The price of emancipation

“Am I not a man and a brother?” The official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795)

Emily Miller, Education Officer at the Migration Museum Project

Recent films and the media storm around them prove that the horrors of slavery continue to loom in our collective consciousness. A chapter in our history, at least in its transatlantic form, we are glad to have closed. Or have we? What if we discovered that much of British life as we know it is built on capital given as compensation, not to the enslaved, but to those who owned them? A University College London project ‘The Legacies of British Slave Ownership’ headed by professor Catherine Hall, publicly funded by the research councils, seeks to uncover this lesser known set of stories for the public. A project that, she says, goes against the grain of our preoccupation with slavery’s ending: ‘There is deep amnesia: we only want to think about abolition’ – we long for a story where we were the ‘good guys’, or ‘Wilberfest’ as the anniversary of abolition has been coined.

‘It knocks people out; the scale of the compensation,’ reflects Catherine Hall, professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History at UCL, as we chat about her recent work leading this huge and systematic project that aims to reveal the legacy of slavery and slave-ownership on all aspects of British life at the time of abolition.

This far-reaching project is the most recent manifestation of her wider work of the last two decades that seeks to re-think the history of Britain through the prism of Empire – how Britain shaped its empire and was in turn shaped by it.

Original claim form for James Blair, awarded £83,530 in compensation for ownership of 1,508 people in British Guiana in August 1834. National Archives at Kew.

Original claim form for James Blair, awarded £83,530 in compensation for ownership of 1,508 people in British Guiana in August 1834. National Archives at Kew. (click to see the full size image)

When slavery was abolished, the British government paid out £20 million compensation to plantation and slave owners who, it was considered, would be adversely affected by the cessation of slave labour. That sum, Catherine points out to me is equivalent to the recent government bail-out of the banks: approximately 40% of state expenditure that year.

Applications for compensation came in from both British, American and Caribbean-based claimants, detailing their personal circumstances. Detailed records had to be kept, making it an incredible archive according to Catherine. I ask whether there have ever been barriers to access, recalling comments from another academic who has found it hard to access documents about the darker periods of colonial rule. No, Catherine explains, the state did not mind keeping records of these kinds of financial claims. No, the challenge has been the sheer task of painstakingly digitising approximately 47,000 claims.

There is open access to the project for the public who can search the claims by inputting data about a claimant’s name, occupation and address. See the project website:


Portland Place, London, 1812. This street was a favourite abode for well-to-do slave-owners, including George Hay Dawkins Pennant (see below).

George Hay Dawkins Pennant (1764-1840) of Penrhyn Castle in North Wales and Portland Place in London, an absentee slave-owner who was awarded over £15,000 compensation for the freedom of 764 enslaved people in 1835.

Portland Place 2012 (from Google streetview). The buildings remain the same but are largely offices and embassies now

















Portrait of George Hibbert (1757-1837) who lived on Clapham Common in close proximity to William Wilberforce and other prominent abolitionists. Hibbert was a merchant, slave and plantation owner. This portrait now features in the London, Sugar, Slavery exhibition at the Museum of London in Docklands. George Hibbert by Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1811. © Museum of London (click to see full size image)

Catherine’s main interest has been to uncover the scale of the compensation and to chart the impact of the compensation money on our social, political and cultural lives – the architectural impact, for example, to be seen in Gower Street just round the corner from where we meet. But the human impact is fascinating, too: Catherine tells me about a well known family of prominent slave owners and merchants based in Clapham, who mixed freely with the abolitionists at that time, even attending the same churches. There might have been rumblings in the House of Commons, but it did not seem to upset day-to-day lives.

Something that struck me was that over 40% of the claimants based in the Caribbean were women – owners of small plantations and ‘illegitimate’ daughters of slave owners. Similarly, in Britain there were many women claimants, primarily widows and single women whose financial stability depended on slave shares. I felt a twinge of disappointment with the sisterhood when this was revealed.

The project enjoyed a boost of public engagement after a slot on the Today programme, reaching 100,000 hits on the archive searching site. Most of these camefrom IP addresses in Britain and the Caribbean, fuelled by the current growth in family history research. Public engagement has similarly been increased by media coverage and partnerships with museums such as Hackney Museum and performances with theatres.

Curious, I asked if the project has sought to ‘out’ people whose families have been tied up with slave-ownership (prominent politicians, perhaps, coming to mind). Catherine said they had purposefully avoided this. The archive is there for people to use of their own accord.

