Photo: 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.
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
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice.
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform