Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Further Thoughts on Legacies of British Slave Ownership

The two day colloquium on 30 and 31 March Emancipation, Slave Ownership and the Remaking of the British Imperial World organised by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project based at University College London was very stimulating.  

The speakers were very interesting and for once at a conference there was plenty of time for discussion and dialogue. But there was a tension within it. We did not learn much about the detailed findings emerging from the Legacies project itself, with which I have had close dealings since its start. This is because the sheer scale of the material means that the interactive database is not yet ready to go public. Despite the fact that the funding ends at the end of May the team: Catherine Hall, Nick Draper, Keith Mclelland, Ben Mechen and Rachel Lang will be working over the summer to get the database live. The lack of a detailed summary of findings did mean that for many the discussions were not rooted in a solid base of empirical evidence, and given the multi-disciplinary and international nature of the audience, including many non-academics, there was an assumption that everyone knew a considerable amount more than they did, including many of the books and writers referred to. In my from the floor  contributions I kept trying to get the link back to the work of the Legacies Project. 

There are key questions about the next stages of the Legacies Project:

·         Once the funding has ceased how will the data base be maintained as an interactive resource?

·         Does the analysis of the data alter any of the findings and conclusions in Nick Draper’s book which underpins the Project?

·         In particular is Nick’s incisive conclusion still underpinned by the additional work of the Project:

'... British colonial slavery was without a doubt privately profitable, at some periods and in some colonies spectacularly so. Those profits were extracted in the first instance from the appropriation of the labour of the enslaved. But the profits for owners of the enslaved in British society were also sustained by a system of protective tariffs under which higher duties were paid by the British people on foreign-grown tropical produce, especially sugar. These duties as a whole in turn helped fund the expansion of the British state while shielding the wealthier sections of the population from more progressive taxation regimes. A section of the British elite thus utilised its political influence for more than two centuries to defend its interest at the presence of the enslaved and at the expense of the mass of the British people. (Editor's emphasis.) When that system was brought down, by the combined effect of resistance of the enslaved and popular political activity by abolitionists, the slave-owners received one final transfer payment in the form of slave-compensation.' (p. 14-15)

·         Can the funding be found to enable to team to analyse the Cape Colony and Mauritius compensation records? 

What are the Legacies? 

There are a whole range of legacies cutting across economics, politics and culture around questions such as:

·         What did those who received the compensation do with the money: luxury expenditure, capital investment, land purchase?

·         What were the labour control systems implemented in the various islands of the British West Indies?

·         Which owners remained in business in the West Indies?

·         What were the reactions of the apprenticed and then freed slaves and the imported indentured labour?

·         What were the attitudes towards Africans and people of African heritage and towards indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world?

·         What was the effectiveness of Royal Navy action against slave trading?

·         What happened to the slaves captured by the Royal Navy?

·         How did the moral evangelical wing of the abolition movement influence the development of Empire policies?

·         What were the continuing influences of the West India lobby on the development of Empire policies?

·         Why did the Government tolerate the involvement post 1838 of British investors and firms in other slave economies?

·         How was the British involvement in slavery re-written in history writing and fiction?

·         Why did the Government allow the adoption of free trade principles in such a way that they benefitted other slave economies?

·         Why were the advocates of free labour unable to prevent the unqualified adoption of free trade principles?

·         How did slavery and abolition effect the Black presence in Britain?

·         What have the long term legacies of slavery in the British West Indies?

·         Is there a case for reparations/compensation to the descendants of Africans kidnapped and sold into New World slavery by the British State, by the successors to companies and descendants of families involved? 

The Nature of the Slavery Business 

Through the discussions it became clearer that the experience and operation of chattel plantation slavery differed between different countries, and especially between islands in the Caribbean. The experience of the small islands was often very different to Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. Therefore there needs to be considerable caution about the generalisations made on the basis on individual island analysis. 

There were different dynamics, including geography and fertility, as well as the balance of population between slave, free coloured and white. 

Similarly, although British was meshed in the slavery business and gave state sanction until 1807 in relation to the slave trade and up to 1833 in relation to slavery, the way in which the British elite, the aristocracts, the landowners and the businessmen related to the business was highly complex. Like all capitalist activity there were those who were successful, those who were not, and those who profited from the failure of others.  If we treat each branch of the business as separate then we can draw the wrong conclusions. Chris Evan’s paper on Wales at the Colloquium underpinned the need to understand that the engagement in the slavery business took different forms, partly based on geography. Because of its geographic position there is little evidence of direct slave trading from North East ports, but what the work I have been involved in from  2007 on slavery and abolition in the North East has shown is how the region’s elite and movers and shakers were involved from the supply of shackles and hoes and coal and the establishment of the South Sea Company  through to plantation ownership. 

The Nature of Capitalism

We need to remember that leading merchants had multiple interests. In the North East Ralph Carr’s were in Barbados, the American colonies and Europe. Like him other capitalist businessmen seized the opportunities where they presented themselves, and this could be done flexibly as circumstances changed. Therefore for many the ending of slavery and the replacement apprenticeship system in the British West Indies in 1838 did not stop them taking advantages of new opportunities, like investment in the capital infrastructure projects like the railways in Britain, in Australia and in the slave economies in the USA, Central and Latin America.  

