By Katie Donington

Slave Emancipation; Or, John Bull Gulled Out Of Twenty Millions. Woodcut printed and published by G. Drake. Courtesy of UCL Art Collection, EPC8032.
Slave Emancipation; Or, John Bull Gulled Out Of Twenty Millions. Woodcut printed and published by G. Drake. Courtesy of UCL Art Collection, EPC8032.

Recent years have seen transatlantic slavery once again brought to the fore of public consciousness. The worlds of academic history, culture and politics combined to reinvigorate debates around slavery and its legacies.  Last year the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project launched its online database revealing for the first time the identities of those who claimed compensation for the loss of their ‘property’ in people following the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape of Good Hope in 1833.  The most recent issue of the History Workshop Journal features an article by Catherine Hall, one of the project’s leaders, which argues that gender and race are both critical to capital formation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  You can view the article on special open access here.

Renewed interest in slavery has stretched well beyond the academy. In 2014 the release of Steve McQueen’s Oscar winning film Twelve Years A Slave alongside Amma Assante’s Belle offered, albeit radically different, accounts of American and British involvement with the slavery. Both films raised questions about the place of slavery within their respective national histories. This year has also seen an important political development with the announcement by the Caribbean Community, known as Caricom, that it would be pursuing a ten point plan for reparations from the European nation-states that participated in and benefited from the slavery business. In their own way each of these interventions have engendered a public reckoning with this traumatic past. The variety and strength of public response has shown that the issue remains a deeply contentious and divisive one that cuts into the seams of our multi-cultural and post-colonial society.

The Forgotten Slave-owners

In Britain the history of slavery has more often than not been encountered through the lens of abolition. The memory of abolitionism and its importance to Britain’s conception of itself as a benevolent, liberal, freedom-loving democracy, was made abundantly clear during the 2007 commemorations of the abolition of the slave trade. The abolition of slavery continues to be one of the cornerstones of British national identity: in Prime Minister David Cameron’s words, ‘Britain may be a small island, but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience… Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery.’ But focusing on the national heritage of abolition has helped hide a darker history, as Linda Colley has pointed out, ‘from being the world’s greediest and most successful traders of slaves in  the eighteenth century the British had shifted to being able to preen themselves on being the world’s foremost opponents of slavery.’ To borrow historian Christopher Leslie Brown’s phrase, the ‘moral capital’ of abolitionism provides a means of redeeming Britain’s troubling colonial past as well as a justification for its continued role in international affairs.

The rush to commemorate abolition and the urge to forget this less than noble chapter in British history has obscured the ways in which slavery impacted on the social, political, economic and cultural landscape of Britain both during the period and beyond. The extent and range of profiteering that took place meant that wealth generated through the slavery business infiltrated diverse and seemingly disconnected areas of British society. The practice of slavery was at its most intensive in the colonies, where the enslaved laboured to produce the tropical commodities that European people craved. However, the system of slavery also relied on a whole swathe of attendant industries at home in Britain. These included, but were by no means limited to, shipping, insurance and finance, all of which were vital to the establishment and maintenance of the slave economy. The West India merchant houses of London and Glasgow were key sites for the organisation and financing of the commerce in slave-produced commodities. Plantation societies like Jamaica were reliant on credit provided by the counting houses in Britain. Slavery was a complex economic system that implicated far greater numbers than simply the men in the colonies wielding the whip.

When thinking about slave-ownership the image that most readily comes to mind for many people is the stereotypical Caribbean planter depicted in Slave Emancipation; Or, John Bull Gulled Out Of Twenty Millions. During the eighteenth century this figure had become a stock character, exemplified, for example, in Richard Cumberland’s play The West Indian (1771). Having made a fortune through sugar and slavery many of the plantocratic elite believed the epitome of success was to join the ranks of high society in Britain. Lampooned in some parts of society for their gluttony, opulence and lack of metropolitan taste, absentee plantation owners were an important conduit for wealth created in the colonies. These were individuals who were determined to leave their mark on British society through marriages, investments, country-house ownership, politics, and cultural patronage. Yet, bar a few familiar names like the Harewoods and Beckfords, most of these West India families have been lost to memory; successfully integrated into older more established families or, owing to the disturbing origin of their wealth, simply forgotten.

