The Forgotten Slave Owners: Tracing British history before the abolition of slavery
By Natasha Downes, on 9 June 2017
Written by Natasha Downes, Media Relations Manager, UCL
Most British history has focused on the abolition of slavery, forgetting 200 years that preceded it where Britain played a lucrative role in the transatlantic slave trade.
But a team of researchers at the UCL Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (UCL project) have been working to uncover a history that Britain has been quick to forget; the story of slave owners.
Curious to know more I attended the UCL Festival of Culture event entitled ‘Bloomsbury’s Forgotten Slave Owners’, to hear more about the UCL project and watch an excerpt of the BAFTA-winning documentary series, Britain’s Forgotten Slave-owners.
Why focus on slave owners?
Focusing on Britain’s slave owners may seem like an odd concept but as Dr Nick Draper (UCL History and Director of the project), points out it’s by “rethinking these aspects of British history that we can think about how wealth has been distributed economically, physically and socially.”
Over almost 10 years the UCL project team have been unravelling the vast records of information kept on British slave owners at The National Archive, Kew, which they have curated into an accessible online database. Here, there are the names of 46,000 slave owners that were recorded after the abolition of slavery in 1838.
Through the documentary we hear the uncomfortable story of how the abolition of slavery brought about the compensation of those 46,000 slave owners to the sum of £17 billion in today’s value, which Dr Draper highlights as “the biggest bailout since the banking bailout in 2009”. Those that were enslaved were not rewarded compensation, and still to this day the contention over repatriations remains.
How did this happen?
It may seem difficult to imagine today how the slave trade could happen, and how it could last so long. But the team at UCL have found that slave ownership was represented across all echelons of society, and all parts of the country from Portsmouth to the Scottish highlands. You will be surprised to know that many women and clergymen were also slave owners.
While slave owners lived in both Britain and the Caribbean, the 10% living in Britain owned approximately 50% of slaves, and Dr Draper describes this as a kind of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ effect. Slave owners were so far removed from life on the plantation, which meant they were either ignorant of, or psychologically detached from, the conditions.
The slave colonies
As the documentary took us back to the Caribbean to explore the narratives of each Caribbean island more closely, we heard how Barbados became a testing ground for how a slave colony could be run. During the 17th century, it was built and sustained entirely by slave labour with no other economy on the island.
One of the most uncomfortable aspects of the documentary, was hearing the excerpts of the 1661 Slave Code which details the violent oppression’s against slaves that were non-compliant. Followed closely by hearing about the once celebrated legacy of historian Edward Long, who in his famous account of Jamaica, disseminated negative racial ideas about Africans, which arguably have had implications for race relations today.
This was not an event for the faint hearted, but it rewarded its visitors with a unique and extensive insight into an untold part of history. I’ve already scouted the UCL database for famous figures, and even searched my family name which brought some interesting results on the slave owners that were present in the parish where my grandparents reside in Barbados today.
What does it mean for Britain today?
For Britain today, the UCL project opens up many important questions about how we talk about the past, but most importantly it brings this significant part of history back into the public domain.