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.

British Planters Abroad: Autumn Reading List Edition

British Planters Abroad: Autumn Reading List Edition

A few months ago I wrote up an introduction to the historiography of British abolition in the form of a summer reading list. With the new term upon us and students of all ages excitedly heading back to school (including my little sister who is starting university!), it seemed like the perfect time to create another such survey of monographs related to slavery and abolition.

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Autumn in Edinburgh

This season I’m focussing on British planters in the West Indies. I’ve chosen them as my subject for several reasons:

  1. I’ve studied British planters and their treatment in historical studies for my PhD, ‘Defending the Slave Trade and Slavery in the Era of Abolition, 1783-1833’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2013), and my first book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016);
  2. Opinions on the size, makeup, and influence of the planters has been the topic of heated debate for almost a century; and
  3. Thanks to recent studies, we can now learn more about the lives of British planters at home and abroad.

You’ll probably notice that several of these studies discuss the ‘decline’ in influence British West Indians experienced before and during the era of abolition (which I tend to define as between 1783, when the first anti-slavery petition was read in the Houses of the British Parliament, and 1833, when the British Parliament legislated for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire). This focus allows historians to use their research to assess why abolition took place when and how it did, but it can also lead to historical narratives that assume that abolition was inevitable (a point which deserves further exploration in its own blog post). This helps justify one’s interest in people who opposed the popular abolition movement. It is also a reaction to and legacy of the first major twentienth century study that focussed on British planters, Lowell Joseph Ragatz’s The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833. You’ll find more about his work below.

This reading list is meant as an introduction to the historiography of the subject and is by no means exhaustive. It’d be great to hear your suggestions for additions and your thoughts on the works (or even aspects of slavery and abolition around which you’d like to see a reading list developed!) written in the comments below. You can also tweet us @IslesAbroad.

Ragatz, Lowell Joseph. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833: A Study in Social and Economic History. 1928.

In this early study, Ragatz argued that slavery would have come to an end in the islands regardless of abolition because of moral, social, and economic deterioration, the planters’ loss of political influence, and the unwillingness of colonists to adapt to new progressive farming methods. He addressed the events and influences which led to the decline of the planter class’s influence and wealth. Ragatz put forth an openly judgemental, negative image of the planters throughout the work.

Burnard, Trevor. Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire is an exploration of 40 years of European and African cultures in Jamaica through the lens of a planter’s diary. In his work, Burnard uncovers not only details of life on the plantation, but why Jamaica was seen as a ‘land of opportunity’ (p. 66) for white British colonists. Abolition would therefore have been seen as a threat. I also can’t forget to mention Trevor Burnard’s most recent book, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650-1820 (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Lambert, David. White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity During the Age of Abolition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity During the Age of Abolition is concerned with identities and networks. By focussing on Britain’s earliest Caribbean sugar colony, Barbados (colonised in 1627), Lambert looks at how planters worked to define themselves as ‘white’ and ‘British’. Through this study, he shows how these representations were created as a means of defending themselves, their wealth, their system of laws, and their property in slaves in the face of intense opposition from abolitionist efforts back in England.

Petley, Christer. Slaveholders in Jamaica: Colonial Society and Culture During the Era of Abolition. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009.

In Slaveholders in Jamaica, Christer Petley echoed Ragatz’s theory of planter decline as the reason behind the achievement of abolition in 1833. He argued that by being unwilling to defend slavery using moral arguments at a time when the expanding British empire rendered the West Indian colonies less valuable to the mother country, the West Indian interest in Jamaica and abroad brought about their own loss of influence.

I also want to draw your attention to a relevant special volume of Atlantic Studies that really tackled some of the major arguments about the roles and state of the planters in the era of British abolition. Back in 2010, a number of slavery historians (including myself) gathered at Chawton House Library in Hampshire, England for the ‘Rethinking the Fall of the Planter Class’ one-day conference on British planters, their legacies, and their treatment in the historiography of British slavery and abolition. Speakers frequently spoke about their research into West Indian planters in relation to Ragatz’s work mentioned above.

