Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

This was a two parter on the BBC focusing on the recent discovery in Britain’s National Archive of the complete listings of slave owners who were compensated when slavery was abolished in 1832. The list names an astounding 46,000 both here and abroad, ranging from a single slave to hundreds of them, a total of 300,000.

The program covered the origins of the slave trade and highlighted some of the families who became fabulously wealthy from the luxury goods like sugar, cotton, indigo and tobacco they produced. There were a few surprises in the list, such as the abolitionist MP Richard Godson who claimed to scorn slavery yet who accepted £5,018 in compensation for his own.John Stewart who had a slave mother received £25,000. The smallest payout to an English resident was to Rev Dixon for a single slave, valued at £1/18/10. A surprising number were single women, whose sole income was from this appalling trade, so often wrote pleading letters to the commissioners for greater payouts to stop them being impoverished. I was also surprised that John Gladstone, father of the later PM was heavily involved in the trade, and even invested in the Dutch colony of Demererra in order to continue making money after abolition.

Complaints were made about this documentary at 2 hours long, there was a lot of repetition – about the first 10 minutes of the second episode was a repeat of the first, and there were more repetitions within each episode. Presenter/historian David Olusoga spent a fair amount of time wandering along Caribbean beaches, and pointing to the same records in the archives. He spoke to archivists in the former slave colonies about the rules governing slave ownership and we were shown manacles and tongue braces which were duly treated as horrific.

But as usual, there was no context. IN Britain, gallows were often erected to scare people into behaving. Condemned felons were often taken to the gallows carrying their own shrouds before a last minute reprieve, a macabre piece of street theatre. What was never stated was how such horrific implements were used, in what circumstances, and – since this was presented as a race issue, were such items different to those used against white Europeans?  This is not to deny the horrors of the slave trade, but it happened at the same time that press gangs were kidnapping men into the navy, where punishment such as whipping and keel hauling were practiced on those who challenged the draconian ship board laws. The scolds bridle used on women who spoke out often drew blood and knocked out teeth; how different -if at all – was this to what was practiced in the slave colonies?

These are questions I often ask, because they are important – were slaves really treated so differently to the poor whites who in many instances worked alongside them, but were on record as being treated worse as they were completely expendable. After the slave trade was abolished in 1807, colonies could no longer legally import slaves, so there is evidence they took better care of the existing slaves. At the same time, the poor of England were starving, and travellers noted how much healthy were the slaves, able to grow their own food, and in a far more pleasant climate than Old Blighty.

The program then went into some detail as to where the compensation money went; all £15 million of it, a huge sum at the time. Some went into grand estates, but much went into industrial investments, especially into the railways. It also went into a lot of overseas investments, the transatlantic cable probably swallowed a lot of it, so it can be argued that a lot of the money helped to build the modern world, that all of us are inheritors of.

Dennis Leary used to claim that if anyone is truly against drugs, they should throw all their music collection away, as every lp, every cd has had drugs involved in it. In the same way, anyone truly rejecting the Atlantic slave trade should throw out al their modern property and go live on a desert island, as there is no way to separate the two, as the above shows, but also in the early factories of England were often directed at producing copper bottoms for the Caribbean fleet, or vessels for sugar production, and trade goods to buy slaves from their African captors.

International trade has been complex and widespread for a long time. There is no such thing as clean money, no matter how much we would like it to be so. We have to be satisfied to compromise on the level of clean we can live with.

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