Britain: a nation of slave owners

Thousands of ‘ordinary’ Britons profited from the slave trade – and, says David Olusoga, they weren’t about to accept abolition without a fight...

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

(Bridgeman)
George Morland’s 1791 painting Slave Trade. Though abolitionists have dominated histories of the British slave trade, their opponents ran a sophisticated campaign that was often in the ascendancy. (Bridgeman)
 

Tucked away under the trees in a shady corner of Clapham Common, south-west London, stands Holy Trinity church. Inside, above the ornate mosaic floor and the neat rows of pews, are three stained-glass windows. They depict the lives of saints – not biblical saints, but the ‘saints’ of the abolition movement.

From the late 18th century, Holy Trinity Clapham was the parish church of the Clapham Sect – the ‘Clapham Saints’, as they are sometimes called. This loose affiliation of friends and like-minded men committed their considerable energies to bringing to an end first the British slave trade then slavery itself. On the southern wall of Holy Trinity is a grey marble plaque, set into the red Georgian brickwork. It proudly lists the names of Clapham’s abolitionist heroes – men who, we are told, “laboured… until the curse of slavery was swept away from all parts of the British Dominions”. The last name in that alphabetical list is that of the man who became the moral lodestar around which the Clapham Sect orbited: William Wilberforce.

The Clapham Sect was famous in its day, and its legend has not dimmed. The homes of its most celebrated members – Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay and Thomas Fowell Buxton – are all stamped with approving blue plaques. The crusade they led, against what late Georgians felt comfortable calling ‘negro slavery’, has been the subject of innumerable books and is part of the national curriculum.

Abolition has long been the prism through which British slavery is remembered. The other forces – social, economic and military – that also played roles in the demise of slavery have been ushered to the wings to permit the story of abolition to dominate the historical stage. That some of the impetus for abolition came from the enslaved people themselves, who rose up in a series of rebellions, is all too often overlooked.

What has similarly been forgotten is that there were two sides in the political battle fought over slavery. Thousands of British men and women opposed abolition because they themselves owned slaves. They and their supporters in manufacturing, finance and parliament portrayed slavery as critical to the national interest. Britain’s slave owners funded a pro-slavery lobby that opposed the abolitionists at every step. Their pro-slavery campaign was just as sophisticated as that of the abolitionists, and at times the arguments of the pro-slavery men were in the ascendancy. The leading voices of that campaign have been little remembered, while their battle to defend slavery, like British slave ownership itself, has been little examined.

An 1811 portrait of George Hibbert, an anti-hero in the story of British slavery. (Museum of London) 
 

Abolitionists’ dilemma

From the 1790s until 1830, one of the most significant figures in the pro-slavery lobby was another member of the congregation of Holy Trinity Clapham. George Hibbert was a slave trader and slave owner. He is one of the anti-heroes in the story of British slavery – an ‘anti-Wilberforce’. In defending slavery Hibbert demonstrated himself to be both a brilliant political tactician and a skilled propagandist. At times he became the campaign’s vocal figurehead, bitterly clashing directly with Wilberforce from the benches of parliament and on the pages of newspapers.

On Sundays, George Hibbert took his place in the pews of Holy Trinity Clapham, alongside Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect. George Hibbert’s name, however, does not appear on the walls of Holy Trinity church. His elegant London town house – which stands on the opposite side of Clapham Common from the home that Wilberforce shared with his cousin Henry Thornton – is bereft of a blue plaque.

The near invisibility of Britain’s slave owners in the common modern understanding of slavery is partly a lingering consequence of geography. Throughout the two centuries during which Britain was heavily involved in slave trading and slavery, the vast majority of slave owners resided in the Caribbean. The 4,000 miles separating Britain from that region made it possible for the workings of slavery to be concealed from the public and, when slavery was abolished, for it to be filed away as a closed chapter in the history of the empire, rather than of Britain herself. The ghosts of slavery slept more ‘unquietly’ in the US, on whose own soil plantations had been laid out and slave markets built.

