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The Forgotten Slave Owners: Tracing British history before the abolition of slavery

NatashaDownes9 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.

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Entangled histories

BenStevens25 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.

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What is modern slavery?

newseditor2 November 2012

Written by Neil Rodger, UCL Communications Manager

So, what is modern slavery? That was the question posed in a Lunch Hour Lecture given by Dr Virginia Mantouvalou (UCL Laws), Co-Director of the UCL Institute for Human Rights.

Dr Mantouvalou takes the stance that forms of slavery exist in the UK and Europe today – particularly in the area that falls under the catch-all title of ‘domestic work’.

Domestic work can mean anything from care of children or the elderly, to cooking, cleaning and gardening. She explained that some of these domestic workers have their passports taken away and are often denied permission to leave the house.

Some even struggle to get enough food and water.

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Did democracy cause the American Civil War?

BenStevens2 December 2011

The beauty of UCL’s Lunch Hour Lectures is that you don’t need any prior knowledge of the topic in question to enjoy one. This was certainly the case with Dr Adam Smith’s (UCL History) talk on 24 November, ‘Did democracy cause the American Civil War?’ – which is just as well, as my knowledge of that conflict is patchy at best.

Southern Chivalry: Argument versus Club’sAlthough I studied political history up to A level, American history rarely troubled the syllabus. However, I did learn, as every history student does, that wars very rarely have one, discrete cause.

In recognition of this, Dr Smith began by giving a succinct answer to the question in the lecture title: “No”. In fact, he said, the question was “phenomenally difficult to answer”, because although slavery is often cited as the main cause, it is actually the complex and unexpected interplay between democracy, slavery and modernity that lies at the heart of the conflict.

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