Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun


210