Project Context

In 1833 Parliament finally abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. The slave trade had been abolished in 1807 but it took another 26 years to effect the emancipation of the enslaved. The legislation of 1833 was the result of a combination of factors - doubts amongst the financial and commercial sectors as to the long-term economic benefits of slavery as Eric Williams suggested long ago in Capitalism and Slavery, the sustained resistance of enslaved people, culminating in the major rebellion in Jamaica of Christmas 1831, and the campaign for abolition that gathered huge popular support across the United Kingdom. Despite all this the final negotiations between the British state and the West India interest - the main grouping defending the interests of the slave owners - were protracted because of the vested interests represented both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The negotiated settlement brought emancipation - but only with the system of apprenticeship tying the newly freed men and women into another form of unfree labour for fixed terms, and the grant of £20 million in compensation, to be paid by the British taxpayers to slave owners.

That compensation money provided the starting point for our project. A commissioned group of officials were appointed by Parliament to determine who should receive what and on what basis. They carefully documented all claims made and all monies disbursed. The effect of this is that there is an extraordinary set of records, held in the National Archives at Kew, of the claimants and of the men, women and children that owners claimed as their 'property' and the monetary values that were assigned to them. If the claims were validated, having been checked in the relevant colonies, the owner received compensation. The amounts were fixed according to the classification of each individual - their gender, age, type of work and level of skill - and the level of productivity, and therefore profitability, of the different islands and territories. The average value of a slave in British Guiana (now Guyana), for example, was judged to be considerably higher than that in Jamaica. The compensation records also provide us with a snapshot of slave owners in 1834, in Britain as well as the Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. From Nick Draper's initial research, The Price of Emancipation (Cambridge University Press, 2010), it is clear that approximately half of the £20 million stayed in Britain


It is the £10 million paid in compensation money in Britain, and the slave owners who received it, that our first project was focused upon. We know that in addition to the many absentee planters, bankers and financiers directly concerned with the business of sugar and slavery, there were many other types of claimant: clergymen, for example, or the widows and single women, some of whom had been left property in the enslaved in trust. Slave ownership was spread across the British Isles, by no means confined to the old slaving ports, and included men and women of varied ages, ranging from the aristocracy and gentry to sections of the middle classes. Despite the popular enthusiasm for abolition, slave owners had no compunction in seeking compensation - apparently totally unembarrassed by this property that had been widely constructed by abolitionists as a 'stain on the nation'. We have been investigating these people and tracking, in so far as it is possible, what they did with the money. Eric Williams believed that the slave trade and slavery provided not only essential demand for manufactures and supply of raw materials but also vital capital for the early phases of industrialisation. So far his hypothesis has been partially substantiated, for example through the histories of particular family firms.

But some key questions and problems remain:

  • What proportion of Britain's nineteenth-century wealth was linked to slavery?
  • How significant was this injection of capital into the burgeoning industrial economy of the 1830s?
  • Was investment in other parts of the empire seen as desirable?
  • How did this capital contribute to consumer spending - on houses, gardens, books or paintings?
  • Did philanthropic institutions significantly benefit?
  • We have also been exploring the political activities of the slave owners - to follow them in parliament, to see what positions they took on domestic and imperial matters, how active they were in local politics or what contributions they made to cultural institutions.
  • We have also investigated the ways in which their writings represented the slave trade and slavery.

Our starting point has been the named individuals who received compensation, the merchants and bankers, the rentiers and traders, the rectors and widows. Following them and their descendants into the 1870s, we have been aiming to show the involvement of this universe of people in Britain's economy, society and culture and to make the evidence publicly accessible through this Encyclopaedia. Among other things, we estimate that somewhere between 10-20% of Britain's wealthy can be identified as having had significant links to slavery.

This first project was both ambitious and limited. The compensation records are rich in evidence on the enslaved but our focus in the first project was on the myriad Britons who benefited directly from the fruits of slavery. In the new project we aim to integrate the histories of the enslaved people with the histories of the estates on which they lived and worked.

The two projects together are part of the collective enterprise of re-thinking British history through the lens of empire, grasping the ways in which empire enabled white Britons to enjoy their vaunted liberties and freedoms. The slave trade and slavery is part of British history - it is part of the legacy binding Britons to the Caribbean and Africa - part of a connected, though structurally deeply unequal, history.

There are also limitations to the project that are important to recognise. It has been driven by data on slave-ownership and on compensation, both of which were important mechanisms but also which represented only two of the multiple means by which wealth linked to slavery was transmitted to and within metropolitan Britain. Secondly, our data represents a complete census of British colonial slave-ownership at the end of slavery in the 1830s. It does not capture the currently unknown number of slave-owners of the 17th and 18th centuries who withdrew from direct links to slavery and disappeared into British society before the period of compensation.


There have been concerns expressed both in the UK and the Caribbean about the first project:

That the project team was white:
Our response to this is that the history of slavery concerns white people as well as black. Our particular subject is slave-ownership and its relation to British society, rather than the experience of the enslaved. At the same time, we greatly regret the paucity of Afro-Caribbean students choosing to do research in history. This is related to the ways in which history has been taught in schools and universities and is part of what we, together with many others, are trying to change.
That by putting emphasis on individual slave-owners we weaken the case for reparations to be made by the state:
Our response to this is that, while we understand the importance of the British state in sustaining the institutions of colonial slavery for two centuries, the compensation money was paid to individuals and our task is to establish who they were, what they received and how material or otherwise it was to them and to wider British society. Our analysis is designed to be complementary to studies of the systemic effects of slavery on the economy and of the British state in sustaining and then abolishing slavery, and the evidence we collect will be of use to many other researchers - including descendants of the enslaved who are concerned to seek forms of reparation.

Our work is also of concern to banks and legal firms which were not previously aware of having received compensation payments or of the extent of their predecessors' involvement in the slave compensation process. We believe it is our task to provide not only the empirical evidence of linkages to slavery but also appropriate and responsible contextualisation of that evidence, and we are ready to share our findings with interested firms and institutions as with other audiences.

Many people have been researching Britain's relation to slavery for years. We aim to build on this work and cooperate with all those in the field. A particular impulse was given to research at the local level by the Bi-centenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 2007. We have already facilitated connections between individuals and groups across the UK by a series of meetings, workshops, and a conference in 2012, bringing together people, skills and knowledge. We have cooperated with numerous individuals and groups, museums and academic institutions in a project which is, in the end, about trying to think differently about how modern Britain has been shaped.