How Slaveholders Received the Biggest Bailout in British History

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

BBC (2015)

Film Review

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners is about the $20 million (present equivalent $17 billion) pound bailout the British paid to ex-slaveholders in 1834 when they abolished slavery. The documentary is based on University College London research into the British Slave Compensation Commission archive. The latter lists each of 46,000 British slaveholders who claimed compensation for “loss of property” when they were forced to free their slaves.

The 1834 law banning slavery didn’t apply to US slaves, as the US was no longer a British colony. It only applied to 800,000 slaves in the Caribbean and other British colonies. The archive lists the name of each slaveholder, the number of slaves they freed and the amount of compensation they received. It was the largest government bailout in British history.

Of the 800,000 slaves, approximately half were owned by 6,000 absentee slave owners, who lived in Britain and paid plantations managers to run their plantations. Many were industrial barons who used the wealth they amassed through slavery to establish major banks, railroads and shipping companies. Many were women, widows who inherited slaves from their husbands, or lower middle class merchants who only owned one or two slaves. A few were ex-slaves, the mixed raced descendents of plantation owners who raped female slaves. Thirty-seven were members of the House of Lords; about half that number Members of Parliament. A few were abolitionists who had rejected the pro-slavery claim that slaves were property.

Too Big to Fail

Part 1 describes the formation of British slave colonies in Barbados, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands and the massive wealth creation that enabled the slave industry to run the British economy for two centuries.

Part 2 discusses the abolition movement led by William Wilberforce, which led Britain to ban the slave trade in 1807, and the massive popular campaign leading to total abolition in 1834. The pro-slavery lobby used the same argument as banks used to justify the 2008 bailout: slaveholders were deeply indebted and without the bailout the British credit system would have collapsed.

The University College London has digitalized the Slave Compensation Commission archive to enable people of British heritage to search whether they have ancestors who owned slaves:

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

A search of my surname Bramhall turned up no hits. This doesn’t surprise me as the Bramhalls in England were persecuted Catholics.

A search of my paternal grandmother’s maiden name (Gallagher) turns up one hit: William Gallagher, who received 46 pounds 15 shillings for one slave in Cape of Good Hope.

A search of her mother’s maiden name (Fitzgibbon) also turns up one hit: Rebecca Fitzgibbon, who received 73 pounds 1 shilling and 2 pence for two slaves in Honduras.