In my last post I spoke of how I had not been able to get a scene in Roy Andersson’s latest film out of my head. In A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a party of pith-helmeted British soldiers herd shackled and fearful African men, women and children into a giant rotating drum before setting alight a fire beneath it. As the agonised movements of those incarcerated turn the terrible machine, their cries are turned into haunted music for the edification of an elegantly-dressed crowd of wealthy folk watching the scene from the terrace of a nearby mansion as waiters pass among them serving champagne.

As a symbolic representation of colonialism and slavery it is a scene  unsurpassed in its rage and savagery. I watched Andersson’s film in the same week that the second episode of Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners was transmitted: historian David Olusoga‘s superb account of the abolition of slavery in Britain and the extraordinary decision by the government of the day to compensate slave owners for their loss of ‘property’.

David Olusoga in the National Archive at Kew examining British slave registers
David Olusoga in the National Archive at Kew examining British slave registers

The story of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire is usually told as a national  myth – one of pride in the achievements of the abolitionists whose campaigns in the early 19th century led first to the ending of the slave trade across the British Empire in 1807, and then to the abolition of slavery itself in 1834. The myth often makes comparisons to the record of other nations on the same issue: the speed of British abolition, and pride in what is presented as a defining and celebrated moment in our national history, part of a narrative of our evolving commitment as a nation to human rights and the recognition of the dignity of all peoples.

David Olusoga’s documentary provided a chastening corrective to that gilded picture. Yes, in 1834 Britain abolished slavery – but what has been forgotten is that abolition came at a price. Olusoga demonstrated that the only way that the legislation could get parliamentary approval was by the government and the abolitionists accepting that the slave owners should be compensated – handsomely – for loss of their ‘property’.

Britain’s 46,000 slave owners were paid the equivalent in £17 billion in today’s money – whilst the slaves received nothing. Olusoga drew on research conducted by a team of historians at University College London who, for the first time, have been combing through 46,000 entries in the ledgers of the Slavery Compensation Commission, the official body set up to deal with claims. It became, in his words, ‘the largest most complex payout in British history’.

Over two hours, David Olusoga drew upon the vast slave registers which  provide records of all 800,000 men, women and children who were enslaved in the British Empire at the point of abolition to reveal how slave ownership infected every part of British society. The slave owners were not just the super-rich, but included members of the professional middle class –  clergymen and shopkeepers, lawyers and small businessmen, and a surprising number of women including widows for whom a small number of slaves inherited from their husbands represented the income they lived off. Many of these people had never set foot in the Caribbean, looked a slave in the eye, or experienced the brutal realities of plantation life.

David Olusoga on the Barbados sugar plantations in Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners
David Olusoga on the Barbados sugar plantations in Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

In the first episode, David Olusoga travelled to Barbados to trace how Britain’s slave economy emerged in the 17th century as pioneering plantation owners perfected a process of sugar cultivation that employed  systemic violence. Back in England, he visited to the spectacularly opulent Harewood House in Yorkshire, built for Barbadian-born landowner, Edwin Lascelles (1713-95) from the immense West India fortune created by his father, Henry Lascelles (1690-1753), whose net-assets at death probably totaled £408,784 (approximately £52 million in today’s prices) – all from slave ownership limited to one plantation, Guinea estate in Barbados.

Practical Christianity - 18th century satirical print by Richard Newton
Practical Christianity – 18th century satirical print by Richard Newton

Olusoga explained how the UCL research project has mapped slave-ownership across Britain to reveal that ownership went far beyond the places you might expect – the port cities of Bristol, Liverpool and London – to almost every area of the country. It spread far wider than those running the slave plantations in the Caribbean – from aristocrats like the Lascelles who owned whole plantations to widows who had inherited a handful of slaves; from merchants who knew the reality of the trade to churchmen. Only 3,000 of the recorded owners were based in England, out of a total of 46,000 around the empire, but they owned half the slaves.

In the National Archive at Kew, David Olusoga examined the British slave registers: ledgers which record in immaculate copperplate the exact identities of the slave-owners, based on the claims they submitted for compensation. Since the slaves were regarded as valuable property, the registers also contain detailed records of the slaves – their names (though they are always known only by their first name), age, occupation, and state of health.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833
The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans who were at the time the legal property of Britain’s slave owners. But what has been overlooked until now is that the act provided for the generous financial compensation of the owners of the slaves, by the British taxpayer, for the loss of their ‘property’.

The Slave Compensation Commission was established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners and administer the distribution of the £20m the government had set aside to pay them off. That sum – equivalent to £17 billion – represented 40% of the total government expenditure for 1834. In David Olusoga’s words, ‘it was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009.’

Although the existence of the Commission’s records was never a secret, it was not until 2010 that a team from University College London began to systematically analyse them in a project led by Professor Catherine Hall and Dr Nick Draper. The records of the Commission provide a more or less complete census of slave-ownership in the British Empire in the 1830s. One of the most remarkable aspects of the documents which Olusoga drew upon for the documentary are the thousands of letters from slave owners attempting to justify or maximise their claims.

