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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Stealing from Peter to Pay Paul: Satirising Slave Compensation in the Radical Prints of C. J. Grant

By Alicia C Thornton, on 28 August 2012

by Katie Donington


C. J. Grant, ‘Slave Emancipation; Or, John Bull Gulled Out Of Twenty Millions’, Woodcut printed and published by G. Drake, 12 Houghton Street, Clare Market, London (1833-35). Image © UCL Art Collection, UCL, EPC8032.

From left to right the caricatured figures represent a West Indian slave-owner, a Whig politician, a character called ‘John Bull’ who was used to represent the British public, an abolitionist and a crudely racialised group of enslaved people.

The captions read:

Slave-owner: ‘We slave robbers must have compensation for our loss. As to how the money’s got, what the devil do we know, so long as we get it.  John Bull’s a well known flat, and don’t much care how he’s robbed so long as he can get grub to eat and straw to lay on.’

Whig politician: ‘Only see how neatly I take it out of his pocket. We Whigs are dapper hands at taking swag.’

John Bull: ‘Yes, Philosopher, I do begrudge it, and most damnably too: and I can tell ye, that if ye do have it, it won’t be a voluntary grant on my part, but a complete extortion on your’s and your pals. You call ’em dear, do ye? Yes and so do I, infernal dear. You call ’em suffering slaves too, and that in the face of our poor innocent factory children for whom you hav’nt one small part of pity. To them emancipation would be an absolute blessing, but to these bishop looking niggers it’ll only be a curse.’

Abolitionist: ‘Here’s a gratifying sight for ye, Johnny Bull. Freedom for the poor dear half-starved suffering slaves. Surely after such a joyous and affecting scene as this, I know your GENEROUS disposition too well to think that you would begrudge the paltry pittance of £20,000,000 for their emancipation!!’

1st Enslaved: ‘You black teef, do you know what mancipation mean’

2nd Enslaved: ‘No nor I no no care. I know dat Massa Bull pays for it, and it must be good.’

3rd Enslaved: ‘Ha Jonny Bull you be one dam fool.’

My PhD is attached to a major new research project – The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Project .  Launched by the History department at UCL in 2009, the project team consists of Professor Catherine Hall , Dr. Nick Draper and Keith McClelland .  The team have been investigating the relationship between slave-ownership and the formation of modern Britain. In 1833 the government brokered a deal with the slave-owners to secure emancipation for the enslaved in the British West Indies. The package involved both an apprenticeship period for the enslaved as well as the payment of £20,000,000 worth of compensation to the slave-owners. In order to receive compensation people had to register their claims, this bureaucratic process left behind a comprehensive documentation of who the slave-owners were in 1838 when the lists were compiled. This data forms the empirical basis of the project which is using the information to build a publically accessible online encyclopaedia of British slave-ownership.

The C. J. Grant image is the project’s logo and is from the UCL Art Museum Collection.  Printed on cheap paper and sold for a penny, the image satirises the controversial decision to pay the slave-owners compensation, depicting it as a theft from the public pocket. Grant was not alone in this view – the Poor Man’s Guardian claimed that compensation would be ‘extracted from the bones of the white slaves’ in Britain[1].  Grant’s prints were aimed at the socially and politically conscious working classes. In the image ‘John Bull’ speaks for working people but they are not represented pictorially. This is an interesting absence – with no parliamentary political representation at the time the image suggests that they could only achieve a political voice by proxy. It also demonstrates the way in which Grant perceived the working poor as being excluded from debates around slavery, freedom and labour conditions.

The largely middle class abolitionist leadership led some radicals to suggest that their concern for the enslaved in the colony led to the neglect of the industrial working poor at home. This form of what was described as ‘telescopic philanthropy’ had also been seized upon by the slave-owners. Radicals like Grant had to tread a fine line between their critique of the abolitionists, their support for emancipation and the language of the anti-abolition West India lobby. Sometimes this failed – the depiction of the enslaved in this image speaks straight to proslavery myth of the infantilised, happy and contented slave for whom freedom would be ‘a curse’.

After nearly fifty years of polarised discussion, the representation of the slave-owner and the abolitionist reflects a frustration with both the greed and gluttony of the former and the sanctimonious piety of the latter. The opulent flesh of the planter becomes a symbol for the unfettered indulgence and idleness of plantation life whilst the pinched frame and clerical garb of the abolitionist signifies the unceasing virtuous self-restraint of the morally puritanical Evangelical ‘Saints’, who alongside their campaign for abolition had also launched a reformation on the manners of the working classes.

The slave-owner stretches out his hand expectantly waiting for the government to bail him out; the knowing gesture an indication of the long-standing relationship between big sugar in the Caribbean and the government at home. The slave-owners argued that they had invested in ‘property in men’ under a system which was sanctioned and regulated by the government. By ending slavery the government was effectively confiscating their legitimate property and they were therefore entitled to compensation.

The abolitionists were divided over the issue of compensation. Some of them contested the principle that there could ever be ‘property in men’ and in doing so attempted to undermine the central tenet of slave compensation. However, at a time when property was held as sacred, some of them agreed that compensation should be paid. They suggested that as the nation as a whole had benefitted from slavery, then everyone should pay for salvation from what they described as the ‘national sin’. It was thought that paying the price of emancipation would expunge the stain of slavery replacing it instead with the image of an anti-slavery nation – liberal, benevolent and freedom loving.

