Think Piece

Legacies of British Slave Ownership: Thoughts on British Imperial History and Public Memory

by Emily Rutherford

Last week, I was meant to be teaching the women’s suffrage movement to my modern British history discussion section, but my students only wanted to talk about one thing: Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jamaica last week, but was dismissive of calls from prominent Jamaican politicians and public figures that Britain pay reparations to Jamaica and other West Indian nations whose people were the victims of Britain’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave trade. My students were interested in this, I suspect, because they are of a generation of American and international students who care deeply about imperial and postcolonial history, and see a greater understanding of empire (and its sins) as a key reason to study British history. If you count the US (as we should) as a former British colony, nearly everyone enrolled in the lecture course for which I TA has a heritage that is somehow implicated in the history of British empire.

Yet my students were also particularly keen to discuss the subject of slavery and Jamaica because a couple weeks ago, I enthused to them about the most successful piece of academic-history outreach to the public that I have ever seen: the Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project (LBSO), a collaborative research project based at University College London and headed by Catherine Hall, along with Nick Draper, Keith McClelland, and a number of other historians. These days in the UK, research council-funded collaborative research projects are the norm, but they don’t tend to take on the life that LBSO—which has spawned not only an academic volume but also a BBC documentary and countless community- and school-based workshops—has had. I’m writing this post in large part to bring some incredible work to the attention of those who, like my students, aren’t scholars in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history. But I also think the project offers a model for how we can all think about the public-outreach applications of our work, and about its messier political ramifications.

Screenshot of the LBSO website, October 5, 2015.
Screenshot of the LBSO website, October 5, 2015.

LBSO’s signal contribution is its database. In 1833, when Parliament abolished slavery in Britain, thousands of individual slave-owners filed claims of compensation for their lost “property,” and a total of £20 million was paid out to these individuals. In order to process these claims, meticulous records were kept, with individuals’ names, addresses, occupations, and so on—and a value was placed on the body of every freed man, woman, and child as part of the compensation process. Historians always knew that these records were in Britain’s National Archives, but only with present-day advances in technology and the financial and staff resources of a collaborative project has it been possible to turn the records into a publicly-searchable, online database that yields findings astonishing and undeniable in their clarity. Compensation claims reached right across the British Isles. There are claims from lavish country houses (and, of course, from the plantations of Jamaica and Barbados) but also from widows or clergymen in more modest circumstances. A map feature reveals the extent of the geographic range—and allows you to see records of compensation claims from your own town or neighborhood. During a presentation about the project to Columbia University’s British History Seminar last week, Catherine Hall mentioned an exhibition the project leaders had put on at UCL, about the compensation claims that emanated from the university’s own neighborhood: “The Slave Owners of Bloomsbury.” The compensation records also allow historians to trace a complicated flow of money: compensation money bought its recipients land, buildings, fine art.

Anyone can type their own surname into the database. I just did, and nine individuals came up, with claims ranging from twenty pounds for one enslaved person to many thousands of pounds for 892. Without more work, I couldn’t tell you if they were my ancestors—plenty of Rutherfords aren’t related to me—but seeing my name at all is still startling. The LBSO database has featured on the popular genealogy TV program Who Do You Think You Are?, with many celebrities confronting their own ancestors’ profit from the slave trade. And—here we come to the point—arguments for reparations for Jamaica have made appeals on these kinds of personal grounds. In the database is General Sir James Duff, a first cousin six times removed of David Cameron’s, and campaigners have laid stress on this fact: it means, they argue, that he is personally implicated in one of the British Empire’s ugliest legacies.

I’m not a fan of Cameron or his party myself, but I don’t think that’s fair—and it’s not the lesson that LBSO teaches. Cameron’s particular branch of his family acquired their wealth after abolition, but more to the point, I suspect that anyone with white European ancestry would be hard-pressed to find a first cousin six times removed who wasn’t implicated in racism and imperialism in some way. As Hall explained to the Columbia seminar last week, the LBSO project doesn’t seek to lay the blame for the slave trade, and how it has been forgotten as a part of British history, at any particular individual’s door. What it shows is precisely the opposite: that quite a lot of people of white British ancestry can find their surnames in the database, and anyone can find compensation records from their own town or city, if not their very street. LBSO uses an unusually clear, empirical record drawn from a public archive to show that slavery is part of Britain’s national story.

In the state schools in California and Massachusetts that I attended, I was taught American history three times: in fifth grade, eighth grade, and eleventh grade. Each time, we began at the “beginning,” with the first European settlements in the Americas, and saw how far we could get. In eighth grade we got bogged down in the Civil War, but in eleventh grade, with the AP US History exam to sit, we made it as far as Vietnam. US public history education tells a rose-tinted, whiggish, not always accurate story about the long history of race relations, but it tells a story. It can’t just pass over, for instance, the Civil War and Reconstruction; the three-fifths compromise and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. But in Britain, secondary history education is taught in thematic units without an overarching narrative or a sense of a national history: an approach with some benefits, to be sure, but it makes it easy to avoid the bad bits. Tie this to (as Hall pointed out in her presentation) a long history, dating back to 1833, of valorizing Britain’s role in abolition while forgetting its role in slavery, and you have all the elements you need for a widespread case of collective amnesia. Often, this amnesia is downright disturbing—as anyone who has watched the Last Night of the Proms, while having a sneaking suspicion that none of the spectators madly waving Union Jacks and singing “Rule Britannia” have any notion that Britain once forcibly ruled half the globe, will recognize.

