Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners – BBC 2

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This was a very interesting programme, but I’m not sure that it really did what it said on the tin. It started off by talking about the records concerning compensation paid out to British slave owners after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. £20m – the equivalent of about £16bn today. A bit like the scale of the bank bailout of 2009 crossed with something like the PPI compensation claim with all sorts of people being involved on all sorts of different scales.

Is the fact that compensation was paid shocking? It’s horrendously shocking to us today, but, at the time, I think it was accepted by the powers that were that was the way it had to be – that people were being compensated for the loss of property, as if their houses had been bought by a compulsory purchase order. Compensation was paid to slave owners when slavery was abolished in South American countries, in the French Empire, in the Dutch colonies … pretty much everywhere apart from the former slave states of the reunited USA, and, even there, compensation was paid in the District of Columbia. It seems shocking now, but it wasn’t at the time.

It was more shocking, however, when maps popped up, showing that there were slave owners all over the country. Not just wealthy people, but some lower-middle-class people who owned a few slaves in the way that other people would have held a few stocks and shares – an investment bringing in an income. Many of the slaves had been inherited, again in the same way that other people might have inherited a few stocks and shares.

This was intriguing stuff, and I would like to have heard more about these people; but most of the rest of the programme was focused on the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and the families who made a fortunes out of slavery – their wealth and their political power. It was interesting, and it was shocking and distressing as any sort of programme about the evils of slavery always is; but I wouldn’t say that it’s something that’s been forgotten. I think many people are well aware of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and with slavery on the sugar plantations of the West Indies. I certainly hope they are, anyway. It’s not something that’s talked about much, and it has to be said that that’s probably some sort of historical collective sweeping of a very shameful part of the past under a large carpet; but I wouldn’t say that it was something people weren’t aware of.

But we do associate it with the wealthy. I think the same can be said of America: there is much more awareness of slavery there, but most people probably still hear the word “slavery” and think of places like Tara and Twelve Oaks, not lower middle class families who “owned” a cook and a housemaid. Incidentally, this programme wasn’t about America, it was very much about Britain and a shameful part of Britain’s past but, if it cost that much to “compensate” British slaveholders, would it ever have been feasible to agree a compensated abolition of slavery in America, had abolition not come about as a result of war? To get back to the point, involvement in slavery is something that we associate with the wealthy, and I’d like to have heard a lot more about the “ordinary” people in Britain who were part of it too, because I think that they’re the forgotten slave owners.

I think we’re quite proud of the fact that Britain was the first country to abolish slavery, across its Empire. There’s a horrible irony in that, being proud of abolishing something so shameful, so evil, so horrific. All that talk during the 17th century, arguably even back to 1215, arguably right back to the Witan if you take in the Victorian Whig historian version of history, about rights and liberties, and then to become involved in something that was pure evil. It shouldn’t ever be forgotten, and everything which this programme said was valuable … but I was expecting it to talk a bit more about the small-scale slave owners, because they were the ones who showed the extent to which slave ownership pervaded British society. Still, that’s just my view, and this was a very interesting and well-presented programme. Second and final part next week.

4 thoughts on “Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners – BBC 2

    • There are some by Philippa Gregory, from before she started writing about the Tudors, but they aren’t amongst her better-known books. I bet the Bertrams in Mansfield Park had slaves on their plantation in the West Indies, but Jane Austen never mentions that. Come to think of it, I bet the family of the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre owned slaves as well. This could be a whole new field of inquiry – forgotten slave owners in classic novels!

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  1. Chris Deeley

    I find it very difficult to believe that slaves were ever common in the UK. Lord Mansfield’s judgment in the Somerset Case of 1772 makes it quite clear that slavery was unlawful in the UK, although his judgment was less clear when applied to external territories of the British Empire.

    Incidentally, there are several paintings depicting young black or Indian boys in liveried uniforms in eighteenth century English households. I doubt whether those lads were paid and they probably had no alternative lifestyle options, so to that extent they were virtual slaves.

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