In the years after the abolition of slavery in 1834, the families who had made their fortunes from sugar and slaves completed this historical disappearing act by covering up the incriminating chapters of their own dynastic histories. Men who in the 18th century had unashamedly regarded themselves as slave owners were, during the 19th and 20th centuries, re-branded by their descendants as ‘planters’. Men who had driven the ‘triangular trade’ were likewise concealed behind an innocuous euphemism: ‘West India merchants’.

If there is a reason why, of all Britain’s forgotten slave owners, we should remember George Hibbert, it is that he was one of the earliest proponents of the mechanism that ultimately offered Britain a way out of slavery. In the aftermath of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 it was evident to Hibbert and others that the abolitionists would, sooner or later, embark upon a second crusade to end slavery itself. During the debates about the slave trade, Hibbert had suggested that, if the enslaved were to be freed, the slave owners who would lose their ‘property’ should be compensated. The abolitionist firebrand Thomas Clarkson responded with mock incredulity. Addressing the slave owners, he admitted: “That compensation is due somewhere, there is no doubt. But from whom is it due? It is due from you to Africa!”

Clarkson’s bombast disguised a justifiable concern among the abolitionists. Their official position was that it was impossible for one human being to hold ‘property in men’, but they understood that an attack on the institution of slavery was, by default, an assault on the principle of private property. The dilemma they faced was that supporting compensation, though possibly the key to freeing the enslaved, would require them to accept that the slaves were property. The author of an anonymous letter of 1831 summarised the paradox: “Admit the slave-holders claims to compensation, and you admit the justice of slavery.”

As is almost always the case when great moral issues are fed through the threshing machine of political negotiation, the discussion – between the abolitionists, the slave owners and the government, beginning after the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in the summer of 1833 – ended with a grubby, technocratic compromise. The abolitionists did accept that compensation was the only way to end slavery and the government accepted that it would have to foot the bill, finally agreeing to pay the slave owners £20m – in modern terms, around £16bn. The slave owners also won another grudging concession: a system of ‘apprenticeship’, whereby slaves who worked the fields were to continue their labours for an additional six years, domestic slaves for a further four years. Yet what had been agreed was remarkable. The Slavery Abolition Act liberated 800,000 human beings from bondage, and the compensation of the slave owners represented what was at that time the largest payout in British history.

The process of paying the compensation turned out to be just as extraordinary as the decision itself. Though the number of slaves and the total amount of compensation payable were known to the government, the number of slave owners and where they resided were not. The famous owners – the men who had demanded compensation and lobbied in defence of slavery – were the only known quantity; the Hibberts, along with the Gladstones, Lascelles and other slave-owning dynasties, all came forward to claim their share of the £20m. George Hibbert was awarded £63,067 and another 10 members of the Hibbert family also received payouts. Yet what is more remarkable, and more significant to historians of slavery, is that tens of thousands of others – middling to small-scale slave owners – were also lured out of the shadows of history by the money on offer.

In order to claim compensation, all slave owners, no matter how many or how few slaves they were claiming compensation for, had to register their claims with the Slave Compensation Commission, the government bureaucracy established to distribute the money. The process demanded that each slave owner committed their name to the official record and filled out a claim form, identifying the number of slaves to which they laid claim and where those enslaved people resided. In the frenzied rush to stake claims, discretion was abandoned and the taboo that had developed around the owning of slaves was set aside. Britain’s slave owners, all 46,000 of them, bombarded the commission with claims.

This 1826 illustration from The Black Man’s Lament, an anti-slavery narrative poem by Amelia Opie, depicts a campaigner accompanied by a chained slave urging men to sign his petition for abolishing the slave trade. (Alamy)

 

Punctilious clerks

This story is captured in the records of the Slave Compensation Commission, a great haul of yellowing ledgers and neatly tied bundles of letters held at the National Archives. The commission’s records represent a near-perfect snapshot of slavery as it was on one day – 1 August 1834, the day of its demise. Just as Al Capone was convicted not on charges of murder or intimidation filed by the FBI but on charges of tax evasion brought by the bureau’s accountants, Britain’s secretive slave owners were identified, catalogued and recorded not by the efforts of the abolitionists but by the punctilious clerks and accountants of the Slave Compensation Commission.

