One of the most revealing and impressive programmes I have ever seen on television has just been broadcast in two parts by the BBC, under the title Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners. Based on research done by a team of historians at University College, London, it shows that not only was slavery almost unspeakably profitable economically, which has always been well-known, but that the greatest payoff came after it was abolished, when a huge compensation was paid by the British government to the slaveowners that amounted to the equivalent of 17 billion pounds in today’s money (or, at current exchange rates, closer to $29 billion Canadian). But nothing, of course, for the slaves.
The most revealing thing in this programme is that the greatest payoff in British history has been deliberately swept under the carpet, eliminated from the history that has always been taught in schools, and that this money was virtually the bedrock on which Britain’s extraordinary industrial success in the 19th century was based.
Furthermore many of Britain’s most aristocratic families owed their social elevation to the vast wealth accumulated from slavery, and the tendrils of this huge payoff have penetrated into the lives of almost everyone in Britain (although the payoff itself, before the days of income tax, when government income came from consumption taxes, was basically drawn from the poor.)
The facts of this investigation have been drawn from the books of a specially created 10-man board called the Slavery Compensation Commission, whose records contain the information that there were 46,000 slaveowners scattered across the British Empire, who owned some 800,000 slaves, on each of whom the owners were paid compensation for the losses that abolition of slavery could have caused them.
The admirable presenter of these astounding facts, is David Olusoga, a British-Nigerian historian, educated at Liverpool and Leicester Universities, whose family when he was a child were the only blacks living in a Newcastle council flat which they eventually had to leave because of attacks by racists. He has since made a name for himself with books, and programmes like this that have made a point of rescuing from oblivion many aspects of the real history lived by black and other minorities.
From the 17th century Barbados was established by the British as the first colony built and run on slavery, ruthlessly enforced. Some 50 settlers arrived in 1627, complete with their own workforce of indentured workers who were given their food and shelter, and a promise of 10 acres of land at the end of their service. The new settlers tapped into the Atlantic slave trade, and every year ships arrived bearing thousands of Africans. The documents describe in detail the brutality with which any sign of insurrection was treated, whippings, slit noses, burning of the face with hot irons, iron shackles, neck braces, all part of the system of an extremely violent repression. Barbados was an incubator, says Olusoga, the greatest experiment in modern terror, that gradually spread across the Caribbean, giving rise to two centuries of intense suffering as the slaves’ work created huge wealth for the English owning families, whose investments began to transform British life. The documents show that 3000 slave owners in Britain itself were spread among every class (excluding of course, the poor) --- clergymen, widows, as well as families later enobled such as the Lascelles, the Earl of Harewood, 37 members of the House of Lords, 80 Members of Parliament, and many other well-known families, who also collared half of the 17 billion pounds paid in compensation. A major slave owner in Guyana was John Gladstone, father of the later British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. The father had nine plantations, owned 2,500 slaves, and was awarded 105,000 pounds in compensation for the ending of slavery, which in current money would be equivalent to 83 million pounds. His loyal son as a member of Parliament opposed the abolition of slavery, and helped his father obtain the compensatory money.
There was an immense amount of cross-breeding as the white slaveowners took their pleasure of the African women, and some of these children even became slaveowners themselves, after being sent to England for grooming. In the nineteenth century Jamaica became, as Olusoga says, “the most profitable place on earth,” for a plantation with, for example, 300 slaves, could yield a profit of a cool 6,000 pounds a year, equivalent to five million pounds in today’s money. Jamaica became the seat of the most brutal torture on earth, with terrible floggings in which salt and pickled lime juice was rubbed into the wounds to intensify the agony.
The second TV episode recalls that the greatest profits ever came from the introduction of sugar into the country now known as Guyana. The records show how slaves were valued according to their skills and strength, the maximum being 3000 guilders (the Dutch were in the region first) down to 150 for a simple woman. The operations there were extended even after the slave trade itself ended. In 1820 some 200 sugar plantations were recorded with l00,000 slaves. The researchers are even able to figure the mortality rate of the slaves. After a careful calculation it was figured at 13 per cent mortality over three years, a figure that seemed to be about average for most plantations.
A concomitant development of this demeaning use of human beings was the development of an horrendously negative stereotype, described in a disgraceful language as brutal, savage, uncivilized, child-like, and in need of guidance from their Christian masters. There is a record of a rebellion on August 18, 1820 in which the slaves seized and torched the fields, and the plantations, imprisoned the masters. But the government responded with force against the unarmed rebels by sending the army and militias, who killed hundreds and deported or executed the ringleaders, leaving bodies hanging from posts to act as a deterrent.
The long fight for abolition of the trade, led by William Wilberforce gradually gained the upper hand over the vigorous defence of the slaveowners. A petition for abolition was presented to Parliament containing 1,500,000 signatures, more than there were voters at the time, but the vigorous defence forced the abolitionists to accept the proposals that the slaveowners be compensated, after a long tussle in which various other solutions were rejected, such as that after abolition the slaves would have to work without receiving any pay for another 15 years, gradually reduced under pressure to four years. It seems that the slaveowners --- for example one English woman who started with seven slaves and ended with fourteen --- succeeded in portraying themselves as victims of the legislation, who deserved to be compensated. Expressed in the programme in modern terms, the slave economy of the day, like the banks of our day, was regarded as “too big to fail.”
The researchers have followed through to examine some of the investments made of the slave-earned money. Some railways were established with that money, and the Royal Society, the National Gallery and the British Museum and many other institutions were all established with the use of slave money, a least to some extent. Undoubtedly the most devastating inheritance handed on to our own day is in the debased ideas accepted about non-white people which became established and widely accepted with the slave trade. A prominent instrument in this were the writings of a British historian Edward Long, who wrote a history of Jamaica that was for years accepted ass being accurate, rather than debased history. There are still monuments, statues, plaques and the like, extolling this man, although he died in 1813, and his ideas, though now anathema to most educated people, are still, as recent events have shown, alive and well among the bigoted section of many Western nations.