It wasn’t until 2015 that descendants of former and long-dead British slave owners received final payments in compensation for their ancestral financial “losses” in 1837. That was the year the United Kingdom signed into being the Slave Compensation Act and established the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave Owners.
And, yes, it did take quite a while.
The British had been in the slave trade for centuries before “ownership” of one human being by another became recognized symbols of wealth and arrogance. And, when they formed a colony in far off America, they encouraged the early settlers to look across the ocean to Africa for a labour force easily, if brutally, recruited, and shipped in shackles to cheaply fulfill the needs of ever-larger plantations growing cotton and tobacco.
It is estimated that, from start to finish, close to 13 million slaves were captured for shipment to the American and Caribbean colonies. That is before, during, and after the great rebellion which saw the American colonists rebel at tax increases and sever family relations with the Brits.
In the process, the English – slave traders since time began, moved into a period of enlightenment which led to the abolition of one man or one family owning another. Amazingly, in freeing all slaves owned by the English, like plantation owners, the government piously agreed to a compensation package to make sure no one who owned slaves suffered a financial loss.
Under the law signed Dec. 23, 1837, English slave owners would be compensated for their losses. And the now freed slaves? Ah, yes, well, it seems that they were expected to be so pleased with freedom they wouldn’t expect more.
Readers with a thirst for detailed money trails can find guidance from Wikipedia and a conclusion I accept without serious challenge: “This 1837 (Slavery Abolition) Act paid substantial money to the former slave owners, but nothing to the newly liberated people.”
It is difficult to believe in 2020 that the freed slaves under English law in 1837 would regard that “gift” of freedom and equality as more welcome than cash. It pains us when we hear the cry “Black Lives Matter” – a continuing cry for justice – still echoing on the streets of our neighbours.
The National Archives of the UK tell many a horror story of slavery before the Brits decided it was time to change their old ways and attitudes. On the small Leeward Islands on the old British Colony at Dominica the court records are brief, concise:
“1814, January 15. Pierre. Attempting to return to runaways with provisions and having (himself) been a runaway (for) two months. To be hanged. Head cut off and put on a pole.”
“1814: January 15-16: Peter. Exciting a mutiny among 20 negroes of the estate and harvesting them with provisions while runaways. To be hanged. Head cut off and put on a pole.
“Rachel: 30 lashes. To be worked in chains 3 months. Received 30 lashes and released to owner.” Stealing food was a cardinal sin
There were 3,000 British slave owners; most were on the seemingly endless list of brutal actions against men and women seeking only the basic qualities of freedom.
One of the thousands was widow Hannah Barnes of Barton Cottage Dawlish, Devon, England who had an annuity of 400 pounds from her late husband’s a Cumberland Estate in Jamaica. She had inherited ownership of nine slaves in Kingston, the capital of the island. She needed more to maintain her life style.
It was in 1835 that she appealed to the Commissioners of Slave Compensation: “I, my daughter and her children, are entirely dependent for support on what we receive from my late husband’s estate; that in consequence of the non-receipt of our remittance for many months past I am much in want of money.”
It has been estimated by the men and women who track such events that at least 3,000 British slave owners have received 20 million pounds ($1.8 billion in today’s currency) since 1833. And if you ever paid any taxes in the UK before 2015, the old slavers thank you.
On April 16, 1862, some 30 years after British reformers abolished slavery, with a hefty compensation program, USA President Abraham Lincoln followed. It had taken a bloody civil war between brothers to amend the United States much revered Constitution to read “all men are create equal” but Lincoln did it
Like the English they offered compensation to their 900 USA registered slave owners of $300 a slave. They accepted the money, but as a nation had difficulty in accepting the fact that reciting “all men are created equal” doesn’t make it so.
And still do.