The Emancipation Act was passed in 1833, although the apprenticeship system, which forced former slaves to work without pay, meant that slaves were not properly freed until 1838. As it is 1839 when Antoinette goes to the convent (the only date given in the novel), this section is set very soon after the Act was passed. Rhys actually changes the dates of Jane Eyre (set in the early years of the nineteenth-century) in order to set her novel at this crucial time.
The British offered £19 per freed slave, much less than the market price of £35. The slave owners lost all their free labour at the same time the price of sugar collapsed, driving many of them into poverty. To read the Act, click here.