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Tracing the golden thread of slavery wealth in Britain


HISTORIANS are supposed to be objective, standing back and analysing events, no matter how shocking or upsetting, from a dispassionate distance. It’s a myth, of course.

Everyone has their own personal slant on things. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be many new history books being written or documentaries being made, and the world would never have heard of David Irving. Although that would be an unquestionably good thing.

It was refreshing nonetheless to see historian David Olusoga lose, if not quite his cool, then certainly a little of his analytical composure during the first part of BBC2’s excellent Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. It gave a human touch to a programme that could, in lesser hands, have turned rather dry.

Olusoga, who’s Anglo-Nigerian, was in Jamaica, viewing the barbaric instruments plantation owners and their brutal overseers used to restrain, punish and torture transgressive slaves.

There was a small branding iron to burn a symbol into the cheeks of any slave caught trying to escape... not that there was much chance of escaping while wearing chains and leg shackles, one of which had a sharp spike sticking from its side. Run wearing that and you wouldn’t make 10 yards before tearing your other leg to pieces.

The nastiest item of all, and the one that got to Olusoga the most, was a tongue restraint — a metal ring with a painful-looking inner plate that fit into the wearer’s mouth (pictured inset). The fact that the ring could be adjusted to fit different-sized heads suggested it was used on children as well as adults.

“You’re supposed to be detached as a historian,” said Olusoga, taking a little time-out, “but I can’t be.”.

While the programme never lost sight of the horrifying brutality and suffering, it was mainly concerned with what happened after slavery was abolished in Britain in 1834, an act that did more good for the slave owners than it did for the slaves.

The only way the government could put an end to the practice of slavery on the vast sugar-cane plantations in Barbados, Jamaica and other corners of the British Empire was to compensate the owners.

In total, the Slave Compensation Commission (an ironic title, since emancipated slaves didn’t a receive a penny) paid the slave owners the modern equivalent of £17 billion. It’s a mind-boggling sum, but then there was a mind-boggling number of slave owners in Britain.

Forty-thousand slave owners controlling 800,000 slaves throughout the empire came forward to avail of compensation payments. Not all of them were big-time players. Trawling through the British National Archives at Kew, Olusoga reeled off the names of vicars, widows, spinsters, bachelors, and middle- and lower-middle class families that owned slaves.

A widow with one slave was paid the equivalent of £250,000. Two brothers who owned a modest number of slaves pocketed £80 million.

The golden thread of wealth that sustained the descendants of slave owners through subsequent generations runs right up to the present day. In next week’s concluding episode, Olusoga explores how London’s financial sector is built on the profits of slavery.

Incidentally, there were plenty of slave owners in Ireland too. Perhaps one of our own historians could make a documentary about them, if RTE ever gets over its obsession with making films about deceased politicians, businessmen and GAA coaches, which is all it seems to be giving us this year.