Despite their domination of popular memory the Caribbean planter class represented only one of the ways in which people could become involved in slave-ownership during the period. Complex networks of credit finance, kin and inheritance both in Britain and in the colonies meant that slave-ownership infiltrated a wide cross-section of society; from a widow with an annuity on a single enslaved person, to a West India merchant who foreclosed on a mortgage and claimed enslaved people as repayment for the debt. Up until the later stages of the abolition campaign slave-ownership presented no bar to respectability, it was instead a common and unremarkable facet of British life.  Little is known about these forgotten slave-owners but their stories demonstrate some of the ways in which slavery returned home, posing a challenge to our understanding of the institution as a distant colonial phenomena. It is these people’s stories that the historians working on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project have been documenting. In doing so their work has shed light on the ways in which slave-based wealth infiltrated Britain, enmeshing metropole with colony through the bonds of commerce, property and family.

The Slave Compensation Commission Records

Whilst many Britons will be familiar with the philanthropic narrative of abolition and the figure of William Wilberforce, the economic bargaining that took place to ensure the ending of slavery is a less well-known story. As part of the measures taken by the British government to end slavery in 1833 in the Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape of Good Hope, twenty million pounds of compensation was paid to the slave-owners and a period of apprenticeship was forced upon the formerly enslaved people.

The road to abolition had been a long and fraught one. Slave-owners argued that they had bought into the system in good faith; it was a legally sanctioned commercial activity and many had staked their fortunes on investing in it.  By the mid-1820s the Society of West India Planters and Merchants, the mouthpiece of the proslavery lobby, were already resigned to the dismantling of the institution that had formerly supported them. They were however unwilling to relinquish it without a fight. In 1823 they resolved that ‘Whatever the abstract Right of the Slave to his freedom, it cannot affect in the case before us, the Title of Master to Compensation.’ For, they lamented, it was not just the ‘Property of the Planters’ at stake but also ‘the Interests of Widows, Children, Annuitants and Mortgagees.’ The government therefore must ‘provide without delay, a fund which may be adequate to afford Compensation.’ Enslaved people were classed as a form of property during a period in which property ownership was a near-sacred principle.

Compensation Parliamentary Papers
Slavery Abolition Act: an account of all sums of money awarded by the Commissioners of Slave Compensation’, Parliamentary Papers 1837-8 (215) XLVIII, p. 76. Image © Senate House Library.

The process of compensating the slave-owners was a protracted one. The government borrowed money from a syndicate organised by Nathan Mayer Rothschild. The amount represented approximately 40 per cent of government expenditure, although at the time the state was much smaller than today. The loan was incorporated into the national debt, a move which was presented as a form of atonement for what had been described as a ‘national sin’. If the claim was deemed to be genuine then the money was paid via the National Debt Office of the Bank of England. Valuations of the enslaved were made according to gender, age, skill and the productivity of the individual colony in which they laboured. Crudely speaking this meant that, for example, an enslaved person in the profitable colony of British Guiana was worth more than their counterpart in Jamaica where the sugar economy had been in decline.

The records of the Slave Compensation Commission offer a route into the history of slave-ownership in Britain. The records, which have been digitised by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, are housed in hard copy at the National Archive at Kew. The bureaucratic records that the compensation process produced offer a snap-shot of who the slave-owners were at the ending of slavery. In this sense we must recognise their limitations as a source on slave-ownership because they do not identify the individuals and families of an earlier and more arguably more profitable period of engagement with the slavery business. The next phase of the project’s work already underway at University College London – The Structure and Significance of British Caribbean Slavery 1763-1833 – will go back further in time to try and trace who the slave-owners were in the years following the end of the Seven Years War up until the abolition of slavery. The project’s findings will be incorporated into an updated version of the database which will be available in 2016.

