Researching Slave-owners

You may want to do some research of your own on British slave-owners and slave-ownership. You can download a guide to help you do this.

Using the Parliamentary return of 1837-38

This is a fundamental source for investigating those awarded compensation.

Almost all the men and women awarded compensation under the 1833 Abolition Act are listed in what is called a Parliamentary Return, an official reply by a government body to a request from an MP, in this case Daniel O'Connell, the Irish MP. The return is often referred to as the Slavery Abolition Act: an account of all sums of money awarded by the Commissioners of Slave Compensation while its full title is Accounts of slave compensation claims; for the colonies of Jamaica. Antigua. Honduras. St. Christopher's. Grenada. Dominica. Nevis. Virgin Islands. St. Lucia. British Guiana. Montserrat. Bermuda. Bahamas. Tobago. St. Vincent's. Trinidad. Barbadoes. Mauritius. Cape of Good Hope.

It can be found in House of Commons Parliamentary Papers 1837-8 (215) vol. 48 and is 365 pages long.

Major research libraries, such as the British Library or Senate House Library, University of London have sets of the Parliamentary Papers, but they are also available online through subscribing organisations.

Information about the online version can be found here (the publisher's description of the project) and here (the home page of the online version).

(If you are unfamiliar with using Parliamentary Papers and have access to the online version, you will need to enter 1837-38 as the Session and 215 as the paper number in the search page to find the full text.)

The lists are printed and are easy to read. The awards are organised by colony (or, for Jamaica by parish). The Parliamentary Return shows the name of the person awarded compensation, the number of enslaved people for which the award was made, the date of the award, the amount of the award in pounds, shillings and pence, and the unique Claim Number claim within the colony (again, for Jamaica, the parish) in which the enslaved people covered by the award were registered. No names are given for the enslaved in this source.

There are four different lists for each colony: uncontested claims; contested claims, where two or more people claimed the same compensation; Chancery cases, where the award was paid into court in Great Britain until a lawsuit affecting the ownership of the enslaved was resolved (often only after decades of dispute); and List E cases, where the award was paid into court in the colonies until, again, a lawsuit affecting the ownership of the enslaved was resolved.

If you want to track a slave-owner you have found in this source, you will need to make a note of the claim number, for example Trinidad # 1661 (which shows James William Freshfield and John Beadnell). This claim number will run all the way through the underlying records of the Commissioners of Slave Compensation in the National Archives, and allow you to track the same claim across different documents.

If you are using the online version, there is a facility for searching the whole text. However, note that the search facility is not infallible: if, for instance, you are searching for 'Daley' you might need to try the spelling variants such as 'Dalley', 'Daly' and 'Daily'.

Unfortunately, the Parliamentary Return is not organised alphabetically by the name of the person awarded compensation, but instead is organised by colony and then within the colony by Claim Number. Therefore, to use the Parliamentary Return to find a particular person who you think was a slave-owner, you would need to have an idea which colony he or she was an owner in, and then you will have to browse through the pages for that colony to find the name in the lists. For most colonies, there are fewer than 1,000 awards, in some cases only a few hundred, so it is possible to pick out a name from these lists. The lists for British Guiana, Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius and Barbados however contain thousands of names, and finding a particular name for these colonies is time-consuming. There are, however, indexes available in the National Archives.

If you cannot find a name in the Parliamentary Return, and have checked all the sections (uncontested claims, contested claims; Chancery and List E) for the relevant colony or parish:

  • It may be that the person died before the award was made. Only those slave-owners owning the enslaved as of August 1 1834 were entitled to claim compensation. Any slave-owner who sold or transferred his or her slaves before that date will not appear in the Parliamentary Return. Any slave-owner who died before that date will not appear, the compensation if due will have been paid to executors, trustees or heirs.
  • Similarly, any slave-owner who died after August 1 1834 but before the award was made will not appear: the money will have been awarded to their executors.
  • The slave-owner may have lost the compensation to one of his or her creditors, in whose name the award will be made.
  • The award may have been made after 1838, in which case there will be no record of it in the Parliamentary Return. Edward Barrett, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's father, is one of these.
  • If you are using the online version, the search engine may have missed the name you are looking for.

You should also note that someone appearing in the Parliamentary Return as having been awarded compensation was not necessarily a slave-owner. These lists also show those who were representatives of slave-owners, as executors or trustees, as well as slave-owners themselves. In order to find out the capacity in which the people in the Parliamentary Return were acting, you will need to look at the underlying records of the Commissioners of Slave Compensation.

For further details, use the Research Guide.