As a follow-up to the conference, Christer Petley edited a special volume of the journal, Atlantic Studies, which contained articles from several of the authors mentioned above. If you have access to Taylor & Francis online journals (such as through an academic library’s online collections), I highly recommend visiting Atlantic Studies vol. 9 (2012), Rethinking the Fall of the Planter Class.

In the News: Harvard Law School’s Slavery Past

Last Friday, the dean of Harvard Law School, Martha Minow, recommended changing the school’s official shield to remove the crest of the Royall family because Isaac Royall, a man who provided the land for the school and thereby helped the school’s establishment, had owned slaves. The dean is acting on the recommendation of a committee set up to address the issue, but the committee has very likely been acting in response to the Reclaim Harvard Law students who have been organising protests and occupying a student centre.

The removal has led to a bit of media coverage, including articles and interviews by The New York Times and NPR, and some oppositional viewpoints, such as by law professor Annette Gordon-Reed. The question is, should the crest be removed?

I can understand why Harvard wants to take action. They are under pressure from student protesters. They’ve experienced race-based vandalism, including the vandalism of images of African American professors, this school year. Charges of institutional racism have also led to the recent removal of the term ‘House Master,’ even though the use of the term in this particular case, specifically in Ivy League Schools in America, appears to have come from the European term for teacher centuries ago. And the family crest is directly related to slavery. It is a reminder that the very foundations of the school have been built on land that was the profit of slave labour.

But I side with Gordon-Reed and her supporters, in that I believe that the shield and crest should remain. By keeping the crest and providing appropriate historic context, the shield as it is can serve as a reminder of the horrific institution that slavery was and the financial benefits that were taken from it to invest in America’s infrastructure and institutions. Removing the crest and changing the law school’s shield won’t change Harvard’s historic connections to slavery, but it could become easier to forget or brush over these connections if they are washed away.

As Gordon-Reed points out, the shield itself is not about slavery. It doesn’t support or advocate for slavery or the use of slave labour, it’s not synonymous with slavery, and it probably has a tremendous amount of meaning to generations of Harvard Law School graduates. I think it’s much worse to pretend that slavery didn’t happen or has no relation to the present and remove the image (out of sight, out of mind), than to acknowledge it, allow physical reminders to remain and, perhaps the biggest challenge and one that should be undertaken, try to make amends.

Then again, I’m someone who wrote an entire book to show the world how generations of British politicians defended slave trading, the enslavement of Africans, and the use of colonial slavery.

The Case of the Missing Proslavery, Pt. 1

Why don’t we know more about British proslavery?

I have contemplated this question for years. Proslavery argument and rhetoric is a legitimate topic for historical study. We only need to look at the American case to see a fully developed historiography on the subject. When it comes to the absence of understanding of proslavery on the far side of the Atlantic, I don’t think there’s a simple answer, but I have five educated guesses that I’m happy to lay out here.

First, the first historical accounts of British abolition were written by the abolitionists. Thomas Clarkson’s The History, Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament was first published in 1808 and provided a triumphant narrative of British abolitionists overcoming adversity to achieve abolition in 1807. He wrote a history of the abolitionists and portrayed it as though it were a history of abolition. This is a problem. We see the legacy of his work and this emphasis on the abolitionists last into the later decades of the 20th century.

Second, it is far easier to find primary sources created by abolitionists in their quest to end slave trading and slavery in Britain and her colonies than it is to find clear defences of slavery and slave trading. Abolitionists made mobilizing public opinion a goal and were impressive in their ability to reach groups that had not traditionally been involved in the political process, whereas West Indian organizations focussed much of their efforts on legitimising their position and defending the colonies in Parliament. As such, the amount of abolitionist propaganda dwarfs that of the anti-abolitionists.

