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Entangled histories

By Ben Stevens H P Stevens, on 25 June 2013

There is still considerable anger surrounding the use of public money to bail out several of Britain’s major banks, so can you imagine the furore if it were used to compensate former slave-owners?

And yet, this is exactly what happened in 1833 when Parliament abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. It wasn’t a small amount of money, either – £20 million or £16 billion in today’s money.

However, according to Professor Catherine Hall (UCL History) in her Lunch Hour Lecture, ‘Britain and the legacies of slavery’, at the Museum of London Docklands on 11 June, there was no such public outcry.

A Harlot's Progress, William Hogarth

A Harlot’s Progress, William Hogarth
IMAGE: Museum of London

Vested interests
The reason for this, she explained, was that the slavery business had tentacles deep in British society, ranging from shipbuilding to textiles and sugar – all of which were industries that employed hundreds of thousands of people.

So when Parliament voted in favour of abolition, the slave-owners were able to drive a particularly hard bargain in both the Commons and the Lords for the loss of what they deemed their ‘property’.

As an aside, Professor Hall pointed out that the compensation recently awarded to the Kenyans tortured by British forces during the Mau Mau uprising only amounted to £20 million in today’s money.

Returning to slavery’s complex links with British society, she dwelt briefly on the location of Museum of London Docklands in what is now called West India Quay.

What’s in a name?
Wondering aloud how many visitors realise where it gets its name from, Professor Hall explained that the museum was the point of embarkation for Britain’s slave-ships – a fact that is underlined by a statue outside the museum of Robert Milligan, Co-Director of West India Docks Company and a slave-owner himself.

To receive their compensation, each owner had to make a detailed claim to a parliamentary committee – the records of which are held at the National Archives in Kew.

Four years ago, Professor Hall and her colleagues began to mine these records as part of a public-funded project about the legacies of slavery with a particular focus on slave-ownership.

The resulting, publicly accessible database, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, went live a couple of months ago and received more than 100,000 hits in the first fortnight.

Entangled histories
The records in the archive relate to 3,000 people and provide a series of fascinating family stories – especially as nearly half of the £20 million of compensation went to UK-based owners, many of who had never even been to the Caribbean.

It is these “entangled histories” that are at the core of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership – though Professor Hall was at pains to stress that the project’s aim is not to point the finger. “We are all implicated in this shared history and this building is a symbol of this,” she added.

For the rest of the lecture, she chose to focus on the family story of Charles Kingsley – a novelist, keen imperialist and member of the Victorian intelligentsia.

Kingsley’s maternal grandfather, Charles Nathan Lucas, was a judge in Barbados and came from a family that had owned land – and, therefore, slaves – there for five generations.

So when slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean, the family received £3,000 for their 157 slaves. Even so, Charles Kingsley later remarked that “emancipation ruined me”.

Muscular Christianity
This was because, Professor Hall argued, emancipation represented a threat to his very sense of identity. In particular, the egalitarianism of the abolitionary cause was starkly at odds with the type of white supremacy and muscular Christianity that he learned from his grandfather and is reflected in works such as Tom Brown’s School Days.

Kingsley was not alone in feeling threatened by abolition. In 1865, E. J. Eyre, Governor of Jamaica, responded to an uprising by black workers there as if it were the outbreak of a war – sending in government troops and holding mass executions.

Back in England, there was a two-year public debate about his actions, with John Stuart Mill, Darwin and Thomas Huxley calling for him to be tried for murder. Kingsley, however, joined Thomas Carlyle, Tennyson, John Ruskin and even Dickens in supporting Eyre and no case was ever brought against him.

Near the end of his life and lured by a romantic notion of the West Indies, Kingsley travelled to Trinidad in 1870 and wrote about how the plantations struggled without slaves – importing coolies, indentured Indian labourers, to do the work.

In the resulting book, At Last: a Christmas in the West Indies (1871), he outlined his ideas about the hierarchy of race and his belief that new white settlers were needed, along with coolies, to educate the African workers.

Professor Hall concluded her lecture with the rather sobering observation that “nothing ended with abolition – there were huge legacies of inequality”, while I was left wondering just how many racial slurs had passed me by as a child while I enjoyed Kingsley’s children’s classic, The Water Babies.


Watch the full lecture below:

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