Critical engagement with the project has come from a range of quarters: banks and insurance companies with slavery heritage, but also from those active in the movement for reparations, working for those with enslaved ancestors who would be able to claim compensation from the state. Catherine explains that the job of their project is to provide knowledge about the legacies of slave ownership as one aspect of this debate, for public use.

Portrait of Jane Bayne (1790-1865). Artist unknown. Jane was born in Jamaica and inherited ownership of 10 enslaved people there. She emigrated to Scotland in her late teens and married a doctor, living near Inverness until her death in 1865 aged 75. She was awarded £84 compensation for the ownership of 10 enslaved people in 1834. (click to see larger image)

Overall the project has proven that compensation capital affected many parts of Britain and has illustrated ‘how entangled our histories are’. There was a constant movement of people between Britain and the then West Indies, further refuting the mono-cultural myth of Britain: ‘the history of migration is not a separate history’ Catherine confirms as we conclude our conversation.

Two views of the Custom House, City of London; above is the Custom House which burnt down in 1814 and beneath is the building in Mincing Lane which was used in its place. Anonymous artist, c. 1814. London was the finance capital of the system of slavery and the centre of the sugar trade.

Making Histories

Emily Miller, Education Officer at the Migration Museum Project

‘To start, I am going to tell you a load of lies,’
states dynamic, young Channel 4 presenter Nel Hedayat to the 70 young historians gathered in the House of Commons to share the results of their involvement in the Runnymede Trust’s ‘Making Histories’ project, with the University of Manchester and the University of Cambridge. ‘History is linear, history is one truth, history is the same for us all,’ she lies to them. Their research for this project explores how and what a younger generation can learn from the mistakes of former generations in relation to racial tensions.

man uni Runnymede logo cambridge logo new


The race equality thinktank Runnymede has been working with history teachers and key stage 3 students in three secondary schools in London and Manchester on this Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project aiming to explore diverse local histories and start the controversial revised history curriculum with a bang. This builds on their original project with three other schools, in which pupils became family historians sharing their stories online. See the website here

For this project the schools are Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich, Langdon Park School in Tower Hamlets and Manchester Academy in Moss Side.

Thomas TallisM academy logoLangdon park school logo

‘This project has been better than our normal history lessons,’ explains one honest pupil from Greenwich, ‘better than writing long essays; we’ve had the chance to learn about history right on our doorstep.’ 

Tower Hamlets pupils joined forces with local historians and archivists to peel back the layers of rich history of the East India Docks and delve into the battle of Cable Street, in which local residents famously repelled a scheduled march of Oswald Mosley and his fascist Blackshirts in 1936.

Cable street


The Greenwich pupils focussed on their family trees and the diverse history of Charlton Athletic. The Manchester pupils researched and presented on the Moss Side riots of 1981 in which racial tensions boiled up and led to three days of clashes between residents and the police. They interviewed one of their teachers who was training at the school at the time of the riots. Pupils discovered his insights about the changing ethnic make-up of the school and area, which, without this project, I’m confident to say they would never have heard first hand.


Charltonmoss side riots


The schools presented their research in Parliament in the form of personal reflections and short videos which effectively blended facts, news footage, images and music in a way that only technically skilled pupils know how! Langdon Park’s presentation of the battle of Cable Street particularly stayed with me as they also wove in photos of the 75th anniversary rally with locals proudly holding banners emblazoned with ‘THEY DID NOT PASS’ going someway to prove that history still holds relevance today. A subject which, as it turned out, was soon to be debated…


they did not pass


Runnymede trustee and true orator Hepburn Harrison-Graham chaired the lively debate. To warm everyone up he provocatively asked: ‘If you could be a famous person from history who would you be?’ and deftly fielded pupils’ justifications for a wide range of choices from Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Helen of Troy to Churchill.



Hepburn then mediated the main debate, which pitched pupils who believed that history was important to them against those whom the project had not quite managed to win over remaining convinced that history was irrelevant. Some pupils slipped into the role of teacher and tried to convince the nay-sayers that history shapes our futures and helps us learn from our mistakes. The final comment from an eloquent pupil from Thomas Tallis summed up the aims of the project: ‘I’ve learnt you can research more into your family and local history online – you don’t have to be in school’. Score for the Runnymede Trust!



Overall, the event, attended by MPs, demonstrated that in the revised curriculum there remain opportunities to explore the diverse history of a Britain shaped by migration, and that there is a thirst for this among teachers and pupils. And that must be a good thing, mustn’t it? Surely the more we, as a people, know about past tensions and mistakes, the less likely we are to repeat them? That’s our hope at the Migration Museum Project, anyway! Thanks to the Runnymede Trust team for their contribution to this ongoing debate.