When the United Kingdom abolished slavery in 1833, the government of the day paid out £20m in compensation — not to slaves, but to their owners. What happened next to that money has been tracked by a team of historians from UCL, whose new site, Legacies of British Slave Ownership, launched today, as Ian Steadman reports for the UK’s Wired site.
Building upon the work of historian Nick Draper — who spent three years researching the name of every slave owner in the British Caribbean at the time of slavery’s abolition — the UCL team have spent another three years following the money from the point of compensation. The hope is to shed light on the real impact of slavery on the history of the UK in all spheres of life, seeing the immediate impacts on the physical, cultural, artistic, political and other effects of that money.
Speaking to Wired.co.uk, researcher Keith McClelland said: “40 to 50 percent [of the £20m] stayed in the UK, and was distributed amongst about 3,000 people. There were a total of almost 47,000 people who received compensation, so the money that stayed in Britain was disproportionate to the number of people claiming. There were some who received a great deal of money, but there were also ordinary middle class people who made claims for relatively small amounts of money, relative to the total. Interestingly, if you look at all of the claims, in the Caribbean roughly 40 to 50 percent of the claimants were women. We have this tale of women not owning property, but in fact there were significant numbers of women owning slaves as property. About 25 percent of the people in Britain who received compensation were women.”
The £20m payment represented 40 percent of the British government’s budget at the time, and translates to around £16.5bn today. One high-profile individual who received compensation was George Hibbert, one of the founders of the West India Company, who received more than £63,000 across 19 claims — an amount worth more than £49m in today’s money. Another was John Gladstone, father of prime minister William Gladstone, who received more than £105,000 for his nine claims, more than £83m if awarded today. He invested much of that money in railways around the UK, as well as in funding the construction of the Liverpool Collegiate Institution, a part of which survives today as Liverpool College independent school. Hibbert amassed a huge art collection, including works by artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens, and also greatly expanded his country house on his estate in Hertfordshire, a building which still stands today.
“The Royal Bank of Scotland had its foundations in part in the slavery business, but there are many companies that are connected in some way,” McClelland said. “A lot of City companies — a lot of people who put their money where we can see where it’s going aren’t putting it in the industrial economy, things like cotton, but in insurance and shipping, things like that.” Much of the money was invested in the then-new railways, which were fundamental to the Industrial Revolution — it’s perhaps hard to argue that there wasn’t anyone in the UK who didn’t benefit from that investment.
Tracking down this information was a challenge — while the site represents the full records of everyone who received compensation from the government, McClelland said it was difficult to match those records with others available. He said: “Ideally, you would do this with financial papers, but of course they don’t exist for 99 percent of people, but there are sources like the London Gazette where you can find people making investments in banks and insurance companies. Railway companies published lists of people investing in the railways in the 1840s and you can track them. Sometimes you can’t be sure it’s the same person but you can be reasonably confident.”
“One of the things we’ve done is public workshops in various cities in Britain at which people came along to help — you get family historians, people who are interested because either they had ancestors who were enslaved people, or you get people whose ancestors were slave owners. We want this to be a public resource and people can contribute to it.” There’s a facility on the site for people who wish to make corrections or additions. The site’s database was designed by McClelland, and built by web designer Mark Hadley.
“We want it to be comprehensive, particularly for the absentee owners living outside of Britain, but is it? Probably not,” McClellan said. “Some of these people are very obscure. Sometimes trying to find out the most basic details — dates of birth and death, residence — is very difficult. It’s not comprehensive in terms of the legacies. The cultural legacies, collections of books or art, that’s a very hugely time-consuming thing to do. There’s also the imperial legacy — there are people going out to the Empire as businessmen, administrators, and now their families will be living in Australia or Canada or wherever.”
Some of the more surprising findings include the pervasiveness of slave ownership through British society. McClelland said: “A lot of people think of, rightly, London, Bristol, Liverpool as the great slave centres because of the slave trade, but the slave trade is spread across Britain. You get people in Scotland, people in the northeast. We didn’t expect it to the extent of the distribution, it was widespread.”
By making this information more easily available, the hope is that it will help people further understand just how enmeshed with the British economy of the 1800s, and British history, slavery is. While it’s relatively easy to spot the first generation of compensation, “once you’re into the children and grandchildren of the people who received money, you can’t track that, it’s so diffuse,” McClellan said.
“We think probably 10 to 15 percent of the wealthiest elites were connected to the slavery business. It has multiplying effects and it has a point where you can’t say this was a direct result of slavery or slavery money. If you look at somewhere like Liverpool in the 1840s, there’s an injection of capital into the Liverpool economy and wider Lancashire economy in that period which is coming from the compensation money. But there’s a much wider contribution of the slavery business into the impact of cheap sugar on working class living standards, which has consequences for the cost of production, and why Britain is better placed than, say, China to industrialise in the same period.”
He continues: “This is related to the current debates over the history curriculum in schools. Michael Gove is proposing a very narrow-minded programme for kids. What we’re saying in doing this kind of work is that you can’t think of British history like that. British history is connected to slavery, to India, to the whole history of the Empire. That imperial history has consequences for what kind of society we are. it’s not something that’s separate. It’s not just about black kids knowing that they had ancestors who might have been slaves, it’s about all of us, knowing that this legacy is part of the fabric of British society. People need to understand that.”
For the original report go to http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-02/27/slavery-database-goes-live?page=all