Sources 101: The Legacies of British Slave-ownership database

UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project holds a lot of promise for historians of British slavery and abolition. It contains vital details and evidence of slave ownership within Britain at the end of slavery in the British Empire. Several academic publications have already come out of the project detailing the extent of slaveholding and financial ramifications of the compensation granted to slaveholders as part of the abolition settlement in 1833. In the summer of 2015, the television channel BBC Two aired a two-part documentary in the UK that examined some of the project’s early findings. This brought the project (and, to some extent, Britain’s slave-owning past) into the public eye. For today’s post, I wanted to go back to the database and share some tips for getting started and making the most of this great resource.

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History:

Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) was an ESRC-funded research project based at UCL that ran from 2009 to 2012. The project employed ten staff members and resulted in the creation of an online encyclopaedia of British slave owners as of 1833. On the project website it is noted that the project is not concerned with the identities of the enslaved individuals; such registers are found in the British National Archives. Some of the researchers on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership then moved on to work on the ESRC- and AHRC-funded project, Structure and Significance of British Caribbean Slave-ownership 1763-1833 (also at UCL), which looked at the histories of the slaveowners and the plantations.

What You’ll Find:

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership database is a digitised, searchable version of the Slave Compensation Commission’s records. This Commission was set up in the 1830s to settle the compensation claims of approximately 46,000 British slave holders whose private property in slaves had been taken by the British Government through abolition. These compensation records were then supplemented where possible with biographical information submitted by researchers and developed at workshops that were held across the UK over several years. I was lucky enough to attend one at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, back in 2010. These elements have combined to turn the database into an online encyclopaedia.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership website contains details about the research project and its staff, the searchable database with both simple and advanced search options, a form for researchers and historians to send in relevant information on slave owners that they may wish to see added to the database, a list of related publications, and a link to the project’s blog which was last updated in late 2015. Finally, it contains multiple lists of “legacies“: slaveholders who had recognised ties to British commercial, political, imperial, historical, physical, and cultural ventures. It is in these lists that we finally get a sense of the real legacies of British slaveholding.

How to Use It:

Along the right-hand side of the project’s main page contains a large blue box labelled “Search the Database”. This simple search asks you to specify whether you wish to search by an individual’s name, the name of a firm/business, an address, or for something in the notes. Alternatively, clicking on “Search the Database” in the bar along the top of the site takes you directly to the Advanced Search page. Here you’ll find a wide range of potential areas within which to search. You can search by name, sex, role in the claim, location, education, religion, birthday, wealth, residence, and claim details (such as the location of the claimant’s plantation(s)). With such a large number of inputs, I highly recommend visiting the Search Guidance Notes for more information on how to search (including the use of wildcards) and some of the results you can expect to receive from your search words.

To skip searching for individuals or keywords and go directly to the categorised legacies results, click on the category that interests you from the drop-down menu under the header, “Browse the Legacies“, that you’ll find next to “Search the Database” along the top of the page or in the orange box below the “How You Can Help” section on the front page of the project.

Research Potential:

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership database has led to several books and articles listed on their website. There are a number of areas of research that may stem from this resource. First, we are able to see and map where slaveowners lived. Some early mapping has been done for areas of London using Google Maps. Second, we can find out more about how 19th century British businesses and institutions made their money. If, like me, you are interested in understanding the West Indian interest’s fight against abolition in the 1830s, knowing the size and make up of the interest is vital. The records reveal who people were, their money and property, their location, and their connections. There is much more to do to fully utilise these records.

Reflections:

One of the great strengths of this project was that the historians working on this project set out to utilise the knowledge of researchers across Britain to supplement the material contained within the specific records that were being digitised. They travelled around the country, bringing local researchers into their circle and drawing attention to the project in its early stages. They made it easy for historians to contribute information to the encyclopaedia via their “How You Can Help” form. They gained public attention through their television appearances (for example, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners received a BAFTA in May 2016). And they put the raw data as well as this supplementary information and specialised lists online as a free resource.

Former ties to slavery are making big news in the United States and elsewhere (for example, see the ongoing news items about Georgetown University‘s plans for reconciliation). The need for reparations from institutions and from governments is a pressing, vital issue for many people around the world. Those of us studying the lives, work, and culture of planters within Britain are well aware of the legacy of slaveholding in the buildings, industries, businesses and institutions in our areas. By sharing this information with the wider world, we are not only informing the public about the past (as the Legacies of British Slave-ownership has done), but we can encourage change in the future.

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Compensation for who?

Why did the British Government, and the British people, pay the planters and not the slaves when slavery was abolished in her Caribbean colonies?

In the emancipation settlement of 1833, British slaveholders were given money to compensate them for the end of slavery. A lot of money. They were granted £20 million outright to be shared amongst those who could prove a claim (resulting in the wealth of information on British slave ownership that has only recently begun to be exploited by researchers and historians).

The slaves received no money. They were instead re-classed as “apprentices” in an attempt to ensure continuing productivity on the colonial plantations up to 1840. (Apprenticeship would in fact end 2 years early, in 1838.)

So why is it that the planters, whose family fortunes had often been made in the colonies through the exploitation of their fellow men, were the ones being granted compensation? Because the planters had a legal right to hold their property, and if the state was going to take away their property, then the property holders were entitled to compensation.

To understand this argument, we have to try to put ourselves in the mind-set that, legally, enslaved human beings were the property of their masters, and that their “owners” had as much legal right to compensation for the removal of this class of property as they did to any other.

This legal argument proved particularly effective in the final years of the slavery debates in Parliament. Outright proslavery arguments had faded from the parliamentary debates soon after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Instead, we see a rise in legal and pro-colonial arguments that were put forth to defend the planters’ careers and possessions.

As abolitionists worked to humanise enslaved Africans and those of African descent in the colonies, often employing sentimental rhetoric and emotionally-charged imagery in their work, and framing the issues of abolition and emancipation as humanitarian goals, anti-abolitionists continued to turn to supposedly-rational legal arguments to make their claim to compensation, in case the day were to come that slavery were ended in the colonies. This was a smart road to take, and it was highly effective.

Parliament was made up of landowners. If they had ended slavery without compensation, the British government would have been confiscating millions of pounds of property without giving anything in return. For them, this would have been setting a dangerous precedent! As Robert John Wilmot Horton remarked on March 6, 1828:

“In this country, if a canal were cut, or a street built, the interest of the individuals was made to yield to the public interest; but then it was well known that individuals always received compensation. Now, the West-Indian has property which he could only work by means of slave labour; and was he not, therefore, equally entitled to compensation, if deprived of that labour, as the man in this country was who had his property destroyed, either by the building of a street or the construction of a canal?”(Parliamentary Debates New Series XVIII col. 102)

Note that Wilmot Horton here emphasises land rather than human property, possibly as a means to avoid being drawn into to moral debate over slave ownership. But not everyone felt the need to dance around the matter:

“God forbid that there should be any thing like a forcing of a master to abandon his property in the slave! Once adopt that principle, and there was the end of all property.” – Lord Wynford, 17 April 1832 (Parliamentary Debates 3rd Series XII col. 630)

If some humans were considered property, and that property had been obtained through legal means such as financial investment and inheritance, than the owners, and not the property, would need to be compensated in the case of that property being removed or destroyed. And so we find that the masters, and not the slaves, were granted substantial financial compensation as slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

Suggested Reading:

Draper, Nicholas. The Price of Emancipation: Slave-ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Drescher, Seymour. The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Dumas, Paula E. Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Green, William A. British Slave Emancipation: The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment, 1830-1865. 1976. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.