The Encyclopaedia of British Slave-ownership

Historian Nick Draper’s ground-breaking analysis of the compensation records, The Price of Emancipation (2009) laid the foundation for The Legacies of British Slave-ownership. The project has digitised the records of around 46,000 claimants and published them online. Approximately ten million pounds of the compensation money was paid to people who lived in Britain with the rest going back to the colonies. Focusing on around 3,000 slave-owners who were resident in Britain, the open access database sheds light on the sheer scope of people who claimed ownership of the enslaved in 1833. Some of the initial findings have revealed surprising new information, for example of the 46,000 claimants approximately 40 per cent of those were women. In contrast to the image we have of the white linen clad male slave-owner on a plantation in the Caribbean, instead we are presented with Dorothy Little a widow of seventy from Clifton, Bristol who received £297 1s 6d for 13 enslaved people in Jamaica. As Catherine Hall has argued in her work on gendering property, enslaved people were the means for some women to enjoy independence – their relative liberation, particularly as widows, rested on the shoulders of those they kept in slavery. Women were vital conduits for wealth within the slave economy; they might be used to consolidate pre-existing ties of business and family, or realise social aspirations through their advantageous matches within the gentry and aristocracy.

The geographical spread of slave-owners has also prompted a shift in focus away from those areas traditionally associated with the slavery business – London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow – engendering a re-evaluation of local histories in relation to slavery. Controlled and contained within these spaces, the geographic boundaries set on the memory of slavery enabled a denial of its importance to both national history and local experience outside of these designated areas. The records of the Slave Compensation Commission reveal a much more complex story – the local nuances of a ‘national sin.’ They allow us to tell stories about slavery that connect this history to modern Briton’s everyday lives, the streets they walk down and the places where they live.

From the basic biographical data included in the compensation claims, the project attempted to trace the impact of the individuals resident in Britain through an examination of the social, cultural, political, commercial, imperial and physical legacies they left behind. It has examined whether or not these people invested in commercial concerns and if so what? Did their money help to build railways, docks or roads? Were they M.P.s or involved in local and imperial politics? Did they build country houses or collect art and books? Did they author books about the West Indies and if so how did this shape ideas about race in Britain? Were they involved with the establishment of philanthropic or cultural institutions? In attempting to answer these questions the project has sought to offer, an albeit incomplete, empirical basis for the discussion of the ways in which slavery contributed to the formation of Victorian Britain. The issue of Britain’s debt to slavery has tended polarise public opinion. A Nick Draper has stated the work of the project has been to try and ‘fill the gaps between those who deny slavery’s role and those who believe Britain was built entirely on the blood of slaves.’

Lubaina Himid, Naming the Money, UK, 2004. © Lubaina Himid.


Slavery is the history that connects Britain to Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. It is the painful and uncomfortable story of the enrichment of one group through the violent expropriation of the labour and human resources of another. It has had long-lasting and serious ramifications that are both economic and human – the cost of slavery is more than merely money. The abolition of slavery allowed Britain to reconfigure its image from that of enslaver to emancipator. The comfortable bracketing of this history encapsulated by the celebrations that marked the passing of years 1807-2007 has allowed the nation to draw a line in the sand, to insist that it is over. So often when discussing the vexed issue of slavery the historian is confronted with the idea that this history is in the past and we should move on, as if the legacies of slavery can somehow be contained by a legal declaration of freedom, as if the passing of a law suddenly and forever brought equality and opportunity for the formerly enslaved people and their descendants. The payment of compensation bestowed upon the slave-owners confirmation of their respectability as well as the means to remake themselves anew in the dawning of the Victorian era. What did the gift of freedom bring for the enslaved? A further period of unfree labour in the form of apprenticeship, continued racial inequalities and a hard struggle for eventual independence.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has a part to play in the debate surrounding the issue of reparations. The front cover of its recently published book is taken from Uncomfortable Truths a 2007 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum by artist Lubaina Himid. When interviewed about her work Himid said ‘I tend to address the hidden and neglected, cultural and economic contribution, made by real, but forgotten, people to the history and swagger of so-called great and established nations… The piece was made to explore notions of what it is to belong and what it means to make the best of a life unpaid and abused that may have been thrust upon you… It is more about naming than it is about money.’ The contribution that the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project has made is centred on this notion of historical repair – that acknowledging this history, that naming it, must be part of the process of coming to the table to negotiate meaningful forms of reconciliation.


Katie-Donington1Katie Donington is a Research Associate on the ESRC/ AHRC funded ‘Structure and Significance of British Caribbean Slave-ownership 1763-1833’ project at University College London. She completed her PhD with the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project in 2013. Her research focuses on the merchant networks of the Hibbert family between London and Jamaica.


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