To this day capitalism continues to move around the world to where the extraction and maximization of profit is easiest and to exploit labour in many different ways. Perhaps the more far seeing merchants involved in the West Indies trade up to 1833 realised that it would be increasingly difficult to continue slavery in the British West Indies given the ability of the abolition movement to mobilise public opinion. It proved much more difficult to mobilise that opinion in relation to the slavery businesses of other countries, especially once free trade brought down prices of goods imported from them.  

The Back Story 

As the compensation data is a snap shot in time, we need the back story on who were the previous owners of plantations being claimed on. The N. East work has shown that a former unknown major Newcastle based West India merchant, with diverse investments in the Tyneside economy, bought out the interests of many small owners in the early part of the 19thC. This eminence gris of Tyneside is John Graham Clarke. But he was more than just an owner and investor. He had his own fleet of ships going back and forth to the West Indies. He had close connections with the powerful Barrett family in Jamaica.  Edward Moulton Barrett married Clarke's daughter Mary. Their daughter was the poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose close confidant was the family's free coloured Mary Trepsack who Nick has shown received compensation of n.£227 for 11 slaves owned on the Barrett's Cinnamon Hill and Cottage estates in Jamaica. Goodin Barrett sent over his six children by his slave mistress to be looked after by Clarke. One of Clarke's sons John Altham married Mary Elizabeth Parkinson, daughter of another prominent Jamaican slave owner Leonard Parkinson. The dowry included 500 acres in Frocester, Gloucestershire. When Clarke died in 1818 the inheritance was subject to a family legal dispute in the Chancery Court which was not resolved for several years.  

Resident or Absentee Plantation Owners 

The existence of these kind of connections and networks based on business and marriage show that we should not see absentee and resident slave plantation owners as completely separate interest groups. There is plenty of evidence of travel in both directions. Sons were sent for education and daughters for marriage. The North Easterners settling in South Carolina in the 18thC and playing an important role into the American Revolution have been described as a Mafia. How long their connections with Britain continued after the Revolution with extended family and school and university friends has yet to be researched. 

Multiple Identities 

One of the strengths of Nick’s analysis is to uncover the multiple identities of those involved in slave ownership. As he said at the Colloquium while most supported the anti-reform and Tory party, many were pro-reform (e.g. Lord Holland), and were able to work with abolitionist campaigners on matters of mutual concern and agreement such as lobbying against the East India Company. In Graham Clarke's case, James Losh, a leading Newcastle lawyer and abolitionist campaigner, was a friend who gave evidence that Clarke had been in sane mind when he signed a codicil to his will disinheriting one of his sons as a waistral.  


It will be important to build up the biographical sketches on the database. In his book Nick cited George Fife Angas as a London based merchant with interests in British Honduras and in colonising Australia. What Nick did not know at that time is that the Angas family business had been built up in the North East and that George was an active abolitionist and supporter of missionary efforts. The Legacies Project organisers urge those with information such as this to add it when the database is live. But it needs to be remembered that this will take a lot of time for those of us who can supply information.  

The significance of some people only becomes apparent because of biographical, family, local and regional studies. The Hankeys received attention in Nick’s study, but not the whole extent of their involvements. They were involved in Grenada sugar plantations with the Northumberland Trevelyans. That became clear from the work in the North East in 2007 from the Trevelyan papers, which were cited by Catherine Hall at the Colloquium.  

Investment of Compensation 

One of the most important aspects of the project has been  to try and see whether there was any direct evidence of slave compensation money being invested in land and industry in Britain. The Colloquium did not really give us a full picture of the Project’s findings on this.   

Since the records give an undue emphasis to those with London addresses, again without considerable research into their total land and property interests, it is not clear how slave ownership wealth permeated property and estate building and re-modellings elsewhere in Britain. Thinking about Chris Evans excellent presentation how many owners of land in, but not resident in, Wales received compensation? And the same goes for Ireland. And while we think about Wales it is as well to remember that the free man of colour Nathaniel Wells of Piercefield in Monmouthshire, received just over £1,400 in 1837 for 86 slaves.  Many slave owners provided for the sons and daughters of their liaisons with slaves and free coloured women. As Nick’s study has shown the four children of Susanna Johnson, by Dugald Campbell, were beneficiaries of annuities. In 1813 all four were in London. They and a grand-daughter were compensation beneficiaries. The attorney William Hinds Prescod settled money on his four free coloured children and their mother, received compensation on 122 slaves, and three of the children received compensation for one each. Although there are not many more examples Nick has agreed to pull together the information about them to enable their stories to be investigated.  

Inter-connections With Other Slave Economies

Throughout the Colloquium we were reminded of the other slavery business economies, of Holland, France, Portugal and Spain. What was not reported was any further analysis and conclusions on the compensation noted by Nick in his book as having been given to Dutch, French and Spanish slave owners particularly in the newer colonial acquisitions like Trinidad and British Guiana. This is not just a reminder of the fact that the Caribbean had been an area of considerable dispute and conflict, with islands changing hands at various times, but also a reminder of the inter-links between the different European slave economies. 

