The British government paid out £20m to compensate some 3,000 families that owned slaves for the loss of their “property” when slave-ownership was abolished in Britain’s colonies in 1833. In today’s terms, calculated as wage values, this figure equates to around £16.5bn
We have had our own Truth and Justice Commission. It came out with recommendations after deliberating extensively on the excesses of the slave and indentured labour regimes which marked much of our colonial history. Those who have been despoiled by the abusive regime which prevailed, of whatever little they had accumulated, have been asking for justice to be done. They have been asking for compensation for the mistreatment inflicted on their ancestors.
They claim fairly enough that this injustice has played out on successive generations to this day. They have been asking that the lands that were seized unfairly be restored to the descendants. When the former slaves were despoiled of their properties, including landed assets, by all sorts of legal triangulation and cheating, those properties had actually been acquired by the former slaves decades after the abolition of slavery in Mauritius.
But if we look at history, it is not the slaves who got compensated. It is their masters who were the main beneficiaries both when they maintained the regime of slavery and again when they were required by law to give up those whom they considered as their “possessions”. In an article published recently by David Randall in The Independent, he states that the scales were heavily tilted in favour of the masters even when slavery had to be given up. (See the full text of David Randall’s article on Page 3)
He writes that the Act of Parliament of 1833, which emancipated slaves, did not provide for even a penny to be given to former slaves in reparation of what they had been made to undergo. He says: “More than that, it (the Act) said that only children under six would be immediately free; the rest being regarded as “apprentices” who would, in exchange for free board and lodging, have to work for their “owners” 40 and a half hours for nothing until 1840. Several large disturbances meant that the deadline was brought forward and so, in 1838, 700,000 slaves in the West Indies, 40,000 in South Africa and 20,000 in Mauritius were finally liberated.”
As far as Britain was concerned, those who made money from slavery were not only the slave-owners but also the investors who put their money into the transportation of African slaves to their masters. According to David Randall’s research from the archives, some of the families who were compensated for giving up their slaves in Mauritius belong to well-known families such as the Lagesse, Lahausse de Laouviere, Lagravelle, etc..
There were huge payouts effected by the British government to slave-owners in the context of the abolition of slavery. Randall writes that : “The British government paid out £20m to compensate some 3,000 families that owned slaves for the loss of their “property” when slave-ownership was abolished in Britain’s colonies in 1833. This figure represented a staggering 40 per cent of the Treasury’s annual spending budget and, in today’s terms, calculated as wage values, equates to around £16.5bn. A total of £10m went to slave-owning families in the Caribbean and Africa.”
The records show that the wealthiest families benefited from billions of pounds of compensation in today’s money equivalent upon the abolition of slavery. Many of Britain’s fortunes rest upon the generous compensation paid out to the slave-owners. In exchange, there was nothing for those who had been reduced to nearly nothing by years of maltreatment under the slave regime. It is easy to imagine the sequels of this discriminatory treatment on the respective descendants of these two classes of the population, those who had thrived on the institution of slavery, on the one side, and those who had borne the whip, on the other.
As in Mauritius, the records show that “there are now wealthy families all around the UK still indirectly enjoying the proceeds of slavery where it has been passed on to them.” Research carried out by the team of Dr Draper of University College London, give out the names of several influential British families today whose fortunes blossomed out of the ignominious slave trade.
The success was not limited to money-spinning from one generation to the next. It spilled out into the highest spheres of public decision-making. David Cameron’s ancestors had a root in slavery. After his team had sifted through 46,000 records, Dr Draper said: “Seeing the names of the slave-owners repeated in 20th‑century family naming practices is a very stark reminder about where those families saw their origins being from. In this case I’m thinking about the Hogg family (former Minister). To have two Lord Chancellors in Britain in the 20th century bearing the name of a slave-owner from British Guiana, who went penniless to British Guyana, came back a very wealthy man and contributed to the formation of this political dynasty, which incorporated his name into their children in recognition – it seems to me to be an illuminating story and a potent example.”
There are many painful reminders of damage done by man upon other man down the somber corridors of history. Many have asked for expiation of the sins committed by slave-owners. Others have been asking to be given back their rightful place and dignity in history. We have to reckon that society also has its unrepentant members who shrug off quietly all accusations of serious hurt done to the less well-off and to the vulnerable members of society.
History risks repeating itself until action is taken to put facts back in their place. Those who do painstaking work like Dr Draper’s team to bring back history in its true dimension are helping to ward off future serious abuses of elementary human rights as those that were commonplace in the slave society.
* Published in print edition on 1 March 2013