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Was Britain “built on the blood of slaves”?

Publication date: Jun 8, 2009 2:54:07 PM

On June 1st (Monday) a team of historians from UCL (University College London) will launch a major investigation into Britain’s debt to slavery and create the first ‘Encyclopaedia of British slave owners’. This online database will identify every slave-owner resident in Britain in the 1830s (when slavery was abolished) and show how slave-related wealth was put to use. It will highlight the major companies, art collections and institutions which can trace their existence back to colonial slavery in the 19th century.

The three-year project, entitled ‘Legacies of British Slave Ownership’, is the first comprehensive attempt to trace the impact of slave ownership on the development of modern Britain. The team, led by Professor Catherine Hall and including Dr Nick Draper and Keith McClelland, will build a systematic analysis of the economic, commercial, political, cultural, social and physical legacies of slave ownership.

“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,” explains Professor Hall. “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.”

The study, funded by a £613,000 grant from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), aims to produce a web-based encyclopaedia of slave ownership accessible to academic researchers and the general public. The team will co-operate with other scholars in Britain and abroad to pull together research on various aspects of slave ownership.

“The 2007 bicentenary stimulated many projects examining local and regional linkages with colonial slavery in metropolitan Britain,” says Keith McClelland. “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.”

Dr Nick Draper adds: “We’re delighted to have won the support of the ERSC for a project that we believe will bring a much deeper understanding of the many ways in which slavery came home to Britain and allow us to map colonial slave-ownership on to the development of British metropolitan society.”

-Ends-

Notes for editors

Contact details:

For further information please contact the UCL Press Office on +44 (0) 20 7679 7678 or +44 (0) 7917 271 364 or email d.weston@ucl.ac.uk

More information about the project can be found at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

About ‘Legacies of British Slave Ownership’:

The programme will consist of six interconnected strands of research on the identified slave-owners:

1) Commercial continuities will embrace both the evolution of individual merchant firms and banks receiving compensation over subsequent periods, and the apparent uses of slave-compensation money in other investments, above all the early railway schemes.

2) Cultural and institutional legacies will examine the role of British slave-owners as connoisseurs and collectors, as philanthropists and as founders or participants in new cultural and social institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society.

3) Historical lineages and memories of slavery will analyse the role of identified slave-owners and their descendants as writers and historians constructing memories of the slave-trade and slavery. Charles Kingsley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example, both enjoyed the fruits of plantation slavery yet remembered it very differently.

4) Political affiliations and associational networks will explore the role of slave-owners in Parliament in the 1820s and 1830s, and trace their and their descendants’ continued participation in national politics in Victorian Britain. Sub-projects will document slave-ownership among local elites in selected areas, notably London and the out-ports.

5) Imperial legacies will trace the roles of slave-owners in the wider circuits of empire, as investors, administrators and settlers in other colonies outside the British West Indies.

6) Physical legacies will catalogue the built environment associated with the slave-owners, both residential and commercial buildings and public monuments and public spaces.

About UCL (University College London):

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. UCL is the seventh-ranked university in the 2008 THES-QS World University Rankings, and the third-ranked UK university in the 2008 league table of the top 500 world universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. UCL alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. UCL currently has over 12,000 undergraduate and 8,000 postgraduate students. Its annual income is over £600 million.

For further information see: www.ucl.ac.uk

About the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC):

The ESRC is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

For further information see: http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/index.aspx