[Blackstudies-l] The History of British Slave Ownership Has Been Buried: Now its Scale Can Be Revealed

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Mon Jul 13 10:15:23 EDT 2015

from Prof. Crosby:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Emilye Crosby <emilye.crosby at gmail.com>
Date: Mon, Jul 13, 2015 at 7:32 AM
Subject: Fwd: The History of British Slave Ownership Has Been Buried: Now
its Scale Can Be Revealed
To: Maria Lima <lima at geneseo.edu>

*From:* Portside moderator <moderator at PORTSIDE.ORG>
*Date:* July 13, 2015, 12:53:23 AM EDT
*Subject:* *The History of British Slave Ownership Has Been Buried: Now its
Scale Can Be Revealed*
*Reply-To:* Portside moderator <moderator at PORTSIDE.ORG>

 The History of British Slave Ownership Has Been Buried: Now its Scale Can
Be Revealed

 David Olusoga
July 11, 2015
The Guardian

*A new BBC documentary tells how a trove of documents lays bare the names
of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners, including relatives of Gladstone and

A print shows African captives being taken on board a slave ship., Print

The past has a disconcerting habit of bursting, uninvited and unwelcome,
into the present. This year history gate-crashed modern America in the form
of a 150-year-old document: a few sheets of paper that compelled Hollywood
actor Ben Affleck to issue a public apology
and forced the highly regarded US public service broadcaster PBS to launch
an internal investigation.

The document, which emerged during the production of *Finding Your Roots*
<http://www.pbs.org/wnet/finding-your-roots/>, a celebrity genealogy show,
is neither unique nor unusual. It is one of thousands that record the
primal wound of the American republic – slavery. It lists the names of 24
slaves, men and women, who in 1858 were owned by Benjamin L Cole, Affleck’s
great-great-great-grandfather. When this uncomfortable fact came to light,
Affleck asked the show’s producers to conceal his family’s links to
slavery. Internal emails discussing the programme were later published by
WikiLeaks, forcing Affleck to admit in a Facebook post: “I didn’t want any
television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was

It was precisely because slaves were reduced to property that they appear
so regularly in historic documents, both in the US and in Britain. As
property, slaves were listed in plantation accounts and itemised in
inventories. They were recorded for tax reasons and detailed alongside
other transferable goods on the pages of thousands of wills. Few historical
documents cut to the reality of slavery more than lists of names written
alongside monetary values. It is now almost two decades since I had my
first encounter with British plantation records, and I still feel a surge
of emotion when I come across entries for slave children who, at only a few
months old, have been ascribed a value in sterling; the sale of children
and the separation of families was among the most bitterly resented aspects
of an inhuman system.

Slavery <http://www.theguardian.com/world/slavery> resurfaces in America
regularly. The disadvantage and discrimination that disfigures the lives
and limits the life chances of so many African-Americans is the bitter
legacy of the slave system and the racism that underwrote and outlasted it.
Britain, by contrast, has been far more successful at covering up its
slave-owning and slave-trading past. Whereas the cotton plantations of the
American south were established on the soil of the continental United
States, British slavery took place 3,000 miles away in the Caribbean.

That geographic distance made it possible for slavery to be largely
airbrushed out of British history, following the Slavery Abolition Act in
1833. Many of us today have a more vivid image of American slavery than we
have of life as it was for British-owned slaves on the plantations of the
Caribbean. The word slavery is more likely to conjure up images of Alabama
cotton fields and whitewashed plantation houses, of *Roots*, *Gone With The
Wind *and *12 Years A Slave,* than images of Jamaica or Barbados in the
18th century. This is not an accident.

The history of British slavery has been buried. The thousands of British
families who grew rich on the slave trade, or from the sale of
slave-produced sugar, in the 17th and 18th centuries, brushed those
uncomfortable chapters of their dynastic stories under the carpet. Today,
across the country, heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses describe former
slave traders as “West India merchants”, while slave owners are hidden
behind the equally euphemistic term “West India planter”. Thousands of
biographies written in celebration of notable 17th and 18th-century Britons
have reduced their ownership of human beings to the footnotes, or else
expunged such unpleasant details altogether. The *Dictionary of National
Biography* has been especially culpable in this respect. Few acts of
collective forgetting have been as thorough and as successful as the
erasing of slavery from the Britain’s “island story”. If it was geography
that made this great forgetting possible, what completed the disappearing
act was our collective fixation with the one redemptive chapter in the
whole story. William Wilberforce and the abolitionist crusade, first
against the slave trade and then slavery itself, has become a figleaf
behind which the larger, longer and darker history of slavery has been

[image: Plan of a slave ship showinmg how slaves were stowed, manacled,
into the hold.]
of a slave ship showinmg how slaves were stowed, manacled, into the hold.
Photograph: Christopher Jones/Bristol Museum

It is still the case that Wilberforce remains the only household name of a
history that begins during the reign of Elizabeth I and ends in the 1830s.
There is no slave trader or slave owner, and certainly no enslaved person,
who can compete with Wilberforce when it comes to name recognition. Little
surprise then that when, in 2007, we marked the bicentenary of the
abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, the only feature film to emerge
from the commemoration was *Amazing Grace*, a Wilberforce biopic.

George Orwell once likened Britain to a wealthy family that maintains a
guilty silence about the sources of its wealth. Orwell, whose real name was
Eric Blair, had seen that conspiracy of silence at close quarters. His
father, Richard W Blair, was a civil servant who oversaw the production of
on plantations near the Indian-Nepalese border and supervised the export of
that lethal crop to China. The department for which the elder Blair worked
was called, unashamedly, the opium department. However, the Blair family
fortune – which had been largely squandered by the time Eric was born –
stemmed from their investments in plantations far from India.

The Blair name is one of thousands that appear in a collection of documents
held at the National Archives
in Kew that have the potential to do to Britain what the hackers of
WikiLeaks and the researchers of PBS did to Affleck. The T71 files consist
of 1,631 volumes of leather-bound ledgers and neatly tied bundles of
letters that have lain in the archives for 180 years, for the most part
unexamined. They are the records and the correspondence of the Slave
Compensation Commission.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans who were
then the legal property of Britain’s slave owners. What is less well known
is that the same act contained a provision for the financial compensation
of the owners of those slaves, by the British taxpayer, for the loss of
their “property”. The compensation commission was the government
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