The acknowledgement of the influence of the slave trade on contemporary Britain is, of course, contentious. For some, that is.
When I was growing up, the rich used to show their supremacy, culturally and economically, by paying in ‘guineas’ rather than pounds. I had to become an adult before I found out the precise provenance of that word. Similarly, I had to wait for maturity and beyond, before anyone wondered if Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley might have made their money from slavery. And don’t get me started on Colston Hall …
Part of the reason for this lies within mainstream school and university twentieth century textbooks - the ‘Whig view of History’ has prevailed in this country, pretty much, throughout my lifetime: incremental, empirical, pragmatic, non-ideological, practical progress. Omniscient and generous rulers, who knew when it was exactly the right moment to bring in exactly the right amount of reform, and so avoid those beastly continental revolutions.
It is this historiographical trope that trots out a so-called line running from Magna Carta, through the ‘Glorious (‘peaceful’, and exaggerated) Revolution’ of 1688, and on through the Reform Acts of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This trope misses out the Commonwealth (‘Interregnum’), of course, but includes the 1807 Act ending the slave trade in the British Empire, and the 1833-4 Abolition of Slavery Act.
Oh, beneficent all-seeing rulers: born to rule, and always knowing best: lucky Britons and lucky Britain.
This is, needless to say, an illusion at best, false consciousness at worst – and dangerously deceptive with regards to slavery. The foregrounding of the 1807 and 1833 Acts has too often got our past off the hook – two centuries worth of slave trafficking sent backstage. And the history books that have contrasted the domestic programme of the ‘Modernizing Whigs’ of the 1830s with the ‘Reactionary Tories’ pre - 1832, have often glossed over some of the detail of the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act. The textbooks have focused upon Whig/Benthamite reforms for factories, towns, workhouses and so on, rather than the abolition of slavery.
The 1833-4 Act freed slaves within the British Empire (but let the East India Company off), but provided £20 million in compensation for the slave owners. That was not far off half of all governmental expenditure for that year, and is the equivalent of some £17 billion in today’s values. The UCL research project indicates that about half of those slave owners resided in this country and half in the West Indies (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/commercial/). The mapping of these beneficiaries shows how slave owners pop up in the most unlikely of places in the United Kingdom in 1834.
The project also shows what was done with much of this compensation and, unsurprisingly, a huge amount went into investment in the railways.
In a sense, the ‘Railway Mania’ of the 1840s, and the subsequent speculative investment cycles in the British domestic economy, were fuelled by those handouts to slave owners – and when you take into account the Keynsian multiplier effect, it’s hard to imagine almost anyone whose lives weren’t touched by that dirty money.
I researched two areas on the database for slave owners: Stroud and Portland Place in London. Portland Place was absolutely rife with slave owners; Stroud had but one in 1834: Samuel Baker of Lypiatt Park. Think of that, the next time you gaze out on that grand house; think about Baker’s 410 slaves on his two estates in Jamaica and how all his compensation helped fund many of our local railway lines: ‘A Day in the Life of a Penny’.
Appetite whetted, I typed in Painswick and discovered: Rev. Joseph Duncan Ostrehan, Sheepscombe Parsonage, He received compensation of £85 8s 11d for 3 slaves in Barbados, God bless him.
I then typed in Gloucestershire – why was I so astonished to find so much compensation being paid to Bristol in general, and Clifton, in particular? But a few more local parishes popped up. (Stop Press! I have now decided, whilst writing this, to collate all of these so as to put together a walk around the county and around the city – so no more of these entries for now. I’ll post all of that in a couple of weeks’ time.)
As regards the consequences of compensation for culture, the sullied cultural legacy resulting from this dirty money is shown at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/cultural/ , and https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/physical/
also shows how compensation paid to the 46,000 owners of about 800,000 slaves helped pay for new grand houses. It also funded many charities; indeed, the Royal Lifeboat Association was floated with slavery compensation. (To name but one.) Your own delving will reveal this hidden history of widely tainted philanthropy.
Another cultural legacy – albeit delayed – was racialist ideology. The campaign led by free traders against mercantilism, monopoly and slavery meant that imperialism and empire were regarded with thrifty suspicion by the Manchester mid 19th century zeitgeist – but the ‘Age of Empire’ would see the resurrection of racialist ideas in the late nineteenth century.
And, of course, it’s still with us today.
More of this on a future post – and working backwards, more on the economics, ideology and cultural consequences of slavery in the 18th century on a future post too.
To conclude for now, the link below takes you to the two excellent documentaries on BBC 2 in July 2015. David Olusoga was quite brilliant in these programmes about the UCL project. His presentation was especially poignant when reminding us that the abolitionists were, in the end, only allowed to free fellow human beings, by denying those slaves their humanity. This was, in a sense, a denial of the abolitionists’ fundamental beliefs.
The slave owners were triumphant in defeat: compensation for property, not humanity. That is why there is no equality of payment; instead there is a calibrated proportionality; Jamaican soil was becoming sugar-exhausted, whereas British Guiana was sugar-fertile, and so, Jamaican slaves were worth less … indeed, some were ready reckoned down to the most exact halfpenny.