One letter was from a widow aged 70, Dorothy Little, who inherited 14 slaves in Jamaica after her husband died. Olusoga read part of it:

I am anxious to ascertain if there is any prospect of me getting a full and fair compensation for my unattached field labourers. I am fearful they will be put down as inferior labourers because out of all of their number, 14, ten are female. But from that very circumstance they have been more valuable to me than strong men, since they have more than doubled their original number and therefore doubled my income.

David Olusoga highlighted two further iniquitous aspects of the payout. Firstly, it was the poorest Britons who paid for the bailout (sound familiar?) through increased taxes on consumption (there being no income tax at that time), which are, by definition regressive. Secondly, as Olusoga explained in his article for the Guardian:

Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labor each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation. In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission

Olusoga ended by evaluating the legacies of the bailout and the struggle between abolitionists and slave-owners over the legislation. Drawing on the work of the UCL team, he illustrated how the enormous sums gained by the slave owners contributed to the making of modern Britain. For example, some of the wealthiest slave-owning families invested in the development of railway networks, while banks such as RBS, Barclays and Lloyds grew out of local banks which had financed slavery in port cities such as Liverpool and Bristol. Meanwhile, cultural institutions such as the British Museum, Tate Gallery and the Royal Academy also benefited from donations from slave owners.

Isaac Cruickshank, John Bull Taking a Clear View of the Negro Slavery Question, 1826
Isaac Robert Cruickshank, John Bull Taking a Clear View of the Negro Slavery Question, 1826

Just as insidious was the way in which the propaganda of the slave owners ‘helped shape our cultural and imaginative landscapes’ as ideas unleashed and promulgated during the propaganda war between the abolitionists and their opponents took root in British attitudes. In a memorable sequence, Olusoga discussed a print by Isaac Robert Cruickshank (son of the more renowned Isaac) produced in 1826 in support of the salve owners’ campaign against abolition. In it the British people are being hoodwinked by the abolitionists, with their focus on the tortures and degradations of slavery, from seeing the true picture of the happy, dancing idyll of the Caribbean Africans. Meanwhile, Poor Pat, an English labourer is unemployed and hungry.

For Olusoga, and Professor Catherine Hall of the UCL project, this is an example of the propaganda which resulted in black people continuing to be regarded as childlike savages who needed the firm, white, paternal hand of discipline to save them from themselves and their innate inferiority. Slavery had been abolished but the underlying ideas, theories and attitudes endured.

A week today, people will gather at Windrush Square in Brixton and march to 10 Downing Street in commemoration of Emancipation Day, 1 August 1833 when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the British parliament.  They will reaffirm the demand for reparations for those who endured slavery under British rule.

David Olusoga’s first book, The Kaiser’s Holocaust, describes the order to exterminate thousands of Namibians following the German invasion of Namibia in 1883, implemented by soldiers and bureaucrats who would later play a role in the formulation of Nazism. The book is currently being cited as evidence in a lawsuit for reparations brought against the German government by the descendants of those Namibians tortured and killed during a rarely mentioned period of German occupation.

The subject of Olusoga’s book made me think about the contrast between how present-day Germany has dealt with its dark past and the British approach. As I discovered when visiting Berlin this month, in recent decades Germany has confronted its responsibility for the Holocaust in a direct and very public way. In Britain we have still not faced up to our own shameful past.

For though today’s Britons – and Germans – cannot be judged guilty for the  crimes of their forefathers, our shame for their actions will not go away. I felt that shame – deeply- as I watched David Olusoga’s films. Like today’s Germans, I must accept that shame as part of who I am.

See also

Liverpool (A Legacy of British Imperial Slave Trade)

6 thoughts on “The shame of the past we share and try to forget

  1. Gerry, Thankyou for this post. A few days ago I watched the Film 12 years a slave and I felt uncomfortable. Today I have read your post and I feel as if i have been punched in my guts. This second reaction I know is good VERY VERY GOOD. To take responsibility for what happened is to prevent a re-enactment – Lest we forget.

    Blessings x

    1. Thank you for commenting, Debra. I’m sorry my post has left you feeling as if you have been punched in the guts – but I know what you mean. It’s difficult to watch – or read – such accounts without feeling so.

      1. I’m not sure about that, if you consider how the working class of the UK was treated at the same time they didn’t receive much better treatment to the slaves, they too were ripped from their families and transported half way round the world to often die of starvation and disease. Everything in context.

  2. Why no mention of the African tribes that enslaved these people and sold them to the European slave boats after rowing them out to them. At the time Europeans could not land in Africa as if they did they had a life expectancy of 3 weeks.

  3. thank you Gerry for working to help keep our collective conscience alive; yes the poor of Britain were also treated badly but that does not excuse the perpetrators of the cruelty nor give us any excuse for allowing any type of bullying when it is within our power to expose and/or to fight it.

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