Home truths about the business of slavery

Idealised view of slavery: Agualta Vale by James Hakewill taken from A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica from Drawings made in the years 1820 and 1821 (London: Hurst and Robinson, 1825). Image © Boston Public Library

An idealised view of slavery: Agualta Vale by James Hakewill taken from A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica from Drawings made in the years 1820 and 1821 (London: Hurst and Robinson, 1825). Image © Boston Public Library

More than a hundred years after the last slave ship left British shores a primary school in north London was named after one of the biggest slave owners of the British Empire. He was William Beckford, an MP and two times mayor of London whose local roots lay in a substantial residence nearby.

Beckford owed his vast wealth and political influence to  the blood and sweat and tears of more than 3,000 slaves who laboured on his extensive sugar plantations in Jamaica. But like fellow planter George Hibbert, who has alms houses in south London bearing his name and owned a valuable book collection, he cultivated a reputation as a refined English gentleman, lauded for championing British liberties and promoting the arts and all manner of good causes.

It is this contradiction that is examined in the ‘British Business of Slavery’, a series of forthcoming lectures looking at the impact of slave ownership on modern Britain.

“The Hibberts and Beckfords are often praised for their philanthropy and being connoisseurs of the arts yet they were pro-slavers,” says Dr Kate Donington, one of the speakers.

“They supported British rights but decided that one group could be enslaved – how could we have had this whole ideology whereby someone could be declared a  lesser being?”

Donington,  a member of the groundbreaking UCL-based project that has set up a database of 46,000 British slave owners, will concentrate on Hibbert,  a Whig MP who owned large slave estates in Jamaica and helped establish the West India Docks in London. As the abolition movement gathered pace – in 1807 the trade in slaves was outlawed in the British Empire –  he became a leading voice in the campaign for slave owners to be compensated for “loss of property” and had a huge impact on pro-slavery rhetoric.

Chattel slavery was finally abolished in 1833, but at a price. Slave owners received compensation to the tune of £17bn in today’s money, representing 40 per cent of government expenditure. Before the bank bailout of 2009, this was the largest payout in British history and helped to further cement the fortunes and reputations of those engaged in a repugnant system as they set about bankrolling key infrastructure like the railways and building stately homes and public institutions.

The slaves themselves received nothing. “Although slavery was ended in 1833 it didn’t create an equal society,”  Donington  points out. “In  fact deeply unequal societies went on to emerge under imperialism and colonialism, and the legacy of racial thinking that was developed as a defensive position to the abolitionists continues to this day.”

The eight lectures, which begin next week with an examination of the Royal African Society’s role in developing the slave trade in the 17th century,  have been curated by historian and actress Deborah Lavin on behalf of  Conway Hall and the Socialist History Society.

Beckford was honoured with a statue in London's Guildhall

Beckford’s statue in London’s Guildhall

Years ago her daughter attended Beckford Primary School in West Hampstead, which began life as plain Broomsleigh Street School when it opened in 1886 but was renamed in 1927.  “It is absolutely extraordinary that they decided to name the school after Beckford,” she says. “They probably did so because of his wealth and philanthropy, totally forgetting the fact that he owned slaves. This amnesia about slave ownership still goes on today.”

Lavin believes slavery is the “greatest historical crime ever”. As a supporter of  Trinidad academic Eric Williams’ view that  slave labour financed Britain’s industrial revolution by supplying  early entrepreneurs  with credit, raw materials and global markets, she deplores how its ill gotten gains have been whitewashed by history and hopes the talks will  go some way to changing this.

They include James Galvin’s exploration of  the way the trade shaped western culture, and a discussion by Satvinder Juss about the law’s  ambiguoty over  slavery in the 18th century. While Hibbert and Beckford come under the spotlight, so, too, do their moral opposites,  Colonel Despard and Roger Casement, two radicals who challenged slavery in Belize and Peru respectively.

“We have to explore the past to explain the present,” declares Lavin.  “Wealth is made by exploiting people but we are encouraged to adore it and it is the glamour of wealth that disguises its origins. That is how the slave owners got away with it and that is why we must ask ethical questions about how goods are produced.”

The British Business of Slavery, Oct 6-Dec 8,  takes place at Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. For more information telephone 020 7405 1818 or visit
This article was first published in the Camden New Journal on October 1, 2015

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