How slavery shaped Britain

An online database of every slave owner who claimed compensation following the abolition of slavery in 1833 has been launched at University College London.

August 10, 2013
7 min read

slaveryPhoto: Michael Blythe

Mel Evans asked two of the people behind the project what are the key findings are.

Keith McClell The purpose of the project was to document the claims for compensation that were received in 1833, around 47,000 people. Within that group we’re particularly interested in about 3,000 people who are absentees – people who received compensation but were mainly living in Britain.

The fundamental question is: what was the legacy of these people in 19th-century Britain? Underneath that is a concern to look at how slavery, the slavery business and slave ownership have manifest importance in shaping what Britain looked like in the 19th century and, by implication, subsequent centuries. That in itself is couched within a bigger framework about the impact of empire.

Can you see connections in the database to families that still hold positions of elite power today?

Keith McClell You can certainly find examples, like the current Tory MP Richard Drax, who’s directly descended not only from people who received compensation in the 1830s but from the Drax family, which was a big and important family in the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are certainly families but as historians we’re not in the business of naming and shaming.

As Marx said: ‘Capitalism comes into existence dripping from head to foot in blood and dirt.’ This isn’t just about individuals, it’s about systems, but there are continuities. These people are members of elite families, with relations, business links and political affiliations. These people have a powerful presence within the imperial social formation that constituted Britain in the 19th century.

They’re distributed quite widely across economic sectors but the most important sector is in finance, in the City of London, governors or directors of the Bank of England or insurance companies. Royal Bank of Scotland has its origins with people who claimed compensation and was itself mixed up with the whole slavery business. Our estimate is that around 15 per cent of the British ruling class of the 19th century is intimately connected with this business of compensation.

How widespread and normalised was slave ownership across class and gender groups?

Keith McClell Forty-five per cent of those who received compensation were women. Of the absentees, about 25 per cent were women. A significant number of women who received compensation were living and continued to live in the Caribbean.

Even though women weren’t allowed to own their own property at that time?

Rachel Lang Women who owned more than £200 had to have trustees in place but often the women themselves were trustees, or were executors. They were excluded in some ways but they were represented in others.

Keith McClell Part of the complexity is what slave ownership means in terms of compensation. If someone is an executor or a trustee then they can receive the compensation.

Rachel Lang There are people, like Quakers, for whom it was against their religion to own slaves, who then as bankers claimed compensation because one of their clients owned slaves and had reneged on their debts. There are three MPs who have specifically taken an anti-slavery stance, possibly to get votes, who’ve then been awarded compensation because they’ve been trustees through a family trust, through their wife or connected through another financial arrangement. So people became slave owners in terms of compensation.

Keith McClell This is a snapshot taken in 1833. It’s not the true picture of slave ownership as it had been over the previous 20 or 30 years; it’s those people getting the money at that point following abolition. Nonetheless it gives you a very good picture of who was involved.

In terms of the class profile, most of these are elite people, but you do get some who are what we would think of as reasonably modest middle-class people. Geographically, London is highly represented as are Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. Interestingly, Scotland is disproportionately involved in compensation. About 15 per cent of all our people are based in or have close connections to Scotland.

And can you tell me about the ensuing period of so-called ‘apprenticeship’?

Keith McClell The total compensation claims amounted to £20 million, which was the equivalent of 40 per cent of state expenditure in 1834. Part of the deal was this period of so-called apprenticeship until 1840. Because of anti-slavery agitations it actually came to an end in 1838.

Under apprenticeship all of those who had been slaves, apart from children under six, had to spend 75 per cent of their time working for those who had enslaved them – and work for nothing. Many people voted with their feet, particularly women who had been field labourers; they got out to the free villages in Jamaica. When it was brought to an end in 1838, people advocated the import of labour from Africa to work in those colonies. This is the foundation of post-slavery subaltern economies.

What do the findings tell us about the era often celebrated as the end of transatlantic slavery for Britain?

Keith McClell Britain’s involvement in the slave trade does not end with the abolition of slavery. That’s partly because of a complex picture about the import of slaves into Cuba and Brazil, the transport of slaves between Africa and the Americas that continues. Domestic slavery continues in India throughout the 19th century. While slavery is ended in the British Caribbean, forms of coerced labour did not end.

A crucial part of a cultural political shift that takes place in the early 19th century is this notion of Britain as an anti-slavery nation. It becomes one of the most important legacies of the whole business, that this is part of the civilizing project that constitutes Britishness in the 19th century. The idea that Britain brings to the world the end of slavery, industrialistion, commerce, manufacturers, the rule of law, tolerance, the expanding growth of representative government – all of those notions become central to definitions of Britishness and continue to be so into the 20th, 21st centuries.

One of the things this project has sought to undermine is not to say that was all myth, but that it has another side to it. Slave owners in the 18th century and the early 19th century were often thought of as slightly pariah-like figures. But these are people who were absorbed into 19th-century British society almost seamlessly. What we’re saying is that the legacy is a very powerful one. This is not a configuration that simply disappears, it is transformed into a different political culture in the 19th century.

How does this work relate to current calls for reparations for all descendants of Africans imprisoned and enslaved in US and Caribbean chattel slavery?

Keith McClell As a historical project we don’t have a formal position on reparations or restitution. But people who are active in reparations movements both in this country and in the Caribbean itself who are interested in making claims for reparations rightly enough might use material we are generating as part of the discussion.

Do you see a specific role for white Britons to play in unraveling and addressing this history?

Keith McClell This is about public education, not only to enable black Britons to see what their history has been in part, but because white people in Britain need to understand that their whiteness is constituted by the matrix of race and this mythology of race and the nation.

Our responsibility as historians is to face up to the past that we have had. This is not Michael Gove history; this is history that is about the complexities, the difficulties, the sometimes tortuous embarrassments of being British. Not in a patriotic sense, but we’ve been constituted by this culture. We have a responsibility to understand it and to communicate as best we can.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project website and database is at www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs

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