At the end of February, University College London made available an important online database: Legacies of British Slave Ownership. The records of 46,000 compensation claims made by British slave owners, following abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833, have been meticulously recorded, summarised and indexed. Here, for the first time, the true extent of the involvement of pre-Victorian Britain in slavery has been laid bare – and it makes uncomfortable reading. No longer can we think in terms of slavery being the responsibility of relatively few heartless, even “evil”, rich traders. Here is the indisputable evidence of how deeply all levels of society were implicated, with “ordinary” people, who had never set foot in the colonies, claiming compensation alongside the planters and owners. It also serves as a reminder of the iniquity, even post-abolition, of a system that allowed slave owners to have not only the free labour of their “freed” slaves through the “apprenticeship” system, but also the equivalent of millions of pounds in compensation for their loss of “property”, while the enslaved themselves received nothing.
Such revelations will always, quite rightly, lead to a renewed examination of the place and role of slavery in building Britain. I was less prepared for the way this was personalised in the media. Newspapers started to “name and shame” those with ancestors mentioned in the records, both living and dead. You will rarely find me defending British Prime Minister, David Cameron, but to accuse him of benefiting from slavery because of compensation paid to a 6x removed cousin 180 years ago, seems extreme. Did his family actually inherit any of this money – or was this just a cheap attempt to score political points from even the most tenuous connections?
Even genealogists were not immune. In spite of the unquestionable value of these records to family historians, some still felt the need to distance themselves. For instance, the well known Lost Cousins website headlined its report of the database: “You DON’T want to find your ancestors here….”.
Oh that we could be so selective about our ancestry. My problem is that I did find my ancestors here.
It was not entirely unexpected. I knew that my 4x great-grandfather, Dr David Shaw, had owned a small plantation in Jamaica. Strange how even as I write it, I feel the need to qualify it. It was just a small one, as if misery multiplied in 10s rather than 100s or 1000s of lives enslaved is somehow less shameful. I have researched his story and that of his family in depth – part of the process of coming to terms with a heritage such as this (that story will be told here in due course). It has been an uncomfortable and, at times, difficult exploration. But I cannot pretend that it has not also been compelling.
For it has revealed contradictions. How can I reconcile the heroic Jacobite family, who fought at Culloden in an attempt to free oppressed Scottish Highlanders, making their fortune on the oppressed backs of another people? What warped logic did my mixed-race 4x great grandmother adopt to make it acceptable for her to enslave people like herself? What went through the mind of her clergyman son, married into a prominent Quaker family, as he took his cut of the profits of misery? How did his Quaker wife respond? Did anyone in the family raise objections?
The UCL database has filled in a few more details of this complex family, allowing me to add to the emerging picture of tensions, conflicts and sibling rivalry that I have been gradually constructing. They suggest answers to some questions and raise several more, which I hope a trip to the Archives to see the records in full may start to answer. I cannot say that I like the picture that is emerging, but I need to complete it as far as I am able. Pretending that it did not happen will not make it so.
My pre-Victorian ancestors indisputably profited from slavery. They shared (between 5 siblings) compensation of £895 16s 11d, which, even taking the most modest interpretation of relative worth, equates to some £65,000 today. So did their descendants also benefit? That is an interesting question and one that I am tracking through the wills and family circumstances of subsequent generations. But initial investigations suggest perhaps not. Within a decade one (my direct ancestor) was bankrupt and another was dead of the “disease of poverty” Tuberculosis, together with his wife and son. There is little evidence that much, if anything, passed to the next generation. So what happened to their “profits of misery”? Bad business investments, alcoholism and gambling have all been mooted in family lore but the truth is that as yet we don’t know. That it does not appear to have remained in the family beyond the mid-19th century is a source of relief to me, yet I recognise it is not so simple. The money itself may be long gone, but the legacy given to my family in terms of social position, education, professional standing is not so easily wiped out and makes the whole issue so much more complex for later generations.
I cannot undo the past or change my ancestry. And I am not responsible for the actions of my forbears. But, in finding out all I can about their lives and, where possible, those they enslaved, I can at least do my part to expose and better understand this shameful part of our history.