- Emancipation, Slave-Ownership and the Remaking of the British Imperial World
This conference came out of the ESRC-funded Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Project (LBS) at University College London. Since April 2009 the LBS group has been investigating the legacies of British slavery, and in particular, the afterlife of the £20 million paid to slave-owners in compensation for the loss of their ‘property’ on the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Nick Draper has been exploring the financial and economic legacies of the £20 million, including its reinvestment in the railways and the financial City of London. Catherine Hall has been tracing the cultural memory of slave-ownership and the rewriting of histories of Britain’s involvement in slavery over the course of the nineteenth century, particularly in the writings of the descendants of slave-owners. Keith McClelland has been tracing the political legacies of the slave-owners, including the enduring power of those who had received compensation money in the British Parliament, their representation of themselves as victims of abolition, the rewriting of their history to align themselves with anti-slavery and their search for new forms of labour and work discipline. With Rachel Lang and Ben Mechan the group have also constructed an online public database of slave-owners at the point of abolition; held six public-engagement workshops across Britain to bring together academic, community and family historians of slavery; and curated an exhibition on the ‘Slave-owners of Bloomsbury’. Katie Donnington’s forthcoming PhD on the Hibbert Family is also a valuable part of this project as is the Encyclopaedia of British Slave-ownership, based on the group’s findings, which will be published shortly. The conference was thoughtfully constructed to share, discuss and extend some of the core questions raised by the LBS research group – What was the character of the British imperial state? What happened to the planters and slave economy after slavery had been abolished? What free forms of labour were established? And how can historians connect with the public, museums and artists to explore these issues?
The two-day conference took as its focus the impact of transatlantic slavery on the formation of modern Britain. As Catherine Hall said in her introduction, the 1830s–70s period is both one that was decisive to the emergence of a recognizably modern Britain and one where Empire was crucial. Each of the varied contributors spoke in different ways to the underlying significance of slavery in modern Britain. Robin Blackburn’s opening public lecture on ‘Slavery and Finance’, on the eve of the conference proper, provided an excellent start, as he outlined the complex links between slavery and the development of capital in modern Britain.
Over the following two days we heard a wide variety of papers grouped around The Imperial State; Formations of Capital; From Slavery to Apprenticeship and Public and [End Page 307] Family Histories. To give a few examples, Zoe Laidlaw explored the relative historical memory attached to enslavement and indigenous dispossession across the empire, asking why the connections between the two are so seldom explored. Pat Hudson demonstrated that the services that grew with the development of the slave-trade (such as the insurance industry and credit bills) have been long lasting. Her findings, and those of several other papers, extend Eric Williams’s thesis connecting slavery with capitalism by linking slavery with wider economic growth. To do so, Hudson argued, we need to rethink what we mean by capitalism, to emphasize its hybridity and complexity. Examining the connections between Wales and enslavement, Chris Evans stressed the importance of a regional perspective in thinking about Britain’s link to the slave trade. Statistically, Wales has strikingly few slave-owners, is very under-represented in the compensation records, and, despite its long coastline, did not have ports such as Bristol or Liverpool that were important centres for the slave business. This did not mean, however, that the Welsh economy did not also benefit from the slave trade. By the end of the eighteenth century a...