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Britain Was Not the First Country to Abolish Chattel Slavery No Matter How Many Times Royal Defenders Say It

Hilary Fordwich went on Don Lemon's show during the Queen funeral. Image: CNN screencap.

In an effort to clean up the legacy of Queen Elizabeth and her family, among many royalists (and those more sympathetic to those in power than everyday people), there’s been a persistent myth reaffirming itself in public discourse. This is the absolutely incorrect belief that Britain was the first country to abolish chattel slavery. The latest manifestation of this line of defense has reached a new audience as columnist Hilary Fordwich went on Don Lemon’s show on CNN to repeat this lie to million more people.

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That includes a number of right-wing sites that are saying Lemon was “schooled” and a number of other verbs, where I think a more accurate description for Lemon would be “stunned someone would be this ignorant.”

The first country to make slavery illegal was the newly formed country of Haiti in 1793—a full forty years before Britain. This didn’t come from European benevolence and a come-to-Jesus moment, as the British and others tried to frame it. Instead, freedom came from the beginning of what would be an over-decade-long fight for independence from France. The Haitian Revolution set in motion a series of moves toward abolition that began on that island (solidified in 1804) but reverberated across the Caribbean colonies and their European “mother” countries.

Battle for Palm Tree Hill during the Haitian Revolution
(January Suchodolski /Wikicommons)

To be very clear, Haiti’s liberation alone wasn’t even the sole reason for Britain and others to take action. Several uprisings by enslaved people and advocacy by abolitionists pressured Britain to finally take some sort of action—first in outlawing the importing and transporting of enslaved people at the turn of the century (like the U.S. and others), and decades later abolishing slavery … kinda. Still, before then, Mexico Spain, Chile, and more countries abolished it first.

Britain slowly abolishes slavery

Signed the previous year, Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act took effect in August 1834 and applied to most British colonies. Initially, it only applied to those under the age of six, and others must stay with their enslavers for at least another four to six years. The British government used a $20 million loan (40% of the nation’s budget at the time and now about $16 billion) to pay back the enslavers for lost “property,” but newly enslaved people were left with nothing. It wasn’t until 2015 that the money borrowed was fully repaid, meaning most U.K. adults contributed to paying off this debt used to pay enslavers.

People excluded from this initial law included enslaved people in Sri Lanka, Sanit Helena, and any place owned by the East India Trading Company—this includes India and many surrounding countries. The laws that would phase it out for Asia and islands outside of the Americas didn’t begin until the Indian Slavery Act in 1843, and it was an even slower phase-out program than the 1834 action that nationalistic English (and some Americans) people like to praise.

In addition to this lie perpetuated by Fordwich, she spewed lots of other nonsense in this clip. It took all this to debunk an outright lie, so imagine the fortitude it would take to (once again) explain why you can’t equate West African Nations’ contributions to the slave trade to those of the Europeans, and the difference between slavery and chattel slavery. Furthermore, those West African nations themselves made colonial states in the “scramble to Africa.”

(featured image: CNN screencap)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.

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