Sunday, November 5, 2017

Legacies of British Slave-ownership: A Review

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Legacies of British Slave-ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain
Cahtherine Hall, Nicholas Draper, Keith McClelland, Katie Domington and Rachel Lang
London: Cambridge University Press 2016

In 2007, on the occasion of the bi-centineal celebration of the Abolition of the  Slave Trade, or at least the Atlantic Ocean segment of the "nefarious trade" England experience on orgy of triumphalism: chest thumping about its great moral decision and a vindication of Christian commitment to Human Dignity. I agree that MPs like William Wilberforce and the great Edmund Burke did display a deep revulsion toward Slavery and the Edinburgh Review was one of the few journals that worked public sentiment against the Slave Trade. It is important to remember this today as Scotland prepares to bolt from the Union of 1707 and Britain will shrink to the boundries of its Roman past.
The book under review is a prosopographical study of slave ownership in Great Britain in the year 1834 when Slavery was officially abolished in the British territories. Ironically the Abolition of Slavery Act passed by the House of Commons in 1833 was the first legal recognition that slavery, as a form of servitude, existed in British territories. 
Legacies of British Slave Ownership

The abolition of Slavery neccesitated the creation of a Commission to pay compensation to the Slave Owners who stood to gain an enormous sum of 20 Million pounds as compensation for around 28,000 slaves who were freed at least on paper. An Apprenticeship Agreement meant that many had to continue on the estates of their masters for another 6 years. And that too did not mean the end of servitude. William Gladstone's family owned nearly 3000 slaves in British Gyanna and Abolition meant economic disaster to John Gladstone. Fortunately for him, India by that time was sufficiently tamed to supply Indentured Servants to work on the very same plantations which had freed its slaves. Hugh Tinker has rightly called Indenture a "New Kind of Slavery".This book is based on the Records of the Slave Compensation Commission and cover the estates in St Kitts, St Vincent, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Surinname and a few other places. The transfer of 20 million pounds from the public exchequer to private hands marks an important ship in the social or rather class structure of modern Britain. One can even argue that the social foundation of modern Britain lies in this singular historical event.

The Oxford Dictionary of Nation Biography, the gold standard of British aristocracy and its social legitimacy does not quite reflect the extent to which the ruling political class of England, both of the Victorian Era and of the post World War II Era derived its economic strength from the slave compensation monies. West Indian Merchant Houses, Insurance Companies, Shipping Companies, Trading Houses, Banking Houses were all implicated in this Great Game of slave compensation and the 20 million pounds would be worth nearly 2 billion pounds into todays exchange rate.
The document on the left is a page from the Slave Compensation Commission Records preserved at Kew Archives. From the study of the record of nearly 30,000 compensation paid out the authors estimate that more than 75% of the beneficiaries were from England with Scotland accounting for around 18 to 19% and Ireland a mere 4%. The figures are illustrative of the fact that the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of Britain into Asia, particularly India and other regions was symptomatic of a social order that was changing with the infusion of Capital. Eric Williams did not use these records but his insight into the development of English capitalism as a direct consequence of Slavery seems to be borne out. More interestingly, women figure quite prominently as slave owners who claimed compensation. This was because of the financial insitutions morgating their estates along with slaves and the mortgagee inheriting the property. 

The documents reveal an intresting fact and the data base that has been created substantiates it to an alarming degree. The search engine of the Data Base identifies the number of slaves owned by the Family if the claim is indexted to the family name. Thus David Cameron, the Prime Minister and Tony Blair, the war criminal of Iraq belonging to different political parties had ancestors who profitted from Slavery. A new and powerful political tool in the hands of the Scottish Nationalists has now been created. India too figures in a distant fashion. Assam Tea Company was perhaps set up with the fianance generated from Slave compensation.

The new kind of Imperial History is facinating and I have myself contributed to a study of William Fullarton the Governor of Trnidad during the tumultous years during the Napoleonic Wars.

I thoroughly enjoyed this work.

No comments: