The Price of Slavery

"To the Friends of Negro Emancipation", an engraving in the West Indies, celebrating the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833.This week’s flurry of media interest in the Legacies of British Slaveholding (LBS) project is well deserved. Although the papers have focused on news that the ancestors of David Cameron and George Osborne benefited from slavery, the LBS team at University College London has a far bigger story to tell. They have digitised the compensation records, showing who shared the £20 million pay-out to slaveholding families, and begun the painstaking process of identifying the men and women who profited.

While this can throw up evidence of famous Britons’ links with slavery (then or now), the database reveals larger truths about our country’s intimate entanglement with slave money. For example, of 44,000 Britons claiming to own slaves in 1833, 41% of them were women (often living off pensions or allowances endowed in West-Indian plantations). While a few wealthy elites gorged themselves on the bulk of the money, slave ownership was far more widespread and dispersed than we had previously imagined. Compensation of private citizens for personal losses was not a well-established practice, though exiled loyalists from the American Revolution had cashed in their claims for a grateful mother country. The £20 million payout to buy slaves’ freedom from colonial planters was the biggest financial transaction at that point; the loans to do this were financed by higher taxes on sugar, which hit the poorest workers hardest since it was an important part of their weekly shopping baskets.

The project team have pointed out that a lot of compensation money went into the pockets of major Victorian philanthropists and the early backers of the railways, filtering throughout the whole of British society, into politics, art, and the economy. More than they realised, as the decades passed and the money dispersed, Victorian Britons lived in a slavery-compensation culture.

The online Encyclopedia of British Slaveownership will fuel lots of new academic research and give lecturers a useful teaching tool. Sitting in the University of Liverpool’s History department, now home to a Centre for the Study of International Slavery, I can search for the address of my office (Abercromby Square) and see that one recipient of compensation lived in our row of Georgian townhouses by the time he died. John Hayward Turner was one of the beneficiaries of slave estates in Antigua, though these claims were complicated by legal challenges from his relatives’ creditors, who got some of the money. My students can pick up the thread of individuals receiving slave money – linked to the streets where they live or study – and then fill in the details of the beneficiary’s life from traditional family history resources.

Not only will biographers, academics and students benefit from finding their subjects of study on the database; the whole historical community is invited to take part in shaping it. Family historians and local researchers can use it for free, but they can also submit new information to fill the many gaps where basic reference sources did not give details about the compensation claimants. Hence, this is not just a testament to collaboration between Nick Draper, Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland and their team, but a model of collaboration between historians in both universities and the community, to the benefit of both. Already, a project led by the LBS team’s colleague, Margot Finn, is doing something similar for the legacies of the East India Company back home in the British Isles. By making these free – and not restricted to subscribing university libraries – the resource is taking and giving back in equal measure.

The LBS project is also a nice example of how great things start with small, tenacious researchers. Nick Draper completed his PhD under Catherine Hall’s guidance as a mature student, using knowledge from his previous career in the City of London to pick through the long-ignored, dry and dusty records of compensation. For any lonely researcher, working independently or in a doctoral programme, Draper’s career can only offer inspiration: less than a decade since he started, he published his early findings as a prize-winning book and helped found a major project, the results of which will cascade into countless books, dissertations, family trees and local histories. Even in cash-strapped times, it’s good to know that the most promising seeds can still be tended and supported.

Surely exhausted by the transcription, analysis and presentation of the data surrounding compensation, the LBS researchers deserve a rest. However, they must not be allowed one. They have already set out to push the website further, by including new records of ownership before the 1833 Emancipation Act ended British slaveholding. Most excitingly, the plantation records for this earlier period will include some information about the enslaved Africans themselves. Given the formidable challenges to tracing sources for black family history research, this element of the project is most impressive and surprising.

The LBS site, therefore, deserve its praise and fanfare, not for embarrassing individual celebrities today, but for opening up new questions, problems and opportunities for anyone interested in enterprise, art and power in modern British history. There’s a lot that needs doing to develop the site and make the context and background for each individual more complete. But the really daunting thing is that’s largely down to us, while the LBS team gets on with making more hidden archives accessible to the whole community.

Richard Huzzey is lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool and author of Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (Cornell University Press, 2012).

From The Archive

When is a Slave Not Really a Slave?

After bringing slavery in the West Indies to an end in 1834, Britons differed over how to treat other forms of oppression around the world, says Richard Huzzey.