The history of British slavery has been buried. The thousands of British families who grew rich on the slave trade, or from the sale of slave-produced sugar, in the 17th and 18th centuries, brushed those uncomfortable chapters of their dynastic stories under the carpet. Today, across the country, heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses describe former slave traders as “West India merchants”, while slave owners are hidden behind the equally euphemistic term “West India planter”. Thousands of biographies written in celebration of notable 17th and 18th-century Britons have reduced their ownership of human beings to the footnotes, or else expunged such unpleasant details altogether. The Dictionary of National Biography has been especially culpable in this respect. Few acts of collective forgetting have been as thorough and as successful as the erasing of slavery from the Britain’s “island story”. If it was geography that made this great forgetting possible, what completed the disappearing act was our collective fixation with the one redemptive chapter in the whole story. William Wilberforce and the abolitionist crusade, first against the slave trade and then slavery itself, has become a figleaf behind which the larger, longer and darker history of slavery has been concealed.
Lots of Sir Thomas Bertrams with plantation off there across a big ocean, where we don’t have to think about it.
George Orwell once likened Britain to a wealthy family that maintains a guilty silence about the sources of its wealth. Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, had seen that conspiracy of silence at close quarters. His father, Richard W Blair, was a civil servant who oversaw the production of opium on plantations near the Indian-Nepalese border and supervised the export of that lethal crop to China. The department for which the elder Blair worked was called, unashamedly, the opium department. However, the Blair family fortune – which had been largely squandered by the time Eric was born – stemmed from their investments in plantations far from India.
The Blair name is one of thousands that appear in a collection of documents held at the National Archives in Kew that have the potential to do to Britain what the hackers of WikiLeaks and the researchers of PBS did to Affleck. The T71 files consist of 1,631 volumes of leather-bound ledgers and neatly tied bundles of letters that have lain in the archives for 180 years, for the most part unexamined. They are the records and the correspondence of the Slave Compensation Commission.
The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans who were then the legal property of Britain’s slave owners. What is less well known is that the same act contained a provision for the financial compensation of the owners of those slaves, by the British taxpayer, for the loss of their “property”. The compensation commission was the government body established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners and administer the distribution of the £20m the government had set aside to pay them off. That sum represented 40% of the total government expenditure for 1834. It is the modern equivalent of between £16bn and £17bn.
Compensation to the owners, notice. Not compensation to the slaves. Oh god no; far from it. The slaves were made to pay for the compensation – the compensation to people who had stolen their labor for generations.
The compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009. Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation. In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission.
Imagine if you kidnapped some girls and held them prisoner for years, the way Ariel Castro did…and then after ten years they escaped. Imagine the state making the kidnapped girls go on being Ariel Castro’s sex toys for another four years to “compensate” him for not being able to own them forever. It’s like that. The former slaves were owed billions, and they were never paid a dime.
The large slave owners, the men of the “West India interest”, who owned huge estates from which they drew vast fortunes, appear in the files of the commission. The man who received the most money from the state was John Gladstone, the father of Victorian prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. He was paid £106,769 in compensation for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations, the modern equivalent of about £80m. Given such an investment, it is perhaps not surprising that William Gladstone’s maiden speech in parliament was in defence of slavery.
The records show that for the 218 men and women he regarded as his property, Charles Blair, the great-grandfather of George Orwell, was paid the more modest sum of £4,442 – the modern equivalent of about £3m. There are other famous names hidden within the records. Ancestors of the novelist Graham Greene, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott all received compensation for slaves. As did a distant ancestor of David Cameron. But what is most significant is the revelation of the smaller-scale slave owners.
There were lots of them. It was just an investment like any other.
Sometimes I just don’t like human beings very much.