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date: 20 April 2024

The Legacies of British Slave Ownershiplocked

The Legacies of British Slave Ownershiplocked

  • Catherine HallCatherine HallUniversity College London


In 1834, the British Parliament’s act to abolish slavery in the Caribbean, Mauritius, and the Cape included compensation for the slave owners to the tune of 20 million pounds. This was equivalent to about 16 billion pounds in today’s money. The compensation was for the owners’ loss of human property, enslaved people. More than 660,000 men and women in the Caribbean were assigned a monetary value for the last time on the basis of which compensation was calculated. Nearly 50 percent of this money was paid to more than four thousand men and women in Britain: these were the so-called absentees, who lived off the proceeds of the labor of the enslaved on plantations and in towns. The rest went to resident slave owners who were for the most part much less wealthy than the Britons. Historians of the nation, such as the great Whig, Thomas Babington Macaulay, have erased Britain’s history of involvement in the slavery business. They chose, as did politicians, to focus on abolition as symbolic of Britain’s love of liberty and to ignore direct British involvement in both the slave trade and the wider business of slavery. Issues of race, slavery, and empire have not been seen as integral to Britain’s history and continue to be marginalized. Compensation has provided a starting point for investigations of British slave owners: the wealth they transmitted to the United Kingdom, their investments in capitalist developments, their acquisition of cultural artifacts and refurbishment of country houses, their political interventions, and their ideas about racial difference. Research on slave-owning families over generations has enriched scholars’ understanding of the daily practices of racialization. All this gives access to forgotten histories.


  • History of the Caribbean
  • Slavery and Abolition

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