LBSO is about undoing that amnesia: its historians are writing prominent individuals’ slave ownership back into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where it rarely appears; campaigning for more accurate accounts of the funds that purchased paintings in the National Gallery; working with local genealogists and historians to document the history of slavery in their own families and communities (you can read about some of these efforts on their great blog). In the process, they’ve been very careful not to tell a story that casts blame, but rather one that raises awareness. In its marshalling of facts and letting the facts speak for themselves, LBSO can’t easily be co-opted by one political perspective or another—except inasmuch as it very clearly shows anyone liable to pontificate about the golden thread of liberty running through British history from the time of Magna Carta that it was, after all, Britain who brought slavery to North America. It shows us, I think, that work which is really going to make a difference in how the national story is understood can do so as much through careful empiricism as through ideology. When I go to British history conferences, I hear countless orations about the left-wing political stakes of historians’ work. But that database—and seeing your own surname in it—speaks volumes that no speech ever can. No wonder my students are amazed by it, as am I: it’s history at its best, and it clearly demonstrates why public outreach, communication, and teaching have to be conceived of as a central part of historians’ job.

22 replies on “Legacies of British Slave Ownership: Thoughts on British Imperial History and Public Memory”

I didn’t even know Cameron visited Jamacia. I am mixed race and live in Liverpool in an ex Slave Owners house, how time chaned. My father was from nigeria which was colonialised by the British,,, Crazy world. Great article

This is my second attempt to post this as a fellow human, thus a fellow person of “mixed” heritage.
It can be disturbing to realize that our ancestors were involved in the enslavement of others, that other relatives may still be. It can be at least as diturbing to realize that some of our ancestors were enslaved, that some of our relatives may be even now.
This article gave me hope for humanity! We must, I believe, look at both the ugliness and beauty of being human, in our histories familial, National, personal…
It has helped me to call people who have been or are enslaved just that, refering to them as people first and foremost. I have learned to do the same with regard to people in prostitution, refusing to call them “prostitutes” or “slaves” as people are Not the roles ascribed to them by anyone person or groups of people; people CanNot be de-humanized! Though common language use would indicate otherwise. With the help of Ms. Hall and others of like minds, perhaps more Will come to see and work with new ways of seeing ourselves in each other.
No human was ever a true”owner” of another, for we are at our core essence, souls, and souls cannot be owned, certainly not by another. Were any of our ancestors owners of other people??? Put that way, It’s hard to say, “yes.” Call a person a “slave” and suddenly it seems more acceptable! Yikes! No there were ancestors of us all who grossly mistreated others, and who were grossly mistreated people. I am grateful to Ms. Hall for calling enslaved people just that, acknowledging their humanity, though I do prefer putting that first, People who were enslaved. People who enslaved. People in prostitution. People who enslave other people in prostitution…
Lots to think about. Your “unique” heritage is really only unique on the surface, as I’m viewing it rt now. We are all in this together, on “both sides,” and how we reconcile that will be central to how well we gift this world with our presence and presents from within, And, how well we ably receive the gifts waiting to be granted us as surely as we open ourselves up to the infinite possibilities for good, trust, love, mutually expressed and experienced. Thank you! May you choose to be blessed! Ro

Thank you. And, I’m grateful that you are able as willing to embrace love, feel it and hold it for, while sharing it with life and we who live. Life can be awesome! Personally, I am aiming toward reconnecting with Love and Life in new ways, to become better able at fully receiving love as ably as I’ve given it. This is quite a challenge for me, as I address deep seeded beliefs about my worth (or rather my lack of it) which simply aren’t true. Once again, I am inspired. Keep Feeling That Love! The thought helps me to smile. Warmest Regards, Ro

Hello Emily,
Thanks for posting this blog. I have long been interested in this topic. My interest may be because I live in Southern Ontario Canada close to the town of Dresden. This is the home of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Josiah Henson was the inspiration Harriett Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Here is a link to the site.'s_Cabin_Historic_Site It is also worth searching Mr. Henson and reading his book. My folks had these books in our home when I was a boy. It always amazes me how we can and do treat each other. It is necessary to educate the truth so we never repeat this history.

Thank you for the link. I am an American (white) homeschooling mom with 5th and 7th grade boys. We are studying American history this year through the lens of the African-American experience starting with slavery. Eventually we will study emancipation, the Jim Crow laws, and the civil rights movement leading us all the way up to today’s headlines. At the moment we are half-way through Uncle Tom’s CabinWe have already read The Narrative of Fredrick Douglass and a biography of Harriet Tubman.

Hi. Thank you for your comment. It sounds that you may truly have an interest in African American History. There are many excellent African American Authors gen kept out of mainstream literature. I hope you will look some up, to be delighted by the breadth of content and social commentary to be gleaned from more works than I can begin to list here. You will surely come away enlightened and amazed if you look into this enough! 🙂 Best Wishes! Ro

I hope Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, as the oldest slave trades in the world, do not exclude themselves from this redemptive opportunity.

This, of course, starts with confession and ends with reparations.

I’m glad to hear that your students have an avid interest in the post-colonial era. I lived in many of the newly independent, post-colonial parts of Africa and Asia when I was young, and it was a truly energetic time to be in those environs.

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