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Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

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I have just watched the documentary with the above title on BBC2 based on recent research by UCL. Although I've read and know a bit about the subject I must admit I didn't realise ownership of slaves was so extensive in Britain and that £17b was paid out in compensation (not to the slaves but the owners) when it was abolished. Quite a bit of unearned inherited wealth passed down the line here.


I had come across the subject a little because a friend of mine did some research into a well known family in West Penwith and they made their fortune as owners of sugar plantations in the West Indies.


Anyway the programme is well worth watching.



Colonial slavery shaped modern Britain and we all still live with its legacies. The slave-owners were one very important means by which the fruits of slavery were transmitted to metropolitan Britain. We believe that research and analysis of this group are key to understanding the extent and the limits of slavery's role in shaping British history and leaving lasting legacies that reach into the present. The stories of enslaved men and women, however, are no less important than those of slave-owners, and we hope that the encyclopaedia produced in the first phase of the project, while at present primarily a resource for studying slave-owners, will also provide information of value to those researching enslaved people.



In 1834 Britain abolished slavery, a defining and celebrated moment in our national history. What has been largely forgotten is that abolition came at a price. The government of the day took the extraordinary step of compensating the slave owners for loss of their ‘property’, as Britain's 46,000 slave owners were paid £17bn in today’s money, whilst the slaves received nothing.


For nearly 200 years, the meticulous records that detail this forgotten story have lain in the archives virtually unexamined - until now. In an exclusive partnership with University College London, historian David Olusoga uncovers Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. Forensically examining the compensation records, he discovers the surprising range of people who owned slaves and the sheer scale of the slavery business.

What the records reveal is that the slave owners were not just the super-rich. There were widows, clergymen and shopkeepers; ordinary members of the middle-classes who exploited slave-labour in distant lands. Yet many of them never looked a slave in the eye or experienced the brutal realities of plantation life.


In Barbados, David traces how Britain’s slave economy emerged in the 17th century from just a handful of pioneering plantation owners. As David explores the systemic violence of slavery, in Jamaica he is introduced to some of the brutal tools used to terrorise the slaves and reads from the sadistic diaries of a notorious British slave owner. Elsewhere, on a visit to the spectacularly opulent Harewood House in Yorkshire, he glimpses how the slave owners’ wealth seeped into every corner of Britain.


Finally, amongst the vast slave registers that record all 800,000 men, women and children in British hands at the point of abolition, David counts the tragic human cost of this chapter in our nation’s history.


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I watched the second part of this on BBC2 last night. In this David Olusoga traces the bitter propaganda war waged between the pro-slavery lobby and the abolitionists and reveals how, in 1834, the government arrived at the decision to compensate Britain's 46,000 slave owners with the equivalent of £17billion in today's money. He goes on to investigate what happened to the wealth generated from the slave trade and the compensation pay-out, revealing links to aspects of Britain's industrialisation in the 19th century, expansion of the railway network, and a number of the country's most well-known institutions


Of the 46,000 3,000 thousand lived in Britain and they pocketed half of the money, (remember this is the biggest compensation pay out in British history). Among them were members of the clergy, a surprising number of women, they inherited the slaves as part of their deceased husbands property, and 37 members of the House of Lords. It's quite astonishing the length and breadth of slave ownership and the ramifications of the compensation. It is most certainly something that has been swept under the carpet until the researchers at UCL dug out the detailed records in the National Archive.


As a matter of interest I had a look on the online database to see what compensation Sir Rose Price of West Penwith, Cornwall was paid. Actually he didn't receive it as he died in 1834 so it went to his executors. He owned 770 slaves on two plantations in Jamaica and the pay out was £5241.40.25 which equates to £500,000 in today's money!

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