Untold Histories; The Price of Emancipation
When Kathleen Chater discovered one of her ancestors may have been black she set about exploring the realities of life for the ordinary black person in England between 1660 and 1807, the period in which Britain was engaged in the slave trade. What began as an exercise in family history has produced Untold Histories, a minute and absorbing re-examination of primary and secondary sources on the experience of black Britons.
Having investigated a huge number of records (chapter notes are voluminous), Chater’s conclusions bring her into collision with what she identifies as the current orthodoxies of ‘Black History’. Recent intellectual fashion, she writes, has been to identify the ‘struggle of an oppressed underclass’. Eight-eenth-century British blacks were assumed to have formed discrete communities with a conscious identity and to have been discriminated against in every walk of life. Whites, as the dominant group, were thought to have viewed them exclusively through the prism of slavery, the slave trade and what in the next century would develop into racism. All wrong, says Chater, and her arguments are persuasive.
Exaggerations, overstatements and un- (or under-) proven assertions in the works of Black History heavyweights such as Follarin Shyllon and Peter Fryer are set up, only to be briskly knocked down again, principally by showing how the ‘black experience’ was in fact simply the experience of either the poor; or of any other ‘foreign’ group, such as Huguenots, Roman Catholics or Jews. Eighteenth-century black Britons, for Chater, were ordinary people getting on with their lives: black, but in every other way pretty much like everyone else. Perhaps this is a new orthodoxy in the making?
Untold Histories is an engaging book, but one to refer to rather than take to bed: so much time is given to analysis that there is little narrative. We get only the briefest glimpses of fascinating individuals such as Ann Duck, the London thief, and Joseph Martin, the highwayman. Might a companion volume be forthcoming?
Nicholas Draper’s The Price of Emancipation also challenges a few assumptions about the impact of slavery in Britain. He takes up the story after the Emancipation Act of 1833 and his target group is those who lived in Britain but drew an income from slave labour in the colonies. As the abolition movement strengthened its hold on British society in the decades before 1833, the proceeds of slave-owning went underground, ‘sanitised’ into financial instruments, such as mortgages and annuities. Between 1835 and 1844, however, a ‘Slave Compensation Commission’ was authorised to hand over £20 million of tax payers’ money to British slave-owners, an offer which brought them back into the open. There followed a ‘feeding frenzy’ as tens of thousands put forward their claims. A detailed analysis of the Commission’s work allows Draper to map how and where the rewards of slave labour trickled through British society.
Fascinating though the detail of his analysis is, Draper’s work will most probably be used for his contribution to the reparations debate. His conclusion will not be palatable to everyone. After some pithy remarks about the ‘entrepreneurs of memory’ – those busily unearthing links between past injustices and present-day financial institutions in the hope of compensation – he positions himself between the extremes of accusation and denial. Yes, there was a great deal of private wealth-creation from slavery by some Britons; no, the bulk of British people did not benefit (and by implication, therefore, should not now be held responsible).
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