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Revealing Britain's debt to slavery

Date: 28/08/2013

The Abolition of Slavery Act 1833 "made Britons feel good" and histories at the time overlooked Britain’s prior involvement in favour of a more progressive view suggests new research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. The project is revealing how the abolition of slavery in 1833, and the little-known monetary compensation offered to slave owners who had lost ‘property’, fuelled the British economy and thus shaped British industry.

The ‘Structure and significance of British Caribbean slave-ownership 1763-1833’ project, led by Professor Catherine Hall at University College, London, aims to help answer the question "What is Britain’s debt to slavery?" through a unique online database.

Britons were the first in the world to abolish slavery, says Hall. That's the way in which the history's been written; that's the way it's been memorialised. In order to better understand the social, cultural, political and economic development of the UK and the Caribbean post-abolition, Hall's team are following the trail of the compensation offered by the Slave Compensation Commission to establish how the end of slavery enabled the development of banks, railways, mining firms, insurance companies, art collections and country houses.

The works aims to highlight the shared history between Britain and the Caribbean that is often overlooked. Slavery has left the most terrible marks and legacies on not just people's material lives – which it has; the levels of inequality, the levels of under-development of the Caribbean in terms of health and education are deeply shocking – but there's also the psychic histories connected with that, she says. They aren't just over. They carry on.

The public can visit the online database Legacies of British Slave-ownership, which was launched in February this year, to read case studies and explore the family histories of both themselves and key historical figures. The searchable collection of family records of slave compensation claims elucidate the many legacies of abolition; commercial, cultural, historical, imperial, physical and political.

For further information, please contact: Alex Pryce, AHRC: 01793 41 6025 a.pryce@ahrc.ac.uk.

Notes to editors

  • For further information, please visit the project website.
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UKs largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector.


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