A few years back I got into hot water for saying that the defeated Irish (and English) transported to Barbados after the Cromwellian wars were slaves. The vehement online response was that they were indentured labourers. Involuntary indentured labourers. With no fixed term to the indenture. At my nit-picking best, I said that forced labour without time limit sounded very like slavery to me.
How wrong I was.
In my utter up-from-the-country innocence I had wandered onto a battlefield in the ongoing Culture Wars. The kind of people who like to get together after dark carrying flaming firebrands have made it one of their central (idiot) beliefs that slavery was colour-blind: us whites have got over it and so should you African-Americans. Saying there were seventeenth-century Irish “slaves” in Barbados was the equivalent of putting on a white hood and lighting a nice big torch.
What brought this back to mind was discovering University College London’s extraordinary ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ website. When Britain abolished slavery in 1834, it did so by buying out every single slave in the Empire, paying the mind-boggling sum of £20,000,000 to the former slave-owners. The process naturally involved recording in detail every single one of the 46,000 compensation payments. All the records, including payees, amounts and locations, are in The National Archives in Kew.
What UCL has done with those 46,000 payments is remarkable. They have extracted and mapped the personal information – names, addresses, occupations, numbers of enslaved people – onto zoomable maps of Britain and Ireland. At a glance it becomes clear where slavery-derived wealth collected, who owned it, how much they were compensated. (Ireland appears to have had relatively few slave-owners).
This much is very interesting in its own right – the sheer social and geographic breadth of British slave-ownership is astonishing. But the project goes much further. It links the owners to the specific plantations in Barbados, Grenada and Jamaica from which they drew their profits and maps the plantations too. It looks at what the payees did with their slave-compensation money, the industries it supported, the political careers it enabled, the cultural institutions it helped to found, the great houses it built. Later generations of slave-owning families are tracked through their careers in politics, imperial administration, the arts and education, with prominent individuals highlighted throughout – William Gladstone, the Prime Minister of Britain through much of the Victorian era, was the son of the recipient of the single largest compensation payment. John Gladstone owned no fewer than 2508 enslaved people in British Guyana and Jamaica in 1834.
What the project does is something very familiar to genealogists, the bringing of forgotten truth back out into the light, piece by painstaking piece. The forgotten truth here is that much of the apparent majesty of Britain’s industry and culture was founded on slave money, a fact quickly and conveniently buried by subsequent Imperial historians.
The site also makes clear what enslaved Afro-Caribbean people got in compensation for their generations of degradation. Nothing.