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Legacies of British Slave-ownership
February 27, 2013 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Legacies of British Slave-ownership, which went live on February 27, 2013, tracks what became of the twenty million pounds set aside to compensate British slave owners in the Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies (1833). Users have a variety of search options that can yield results according to individuals, businesses, countries, and so on. The site tracks compensated owners through their contributions to the arts, politics, entrepreneurship, and governance; some owners have extensive biographical notes. A number of the site's revelations about slave-owning families and the extent of their compensation have already attracted comment.

Additional context:

British Legislation: covers all acts regulating slavery (and its abolition) between 1788-1879, a number with full text.

Slavery, Emancipation, and Abolition: Brycchan Carey's site, with biographical notes, abolitionist poetry, and links to further reading.

Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery: A historical overview of the city's involvement in the international trade, with an extensive archive of primary documents, photographs, illustrations, maps, etc.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose family was among those compensated, later wrote "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" for William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist periodical, The Liberty Bell.

Some significant slave narratives of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

Ottobah Cugoano, Narrative of the Enslavement of Ottobah Cugoano, a Native of Africa; Published by Himself, in the Year 1787 (1787)

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789; first volume only)

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself (1772)

Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831)

Ignatius Sancho was a well-known figure in eighteenth-century British abolitionist circles, with a wide range of correspondents (most famously, the novelist and clergyman Laurence Sterne). Some MIDIs of his musical compositions are available here.
posted by thomas j wise (26 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
20 million British pounds in 1883 is approx. equal to somewhere between 1.647 billion GBP and 23.470 billion GBP in 2011 pounds, depending on how you measure it using (based on measuringworth.com )
posted by Bwithh at 5:17 PM on February 27, 2013


The American version of this resulted in a bloody Civil War, took 30+ years longer to get done and is still causing problems to this day. I'd say the British people made a prudent deal with this particular devil.
posted by srboisvert at 5:27 PM on February 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'd say the British people made a prudent deal with this particular devil.

That's the benefit of outsourcing.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:32 PM on February 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yes, I came in here to say, "Compensation probably cost a lot less than a civil war."

Although given that the slave owners had probably already gotten their money's worth in unpaid labour, the compensation should rightfully have gone to the freed slaves.
posted by orange swan at 6:03 PM on February 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


this was a part of a long transition (and the flawed messiness of imperfect democracy, I suppose) - the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 (special British military intervention against the trade with its navy started in 1808) and Britain put diplomatic pressure on other nations to follow suit. But outside of Britain itself, slave-owning was legal in the British Empire until 1833
posted by Bwithh at 6:12 PM on February 27, 2013


This is absolutely incredible. What a fascinating project.

as many as one-fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived all or part of their fortunes from the slave economy

Not really any less this side of the pond. In the US there was never a buyout, but those interested in the legacy of the profits of slavery will want to see Traces of the Trade. Heck, you don't need to see that - you can just walk around enjoying everything built before 1860 - but it is a good picture of one family's attempt to uncover the ways in which their family's wealth arose from connections to slavery.

As a museum person it was interesting to peruse the "cultural legacies" section. We of course know that much in our older collections represents the wealth accrued through colonial activity. Here the line of connection is very direct.
posted by Miko at 6:20 PM on February 27, 2013


If you want something to really get angry about, read up on Haiti. When they won their independence, they were made to pay reparations to France for the land AND for the herd of human chattel that had just stolen itself free.

And thanks to compound interest, the people of Haiti didn't finish paying until 1947.

Hence the particularly ruinous state of Haiti's environment. They farmed the living shit out of their land to get the money together for this,.

This deal, however, was the best way to just get the job of emancipation done.
posted by ocschwar at 6:21 PM on February 27, 2013 [12 favorites]


And thanks to compound interest, the people of Haiti didn't finish paying until 1947

I've often why Haiti at some didn't just say fuck you France and stop paying.
posted by shoesietart at 7:16 PM on February 27, 2013


It's kind of facinating, in the US of course it's more difficult to trace the actual money earned by slave holders. You can say so and so was rich, and so and so had slaves, but here you see the exact dollar sums given to them for the slaves they owned.
The American version of this resulted in a bloody Civil War, took 30+ years longer to get done and is still causing problems to this day. I'd say the British people made a prudent deal with this particular devil.
You don't think it caused any lasting problems in the countries where it actually happened?
posted by delmoi at 8:00 PM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Okay, okay, context, avoiding civil war, yadda yadda, etc. But the first thought that crossed my mind when reading this was:

Compensate slave owners??
posted by sldownard at 8:09 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've often why Haiti at some didn't just say fuck you France and stop paying.