Compensation for the enslaved was never seriously debated in 1833 and indeed by being forced to work for free for a further five years of apprenticeship – until 1838 – the enslaved effectively paid in part towards their own emancipation. At the ending of slavery there was no land redistribution and wealth remained in the hands of a small elite. The deeply divisive issue of reparations for slavery is one that has been raised with most nation states who were involved in the slavery business. No former slaving nation has as of yet paid any compensation to the descendants of those who endured Transatlantic slavery although it was declared a crime against humanity in 2001.

Have your say…

  • Should the British government pay reparations?
  • How would the process work?
  • Who would the reparations be given to?

Further reading:

  • Exhibition Catalogue: C.J. Grant’s ‘Political Drama’, a radical satirist rediscovered, ed. Richard Pound (UCL, 1998).
  • Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  • http://www.jis.gov.jm/special_sections/reparations/ Government website looking at the reparations debate in Jamaica.

[1] Poor Man’s Guardian, 6 July 1833.

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones … Excavating Memory, Digging up the Past

By Gemma Angel, on 16 July 2012

by Katie Donington





Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the ‘matter itself’ is no more than the strata which yield their long-sought secrets only to the most meticulous investigation. That is to say, they yield those images that, severed from all earlier associations, reside as treasures in the sober rooms of our later insights – like torsos in a collector’s gallery.[1]

The Buried on Campus exhibition at the Grant Museum ran from April 23rd to July 13th 2012. Following the 2010 discovery of human remains beneath the Main Quad of UCL, research was undertaken to determine the reason for their presence. Forensic anatomist Wendy Birch and forensic anthropologist Christine King, members of the UCL Anatomy Lab, were able to date the bones which were over a hundred years old. The bones themselves also gave clues to the reason for their presence. Several items had numbers written on them and others displayed signs of medical incisions. This led the team to the conclusion that the bones represented a portion of the UCL Anatomy Collection which had been buried at some point after 1886.

The issue of displaying human remains in a museum of zoology was discussed by Jack Ashby, Grant Museum Manager in a recent blog post:

The whole topic of displaying human remains has to be considered carefully and handled sensitively… One of the questions we asked our visitors last term on a QRator iPad was “Should human and animal remains be treated any differently in museums like this?” and the majority of the responses were in favour of humans being displayed, with the sensible caveats of consent and sensitivity.[2]

The discovery and exhibition of human remains raises interesting questions about the relationship between archaeology, history, science, memory and identity. It also links into debates over the ethics of display in relation to human beings. Who were these people? Why did their bodies end up in an anatomy collection? Did they consent or were they compelled? Is it possible or desirable to attempt to retrieve or reconstruct the object as subject?

The case of the bones buried on campus reminds me of another example in which the physical act of excavation was transformed into an act of historical re-inscription. In 1991, workmen digging the foundations of a new federal building close to Wall Street uncovered the remains of 419 men, women and children. Archaeologists, historians and scientists were called in and they were able to identify the area as a 6.6 acre site used for the burial of free and enslaved Africans by examining maps from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Maerschalck Map of 1754, showing the Negro Burial Grounds near the “Fresh Water” (the Collect Pond). Image © The African Burial Ground Project.






The bones offered specific information which helped to give a partial identity to the people interred. Using ‘skeletal biology’[3] it was possible in some cases to pin point where in Africa individuals had come from – Congo, Ghana, Ashanti and Benin, as well as revealing whether they had been transported via the Caribbean. Bone analysis spoke of the appalling conditions of slavery; fractured, broken, malformed and diseased bones articulated stories of unrelenting labour, nutritional deficiency and coercive violence.

Objects found inside some of the burials created a sense of the uniqueness of each person as well as the care taken by loved ones as they performed burial rituals. The lack of items found also indicated the social status of the majority of people buried on the site.

This pendant (image courtesy of the African Burial Ground Project) was recovered from burial 254, a child aged between 3 ½ and 5 ½ years old. It was found near the child’s jaw and may have been either an earring or part of a necklace. The objects and bones represented a visceral historic link to the African American community in New York. The sense of ownership they felt towards this history and the individuals who had emerged from the soil, led to active community engagement in the project. In line with the wishes of the African American community, all original items were facsimiled before being reinterred along with all 419 ancestral remains in a ceremony in 2003. A memorial and museum were also built on the site (see image below, courtesy of the African Burial Ground Project).

The emergence of the skeletons was interpreted by some as a literal rendering of the way in which America has been haunted by its relationship with slavery. As physical anthropologist Michael Blakely, who worked on the site explained; ‘with the African Burial Ground we found ourselves standing with a community that wanted to know things that had been hidden from view, buried, about who we are and what this society has been.’[4]

The context of the two sites is of course very different. However, a comparison of them does raise questions about the uses of human remains and their relationship to history, memory and identity. The bones at UCL formed part of an anatomical teaching collection; a composite of individuals whose bodies somehow became the property of medical institutions. Those people often consisted of those on the margins of society; the poor, the criminal and the exoticised ‘others’ of empire.[5] Debates over the repatriation of human remains in museum collections highlight their importance to people’s sense of identity and history. Without family or community groups to claim the individuals discovered at UCL, it seems that they are destined to remain object rather than subject – ‘severed from all earlier associations… torsos in a collector’s gallery’.











Have your say – what do you think should happen to the bones at UCL?

[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘Excavation and Memory’, in Selected Writings, Vol. 2, Part 2 (1931–1934),ed. by Marcus Paul Bullock, Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, (Massachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 576.

[2] http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2012/04/24/buried-on-campus-has-opened/

[3] http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/blakey/

[4] http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/blakey/

[5] Sadiah Qureshi, ‘Displaying Sara Baartman, The Hottentot Venus’, History of Science, Volume 42 (2004), pp.233-257.