct links to the Caribbean or other parts of the African diaspora created by slavery. If reparations were to be paid for the act of enslaving 12 million Africans, I would gain nothing personally.

So the actual figures of 800,000 slaves owned by the British vastly underplays the actual size of the slave trade and the devastation it must have caused in the former Africa colonies. Imagine for the example the situation in reverse - that for two or three hundred years African ships plying Europe and carrying off 60,000 men and women annually with or without collaborators. Would Europe survive as a polity? Afua Hirsch does not answer this question but she goes on to write:

Structural, deliberately orchestrated disadvantage is intergenerational, passed down through families, in just the same way as those born into privileged families inherit wealth. The impact of slavery on the African continent, from where so many millions – often the strongest and most able – were kidnapped, is harder to delineate. But it’s widely acknowledged that slavery deprived huge swathes of Africa of its working-age people over four centuries, and that the trauma of industrial-scale kidnap and murder has been far-reaching.

As the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote, ‘The victims of this catastrophe have been struggling for centuries now against their cruel fate on both sides of the Atlantic: on one side, scratching the soil of ruined farms in a devastated continent; on the other, toiling in the sweltering aftermath of captivity.


“ Imagine for the example the situation in reverse - that for two or three hundred years African ships plying Europe and carrying off 60,000 men and women annually with or without collaborators. Would Europe survive as a polity? ”

It is not necessary to imagine. The Barbary pirates did just this.


  • $\begingroup$ From your link, "the Barbary Coast (also Barbary, Berbery or Berber Coast) was the name given to the coastal regions of central and western North Africa or more specifically the Maghreb and the Ottoman borderlands consisting of the regencies in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli" - by no stretch of the imagination is this Europe as we now umderstand it. Further, and again from your link, "Between 1580 and 1680 corsairs were said to have captured about 850,000 people as slaves and from 1530 to 1780 as many as 1.25 million people were enslaved ..." $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ ..."However, these numbers are estimated and provided by only one historian, Robert Davis, and have been questioned by others like David Earle". Hardly substantative proof - I very much doubt the Barbary pirates kept detailed records unlike the British. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26 at 22:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.