Database Lets Britons Find Slave-Owning Ancestors
LONDON (AP) — A new database launched Wednesday lets Britons curious about their family history uncover some potentially uncomfortable information — whether their ancestors owned slaves.
Researchers at University College London spent three years compiling a searchable listing of thousands of people who received compensation for loss of their “possessions” when slave ownership was outlawed by Britain in 1833.
About 46,000 people were paid a total of 20 million pounds — the equivalent of 40 percent of all annual government spending at the time — after the freeing of slaves in British colonies in the Caribbean, Mauritius and southern Africa.
“This is a huge bailout,” said Keith McClelland, a research associate on the project. “Relatively speaking, it is bigger than the bailout of the bankers in recent years.”
Compensation for slave-owners was opposed by some abolitionists, who argued it was immoral, but it was approved as the political price of getting the 1833 abolition bill passed.
The database includes details on the 3,000 compensated slave owners who lived in Britain — rather than its colonies — and includes the ancestors of several present-day politicians and the writers Graham Greene and George Orwell. Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair, and the trustees of his great-grandfather, Charles Blair, were paid 4,442 pounds for 218 slaves on a plantation in Jamaica.
Not all the slave-owners were ultra-wealthy. Middle-class Britons up and down the country were paid compensation — evidence, the researchers say, of how far the tentacles of slavery spread through society.
Payouts range from wealthy merchant John Gladstone, father of 19th-century Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, who received more than 100,000 pounds in compensation for hundreds of slaves, to Jane Bayne, a Scottish doctor’s wife who received 84 pounds for 10 slaves on a plantation in Jamaica. Even that modest settlement was more than the annual salary of a skilled worker at the time.