Third, Britain abolished slavery in her Caribbean colonies in 1833, whereas it continued in parts of America for another 3 decades. From a historian’s perspective, that means an additional 30 years’ worth of sources to draw upon, a wider range of sources, and more modern, reliable sources. For example, a historian of American slavery could draw upon first-hand accounts, personal records, and interviews created in the first few decades of the twentieth century. American slavery was also far more visible to the American people, whereas by the late 1700s British courts had acted to end slavery at home, confining it to the colonies.

Fourth, for a variety of reasons American slave owners had far more political power and influence by the early 1800s than their British counterparts in the Caribbean and back in Britain. It’s not that the British West Indian interest couldn’t pull together a solid defence or that they were doomed (which is what you might think if you read some of the earlier studies on them). They won debates, defeated bills for abolition and emancipation, and earned several significant concessions in the final debates on emancipation, particularly compensation and continued labour via the apprenticeship scheme. But evidence also shows that their fortunes were waning and their positions in Parliament were increasingly under threat from the growing franchise and outpouring of public abolitionist sentiment.

I mentioned above that I have five main theories as to why we don’t know much about British proslavery. I know I’ve only listed four so far, but this post is getting far too long for my liking and my last point is worthy of its own discussion, so stay tuned for Part Two.

Want to know more? Check out my new book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, coming soon from Palgrave Macmillan.

Suggested Reading:

Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition 1760–1810. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1975.

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

Ryden, David Beck. West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783–1807. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Glasgow’s West India Committee

When we think of planters, absentee slave owners, and West Indian merchants living in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s, I think we’re most likely to think of those living on vast country estates and in the major ports of London and Liverpool. While absentee planters and London’s West India Committee have received a great deal of attention from historians, Glasgow’s West India Association remains under-discussed. Historian Iain Whyte, however, has argued that contemporaries viewed Glasgow’s Association as the most powerful West Indian society outside London. With fairly detailed minutes and records of the Association available on microfilm from the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, one can catch a glimpse of the activities and interests of West Indian planters and merchants in Britain yet outside of London.

Glasgow West Indian merchants were wealthy, politically active, and influential, particularly prior to the Burgh Reform Act of 1833 which significantly widened the franchise. The first meeting of the Glasgow West India Association took place on 22 October 1807 at the Tontine Tavern in Glasgow. In attendance were approximately 20 planters and merchants with interests in the West Indies. At this first meeting they unanimously resolved: “That much inconvenience having been felt, and much injury sustained by the want of mutual co-operation in matters affecting the general interests of the Trade, it was an object of great importance that the different Planters and Merchants connected therewith in this Place should form themselves into a Public Association for the protection of their various rights, privileges and interests”. By 1808 the association had 28 company members and 43 individual members who all paid an annual subscription (25 guineas for company members and five for individuals).

Family and business ties connected many of the Association’s members over the years. The association also received support from the Glasgow Courier under the editorship of James MacQueen. West Indian planters and merchants in Glasgow were united in their opposition to emancipation and worked together to fight for compensation for absentees in Britain and slaveholding colonists.

Between 1807 and 1833 the Association addressed a number of issues of concern to its members. These included infrastructure, agricultural produce, slavery, legal issues, trade and taxation, committee work, and other general concerns of the West Indian interest. Their discussions specifically relating to colonial slavery revolved around the foreign slave trade, educating slaves, the African Institution, emancipation, potential problems following emancipation, private property, free labour (including ensuring the continuance of production and using other potential labourers), the slave population, the origins of colonial slavery, and compensation. When it came to organising and campaigning against emancipation and for support and compensation, the Association sent representatives and petitions to Parliament (records indicate that petitions were sent in 1826, 1828, 1830, and 1833), pleaded on behalf of the colonists, and paid £50 to have an agent in London’s West Indian Society.

Suggested Reading:

Cooke, Anthony. ‘An Elite Revisited: Glasgow West India Merchants, 1783-1877’. Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 32 (2012): 127-65.

Lambert, David. ‘The “Glasgow King of Billingsgate”: James MacQueen and an Atlantic Proslavery Network’. Slavery & Abolition, 29 (2008): 389-414.

Whyte, Iain. Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.