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A Society Built On Slavery

The extent to which Britons were involved in slave-ownership has been laid bare by a project based at University College London. Katie Donington shows how one family profited.

The Slave Trade, an engraving by J.R. Smith, late 18th century.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has been based at University College London since 2009. The project has digitised the records of the Slave Compensation Commission. The work highlighted the little-known economic process of compensation that accompanied the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean, the Cape of Good Hope (both 1834) and Mauritius (1835). As part of the measures to end slavery the government paid slave-owners £20 million in compensation. This act created a bureaucratic record of everyone who claimed property in people at the moment of abolition. Working with these records, the project has built up a biographical database of the recipients in order to try to measure their impact on the formation of Victorian Britain. Multiple research strands were identified – cultural, political, commercial, imperial, physical and historical – so that the project could examine the different spheres of influence that slave-based wealth infiltrated.

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