We still need analysis of the compensation granted in Cape Colony and Mauritius. It will add further to our understanding of the inter-links. This presumably will require collaboration with the Dutch and the French.  

In one of my from the floor contributions |stressed the need for dialogue between those studying the slavery businesses in each country to tease out the interconnections, not just the military and naval rivalry, but also the business co-operation. It should not be forgotten that when William of Orange invaded Britain the coup d’etat of 1688 he brought with him 200 slaves who marched with his army from the south west to London. What happened to them? How many stayed? Did they go back to Holland or back to the Dutch slave colonies? 

The Networks 

There was stress during the Colloquium on the crucial importance of networks. This is illustrated in the North East work.  Although the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica was nearly 3 decades after final Emancipation, Nick’s  analysis of the compensation connections of members of the Governor Eyre Defence Fund is a useful precedent for examining the memberships of a wide range of civil, economic and political organisations to see the wider networks and influence of those who were recipients themselves or were members of families that had received compensation. The database is designed to enable networks and connections to be searched, but the quality of the results will depend on the additional biographical information put into it by others.  


There were a lot of assumptions made about the development of British racism without a proper acknowledgement that like slavery and free trade these were subject to  dispute, and that not all British were overtly ‘racist’.

Control of Labour 

Slave owners, managers and overseers always had the problem of how to ensure the slaves worked. Punishment and cruelty were usually the remedies used. After emancipation indentured labour brought people to the West Indies to ensure a compliant work force since the freed slaves and their descendants were not keen to work as wage labourers. But indentured labour was already being used in the British West Indies, so the system was building on experience. Much of the literature about control problems comes from those exercising the control. The interviews with former slave apprentices gives their perspective. Watching in Britain activists in the emerging working class movement after the deep disappointment of the Reform Act not giving a wide franchise down into the working class, articulated the concerns they had about the introduction of free labour and labour control mechanisms into the British West Indies. e.g. The Poor Man’s Guardian. Increasingly the movement saw workers in Britain as ‘wage slaves’, and attacked their employers supporting emancipation up to 1838 and from 1838 in the United States as hypocrites. It became clear in the discussion that the issues of how to control wage labour in Britain and in post emancipation British West Indies need to be looked at together because it was the same people involved in the debates and devising the policy solutions.

Since capitalism exploits labour in whatever form it can be organised, Catherine Hall was right to stress that the issues of rights are part of the debate.  So we need to look at the development of various rights agendas in the debates in Britain and their cross-links with pre- and post- emancipation British West Indies. At a Reform League public meeting in February 1866 Executive Committee member John Baxter Langley explained the differences between what the League and other reformers stood for. He linked the argument for manhood suffrage to the atrocities in Jamaica committed by troops under General Eyre's command the previous year. He discussed the rights of labour, and then condemned British rule in Ireland and India, as part of his justification for manhood suffrage. Once the news of the Eyre atrocities reached Britain, town mayors all over the country organised local protest meetings, including in North Shields, Newcastle, South Shields and Darlington in December 1865. At the Newcastle meeting, the leading radical Joseph Cowen denounced Governor Eyre, and demanded an inquiry. 300 mayors from towns and cities all over the Britain went to Downing St to demand the suspension of Eyre as Governor of Jamaica. Newcastle Daily Chronicle's editorial wrote:

'We have a right to see that our coloured countrymen are not wronged. But it is not so much out of regard for the rights of the negro as out of regard for the honour of England that we are disposed to demand the strictest justice. We owe it to England even more than we owe it to the outraged blackman that the crimes committed under English authority should be adequately and justly punished.'   

Supporters of the Eyre Defence and Aid Committee, presided over by the Earl of Shrewsbury, a landowner in Jamaica, included Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Charles Dickens, 71 peers, 6 bishops, 20 MPs, 40 generals, 26 admirals, 4,000 clergymen, and 30,000 others. They saw an analogy with the potential for riot among British workers. One commented that the negro 'is in Jamaica as the costermonger is in Whitechapel; he is very likely nearly a savage with the mind of a child.'  When a banquet was held in Eyre's honour at Southampton, the Daily Telegraph feared that a Jamaica Committee counter-rally would trigger a riot, calling those it thought would make up the mob, 'negroes'.

British Black History

Another part of the legacy is the history of black people in Britain. I stressed that this dimension was not addressed at the Colloquium. Kathy Chater whose work on parish records has been a major contribution.


So the Colloquium was an important event keeping a wide range of people connected with the Legacies Project and having a good opportunity to discuss the issues and to suggest different interpretations and flag up the next stages of research. The Project is following up with a special event looking at aspects of other slave economics. Once the database goes public there will be a rich source of material for people to look at, add to and use for further investigation of the legacies issues.

For more about the Legacies Project go to: www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs

No comments:

Post a Comment