Because army.

Even today France has one of the world's largest military forces. Back then it not only had a large army and navy, but also a huge empire. France wasn't going to encourage other independence movements by relieving Haiti of its debt burden. This way, they could point to it as an object lesson in rebellion: even if you leave, you'll be poor and wretched.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:14 PM on February 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Compensate slave owners??

How else are you going to get it done? Note that this is well before universal suffrage, so the property/investment owning classes (i.e. those most likely to benefit from the compensation) are the only ones eligible to vote for the government paying the compensation; if you don't have them on your side you can't get elected, there were no other voters to appeal to.

Just like today, if you suggested wiping out a huge quantity of capital for some moral benefit, the number of people hurt by the policy who would support legislators would be pretty tiny no matter the moral case. Hell, nowadays they won't even vote for things that would raise their taxes now but are likely to provide net benefits that help them long term -- small business owners voting against universal healthcare is one example.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 8:48 PM on February 27, 2013


sldownard: " Compensate slave owners??"

Well, it was morally questionable but as others have pointed out, it did avoid a civil war or further armed insurrections by some of the more slave-happy British colonies. That was a civil war that would have had global aspects.

In a way, this represents an early triumph of State intervention to correct a borked economy. In effect, the British Empire nationalised all its slaves globally through compulsory purchase, and then basically wrote off that entire capital by freeing its property. Ballsy move considering the prevailing economic theories of the day.
posted by meehawl at 8:57 PM on February 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Even today France has one of the world's largest military forces. Back then it not only had a large army and navy, but also a huge empire.
Sure, but it seems like by 1947 there were a couple years around that point where the french military wasn't really at it's peak capacity...

It does seem like France should return some of the money, you could argue it would open up the flood gates for all kinds of reparations for colonial behavior, but the fact that France actually took money for freed slaves is kind of crazy.
Compensate slave owners??
Actually there was a lot of discussion of compensating slave owners leading up to the civil war. It was actually because of the war that the slaves were emancipated without compensation - the way the emancipation proclamation worked from a legal standpoint is that slaves would actually be seized by the union as property and then freed on the basis that it would be immoral for the US government to actually keep slaves.
posted by delmoi at 9:31 PM on February 27, 2013


Thank you for this excellent, fascinating, and disturbing post.

I looked up my mom's maiden name (her great grandfather is from Scotland) and hope I am not actually related to any of these people but there are several who had slaves and were compensated! It's a sobering thought. And really drives home the idea that some of use benefit today from legacies colonialism.

After reading the case of John Stewart, which the database describes as possibly UK's first ethnic minority MP, (who inherited his father's properties, voted in favour of maintaining slavery...) I thought about British Columbia, Canada's first governor, James Douglas, who was of mixed race (from Guyana) and indeed his father, John Douglas, is among those receiving compensation.
posted by chapps at 9:42 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


How else are you going to get it done? Note that this is well before universal suffrage, so the property/investment owning classes (i.e. those most likely to benefit from the compensation) are the only ones eligible to vote for the government paying the compensation
Well, slavery was abolished in every country in the world, I'm assuming most of those didn't involve compensation, although not every country was democratic either.
it did avoid a civil war or further armed insurrections by some of the more slave-happy British colonies.
I seriously doubt you would have had a US civil war in support of slavery in other British colonies. Most of the "slave happy" colonies would have been in the west Indies where blacks probably made up a majority of the population, you wouldn't have had a large pool of people to fight. And it sounds like a lot of the people compensated were in the UK

Just out of curiosity, I looked up the history of sufferage in the UK and amazingly they didn't even have universal male suffrage until 1918, just 10 years before women's suffrage. Before that only about 2/3 men could vote.
posted by delmoi at 9:51 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sir James, who was the son of one of Mr Cameron's great-grand-uncle's, the second Earl of Fife, was awarded £4,101, equal to more than £3m today, to compensate him for the 202 slaves he forfeited on the Grange Sugar Estate in Jamaica.

Seems a bit of a stretch, and a mischievous one at that. I'm sure that if you went back far enough you could also find more than a few villeins in the Cameron family tree. What's the point, exactly? Is Cameron any better or worse than if he had not had a rich uncle?