For 180 years, the commission’s records lay in the archives, largely unexamined until they became the focus of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project. Led by Professor Catherine Hall and Nick Draper, and completed through the efforts of a team of co-directors, researchers and students at University College London, the project has collated all 47,000 claims.

The slave owners upon whom they have shone the brightest light have been the 3,000 or so who were resident in Britain. The picture that emerges from the collated claims is of a Britain in which slave ownership was far more widespread and far more ordinary than had once been imagined. It cascaded further down the social spectrum than had previously been understood, and was distributed broadly across the nation, from the Isle of Wight to the Orkney Isles.

Among the names that appear in the records are many famous ones. The ancestors of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott appear in the ledgers, as do those of Graham Greene and George Orwell (the latter listed under his real family name, Blair). In the end, however, the obscure families tend to be more interesting than the famous ones: the very ordinary people – middle class and lower middle class – who either invested in the slave economy or, through inheritance or other mechanisms, were drawn into it.

The claimants about whom the records reveal the most are those who entered into correspondence with the Commissioners for Slave Compensation. Among their letters are blatant attempts to influence the process. There are angry complaints at rejected or questioned claims, and unctuous reminders penned by claimants awaiting news.

These letters expose not just the addresses of the claimants but also give voice to the ordinary slave owners. One example was Dorothy Little, a widow living in Clifton in Bristol who struggled in vain to persuade the commissioners to increase the valuation placed on the 13 enslaved men and women she owned in Jamaica. Her letters, and those written on her behalf by her barrister son Simon, repeatedly reminded the commissioners that Dorothy was an aged widow with few means of support other than the forced labour – of what she called “my slaves”.

In one petition, Simon Little warned the commissioners that if they were not to increase the valuation they would have “deprived an aged widow of her property without any fault alleged on her part”.

These letters capture the mindset of people trapped in a bureaucratic system, unable to understand that such a system was not open to special pleading. But they are also the words of people who have, all too often, lost sight of the fact that the true victims of the system were the enslaved Africans, unseen and unconsidered, 4,000 miles away.

A 1952 stained-glass window in Holy Trinity church, Clapham, shows a slave kneeling alongside St Nicholas and abolitionist William Wilberforce, a member of the congregation from 1792. (Alamy)

 

Three British slave owners

People from very different backgrounds benefited from ‘property’ they owned in the Caribbean

John Gladstone: The prime minister’s father

By 1834, John Gladstone and his family had acquired 2,039 slaves for which they were awarded £93,526 by the Slave Compensation Commission. The heart of their slave empire was in British Guiana, at that time the most profitable of the British Caribbean colonies. John Gladstone used the compensation to diversify, investing in the booming railways. His son, William Ewart Gladstone, rose to become prime minister, making a speech in defence of slavery. The Gladstones replaced slaves with indentured Indian labourers on their Guyana plantations.

Nathaniel Wells: The mixed-race absentee

In many ways a typical absentee slave owner, Wells was the favourite son of a prominent St Kitts plantation owner. Sent to Britain for his education, on his father’s death he inherited a fortune worth around £200,000, including sugar estates and slaves. What makes his story unusual is that he was mixed race: his mother was a slave, the legal property of his father. As a mixed-race man – albeit a very rich one – Wells would have had few rights in the Caribbean, and he never returned to St Kitts. He used his fortune to buy a country home, the grand Piercefield House, near Chepstow.

Anna Eliza Elletson: The powerful woman

On the death of her first husband in 1775, Elletson inherited 300 slaves and the Hope sugar plantation in Jamaica. She remarried to become Duchess of Chandos, and from Chandos House dispatched a stream of instructions to her attorneys in Jamaica. Carefully navigating the complex gender roles of her age, she presented herself as a woman in need of professional assistance, yet sent her attorneys detailed instructions on managing her estates. The work of the men and women she called her property delivered Elletson an annual income, in the 1780s, of £6,000 per year – around £5m today.

David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster who recently presented The World’s War on BBC Two and authored the accompanying book.

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here