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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.