Legacies of British Slave Ownership

Legacies of British Slave-ownership

Legacies of British Slave-ownership


On Wednesday 27 February 2013, a new searchable database of Slave Ownership was launched, based on records of the £20m compensation paid to slave owners for the loss of their ‘property’, following emancipation in 1833. The database may be accessed at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

The website launch has had a remarkable impact, with over 70,000 hits in the first two days. It is easy to use and readily searchable (try searching some familiar names and addresses: Bedford Square, Gower Street, Kingston-Upon-Thames…).

At the launch event, which included a lecture by Catherine Hall entitled Towards a new past: the legacies of British Slave-ownership, I was asked to comment on the significance of the project. Below is a summary.

Public histories

This remarkable project raises far-reaching questions about the purposes and functions of history in the public domain. It is an exemplar of a genuinely public history, engaged in public communication and exchange of ideas not as an afterthought but as integral to the business of history-making. Public history, however it is defined, encompasses various varieties of historical knowledge, offical and unofficial, national and local, academic and popular, biographical and family; and, at its best, it enables and encourages dialogue between them.

If the language of ‘public history’ can sometimes have a somewhat impersonal and even bloodless air, this project shows us just how far it can engage with the life experience of individuals and families; and can be very much alive and in the present, of substantial public interest. There are many other words which, historically, have been used to convey that ‘presentness’ of history-making – heritage amongst them – but perhaps after all ‘public history’ is the best term we have to describe what is necessarily an active and a shared project.

The age of enumeration

As a large-scale database project, this is necessarily a team effort. At its core lies the quantitative data originally generated by the process of making compensation to slave-owners deprived of their ‘property’ by emancipation in 1833. The project seeks to situate these financial transactions in multiple contexts – economic, social, geographical, generational – so that networks and flows can be traced across space and time. In the process, it promises to reconnect the body of data with the lived and material realities of slave ownership both in Britain and in the colonies, notably in the Caribbean. This requires the combination of a variety of different kinds of expertise.

The award of £20m in compensation to the owners of slaves represented a huge expenditure of government moneys, and naturally it was carefully accounted for in parliament, with payments to named individuals registered in pounds, shillings and pence. Of course this record enumerates property, not suffering; its very existence depended on a sense of entitlement, not loss. Each slave, whether old or young, man or woman, able-bodied or infirm, had their price, which also varied across the colonies. Alongside the record of compensation, the Commissioners charged with administering the process accounted carefully for their own expenses, including the costs of paper, furniture and provisions, and the wages of their servants. This was after all an accounting exercise, typical of its time – what Bentham might have called the age of enumeration.

If the original process of enumerating the value of slaves required a certain sort of teamwork, evidently the reinterpretation of this data (its form as well as its content) required another. The Legacies of British Slave Ownership project brings together a wide variety of expertise in aspects of finance, law, trade, social, cultural and political history. Turning numbers back into a living history is necessarily a collective effort.

Social science

The first phase of this project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC); the next phase is co-funded with the AHRC. It is worth highlighting the large-scale and long-term nature of this support, for more than routine reasons. It is funding of this kind, from the public purse, that is enabling an excellent team of historians to work in classically historical ways, bringing their scholarship to bear on questions of importance both to academic researchers and to a much wider community.

At the heart of this project is a fundamental commitment to the idea of the social in social science – to social history, in fact. This is a commitment which consistently underpins the work of Catherine Hall herself, from her co-authored book with Leonore Davidoff on Family Fortunes (1987), focussing on gender and middle class formation in industrializing Britain, to her more recent concerns with culture and empire on a larger stage. Here ‘the social’ is no longer locally or nationally bounded: in a world of connected histories, it is the interdependence of British and colonial histories that really matters. And in this project, we see a very material realization of that concern with connection, from the local to the global.

The enumeration of the value of the property held in the bodies of slaves, a precursor to the payment of large sums of taxpayers’ money in compensation to slave-owners, was an integral part of the process by which slave emancipation came to be approved by the British parliament in 1833. Subsequently, in the retrospective glow of British anti-slavery, the significance of that vast transfer of wealth was lost. Its recovery and transformation into a useable and accessible form of historical evidence today – in the form of this remarkable online database – reminds us that behind ‘our island story’ there are many others, some near at hand and some far distant. Making the data available is a vital step to reconstituting some of the connections that have made our society what it is today.

Felix Driver

31 March 2013


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