(Curious how much thought went into calling one of the search functions "Persons of Interest". Suspiciously un-neutral phrasing for a history project. "Just the facts, ma'am.")
posted by IndigoJones at 5:23 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Indigo jones, I'm not trying to accuse Douglas of anything. As far as I know he was an opponent to slavery.

One of the links is about response in the UK regarding current politician's families, actually.
posted by chapps at 7:32 AM on February 28, 2013


Sure, but it seems like by 1947 there were a couple years around that point where the french military wasn't really at it's peak capacity...


Haiti did, in fact, stop payments several times, on their national debt. And got invaded for it. So for the most part, they decided it was better to keep paying, and I'm not going to second guess them on that call, nor on the call to agree to those bonds in the first place.
posted by ocschwar at 7:38 AM on February 28, 2013


Whoops, sorry IndigoJones, misread your comment as relating to Sir James Douglas (ie my comment).
posted by chapps at 7:39 AM on February 28, 2013


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compensated_emancipation

Looks like lots of countries used schemes like this to get emancipation done.
posted by ocschwar at 7:44 AM on February 28, 2013


Noted. Hey, it happens.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:39 PM on February 28, 2013


I don't think Eichmann was serious about this, but he offered to let Jews escape the Holocaust in exchange for payment. If things had worked out differently, would we say "Oh, it was better to pay him off rather than have a longer war"?

Maybe we would. I can just see that the same issues applies to compensating slave owners, when at least by our standards they were all guilty of crimes against humanity.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:59 PM on February 28, 2013


I have a friend who's grandparents escaped the holocaust by paying their way ou t in some bargain. They were in a group of Hungarian Jews who were all part of some bargain.
posted by chapps at 11:40 PM on February 28, 2013


delmoi: "I seriously doubt you would have had a US civil war in support of slavery in other British colonies. Most of the "slave happy" colonies would have been in the west Indies where blacks probably made up a majority of the population, you wouldn't have had a large pool of people to fight."

One of the reasons the British Empire was happy to let the North American Colonies secede was that they got to keep the Caribbean holdings, which were at that time, far more settled and economically valuable. And they were still doing pretty well by the 1830s. In Jamaica alone, the xmas Baptist War slave rebellion of 1831 mobilized 60,000 slaves among the island's 300,000 population. It was brutally put down by a combination of both British Army regulars and, with much more savagery including public mass execution displays, by the plantocracy's militias and hired mercenaries. The Caribbean plantocracies were old money, fabulously rich, had their own lobbies and voting blocs in Westminster, and had even embarked on their own independent, international colonisation and assimilation projects (cf, Georgia, South Carolina and the Middletons). If un-recompensed, would they have tried to run the West Africa Squadron's blockade? It didn't happen in history, but it would make a nice alt-history yarn.
posted by meehawl at 4:28 PM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Compensate slave owners??

How else are you going to get it done?


Not a very comparable situation, but in Pennsylvania in 1780 they did it gradually without direct compensation.

Wikipedia:
The 1780 Act prohibited further importation of slaves into Pennsylvania, but it also respected the property rights of PA slaveholders by not freeing slaves already held in the state. It changed the legal status of future children born to enslaved PA mothers from "slave" to "indentured servant," but required those children to work for the mother's master until age 28. To verify that no additional slaves were imported, the Act created a registry of all slaves in the state. Slaveholders who failed to register their slaves annually, or who did it improperly, lost their slaves to manumission.[2]
I heard African American History professor Dr. Gerald Horne make a fairly cogent argument (in a radio interview I can't find) that the U.S. would have become more progressive and better off had the colonies lost the Revolutionary War and followed a peaceful path to independence similar to Canada.

American Revolution was a Racist Revolt
Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, said, the American revolt of 1776 against British rule “was basically a successful revolt of racist settlers. It was akin to Rhodesia, in 1965, assuming that Ian Smith and his cabal had triumphed. It was akin to the revolt of the French settlers in Algeria, in the 1950s and 1960s, assuming those French settlers had triumphed.” Dr. Horne explores the racist roots on the American Revolution in his new book, Negroes of the Crown. “It was very difficult to construct a progressive republic in North America after what was basically a racist revolt,” said Horne. “The revolt was motivated in no small part by the fact that abolitionism was growing in London…. This is one of the many reasons more Africans by an order of magnitude fought against the rebels in 1776, than fought alongside them.”
It certainly seems to me that we don't get a very accurate representation of early U.S History in our text books, at least not as it concerns slavery and racism.
posted by Golden Eternity at 1:58 PM on March 3, 2013


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