Legacies of British Slaveholding

It is generally well known, and celebrated, that Britain played a key role in formally ending the slave trade in 1807 and emancipating slaves throughout the British Empire from 1833.  Indeed, in October 2012, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, described Britain as “the country that…invented the computer, defeated the Nazis, started the web, saw off the slave trade, unravelled DNA and fought off every invader for a thousand years.”

Britain, though, is not so good at acknowledging its own role in the trade, or its legacies, as historian Catherine Hall explains.  Motivated by a “more honest understanding of the connected histories of empire”, Hall has led a team of researchers at University College London to uncover the legacies of British slave-ownership.  In particular, she and her team have traced the £20 million compensation paid out by the British government in 5,000 separate awards to slave-owning families for  the loss of “their” property.  This was “despite the fact that the moral basis of the campaign against slavery was that it was wrong to hold property in people.”  It turns out some of these slave-owners include David Cameron’s own ancestors.  How large was this compensation package?  It was the equivalent to 40% of state expenditure in 1834 or around £16.5bn in today’s terms.

A lot of this money went into the pockets of major Victorian philanthropists and early backers of the railways, filtering throughout the whole of British society, into politics, art, and the economy.  Interestingly, of the 44,000 Britons claiming to own slaves in 1833, 41% of them were women (often living off pensions or allowances endowed in West-Indian plantations).  “More than they realised”, writes historian Richard Huzzey, “as the decades passed and the money dispersed, Victorian Britons lived in a slavery-compensation culture.”

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership Project has an online searchable database and a quick search for New Zealand turns up some hits.  These range from the hallowed halls of the Legislative Council in Wellington, to remote Owaka, in South Otago.

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