Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Slavery: the Roots of Modern Britain?

by Kathryn Hadley

‘Legacies of British Slave Ownership’ is a new project launched, today, by a team of historians from UCL (University College London). The aim of the three-year project is to investigate Britain’s debt to slavery and create an ‘Encyclopaedia of British slave owners’, an online database which will identify all slave-owners in the British Caribbean in the 1830s at the time slavery was abolished. It is the first comprehensive attempt to study the extent and significance of slave-ownership in the formation of modern Britain.

Research will be based on the census of slave-owners in the British Empire, which was created by the Slave Compensation Commission in the 1830s in order to effectively manage the distribution of the money paid as compensation to slave-owners following the promulgation of the 1833 Abolition Act. Once the individual slave owners have been successfully identified, researchers will study how slave-related wealth was put to use. The project will aim to gather information about the affiliations, legacies and activities of all British slave-owners and to trace the major companies, art collections and institutions which originated in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery.

This second part of the project will focus on six main interrelated areas in which former British slave-owners may have contributed to the formation of modern Britain. ‘Commercial continuities’ will consider, first of all, the evolution of individual merchant firms and banks which received compensation. Secondly, ‘political affiliations and associational networks’ will explore the political participation of slave-owners in the 1820s and 1830s and trace their descendants’ participation in the politics of Victorian Britain. Thirdly, the project will research the cultural and institutional legacies of British slave-owners, including their role as collectors, philanthropists and founders or participants in new cultural and social institutions. ‘Historical lineages and memories of slavery’ will examine the role of slave-owners and their descendants as writers and historians in the construction of memories of the slavery. Lastly, researchers will study the imperial legacies of slave-owners as investors, administrators and settlers in other colonies outside the British West Indies, as well as their physical legacies in terms of the built environment associated with slave-owners, such as residential and commercial buildings and public monuments.

Catherine Hall, Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History at UCL and the leader of the project, described the project:
‘At the time of Emancipation under the 1833 Abolition Act, £20million – an
enormous sum of money at that time – was paid as compensation to owners of the
enslaved throughout the British colonies […] The mechanisms set up by the
British state to distribute these funds led to the creation of the first full
census of colonial slave-ownership, and we’ve used these records to identify
that over half of this compensation was paid to absentee owners and mortgagees
in Britain itself. Our new study will focus on the contribution to the
development of modern Britain of these men and women, their families and the
firms and institutions which the slave-owners founded or financed, many of which
are still identifiable in Britain today.’

Keith McClelland, a research associate on the project, further explained:
‘The 2007 bicentenary stimulated many projects examining local and regional
linkages with colonial slavery in metropolitan Britain […] As yet, we don’t have
the big picture that would enable us to assess slave-ownership’s national
significance, but this is the project that will give us that overview.’

Further information about the project is available on the website http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

For further information on British attitudes to black people in the context of slavery in 18th-century Britain, read our article Blacks in Britain: The Eighteenth Century
For further information on the impact on Africa of the slave trade, read our article British Made: Abolition and the Africa Trade
For further general information on slavery, visit our Slavery and Abolitionists focus page.


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Daniela said...

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