Historians from University College London have produced the first freely accessible database that showed who owned slaves in the British Empire. The resource will help people explore their family, local and regional histories, and also help increase understanding about a national past which is often obscured.
Using the records of the £20 million paid in compensation to slave-owners in the 1830s for the loss of their ‘property’ as a starting-point, the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has documented around 46,000 individual claims and awards made to those who either owned slaves or benefitted indirectly from ownership.
“Our overall finding is that British colonial slave-ownership was of far greater significance in Britain than has previously been recognised,” said project leader Professor Catherine Hall. “What we have done is to establish the life-trajectories of some 3,000 absentee slave-owners in Britain, and analysis of this has allowed us to trace the legacies of slave-ownership in Victorian Britain.”
During the three year project, the team, which also included Dr Nick Draper, Keith McClelland and Rachel Lang, has made a detailed investigation of the around 3,000 Britons, both men and women, who received compensation.
“The focus has been on tracing the legacies of these beneficiaries and their descendants through six strands. These are political, commercial, cultural, imperial, historical and physical legacies,” said Keith McClelland.
As well as making the data publicly accessible in a web-based Encyclopaedia of British Slave-Owners, the team also plan to use the data as the basis for a new project, which will develop ownership histories from 1763 to 1833 for the 4,000 estates identified in the compensation records.
“By looking systematically at estate ownership in the British Caribbean during the last 70 years of slavery we will be able to assess slave-ownership’s national significance at the height of the slave system. At the same time we plan to integrate the histories of the enslaved men and women into the histories of the estates on which they lived and worked,” said Dr Nick Draper.
These two projects together promise to transform our understanding of Britain’s relationship with slavery.