sat 18/05/2024

Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners, BBC Two

Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners, BBC Two

Archive revelations revise our understanding of the reality of the institution

The ledgers speak: David Olusoga in the National Archive at Kew examining British slave registersBBC/Jon Sayers

If Britain has created a national myth about slavery, it’s surely been centred on the pioneering abolitionists whose actions in the early 19th century led first to the ending of the slave trade across the British Empire in 1807, later to the abolition of the institution in 1834. It’s a record of which, compared to the approach of other nations to the same issue (and the speed of their actions), we may even feel a hint of pride.

It’s a myth that BBC Two’s Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners put deservedly to rest, confronting us with harsh facts of history that have been conveniently forgotten. How many of us would have known, until we watched this programme, that when the House of Commons passed its 1834 bill, it was accompanied by paying huge compensation to slave-owners, to the tune of £17 billion in today’s money? The slaves themselves received not a penny. That wasn’t the only concession achieved by the influential slavery lobby: such freedom didn’t even come immediately, rather slaves had to serve their former masters gratis for up to six more years.

Ledger after ledger record in immaculate copperplate the exact identities of the owners

At least we now know exactly who those slave-owners were. Historian David Olusoga presented this two-parter in conjunction with, and based on an ongoing project of University College London (UCL), which has been researching material held at the National Archive at Kew. Ledger after ledger there record in immaculate copperplate the exact identities of the owners (based on the claims they submitted), as well as those of their slaves, no less detailed in their listings of age, occupation, state of health and the like. It’s the kind of detailed source that really does revise our understanding, surprising only in the fact that it seems to have escaped academic attention for almost two centuries.

We first saw Olusoga pacing the streets of central London, revealing exactly which addresses had been the home of slave-owners, and the number of slaves recorded to each of them. The UCL project has mapped Britain in the same way, and ownership went far beyond the places you might expect – the port cities of Bristol, Liverpool and London – to almost every area of the country. It was the identities that were revelatory, spreading far wider than those who had actually had any direct exposure to the realities of slavery in the Caribbean – from aristocrats with whole plantations to widows who had inherited a handful of slaves, from merchants who knew the reality of the trade to priests, whom we might have hoped would have had a different perspective. Only 3,000 of the recorded owners were based in England, out of a total of 46,000 around the empire, but they owned half the slaves.

There were lots of numbers cited here, developing the programme’s basic thesis that people were property. Olusoga’s wider narrative was of how that awareness entered, and has remained in the history and consciousness of our society. In this first part, titled “Profit and Loss”, he took us through the backstory and some locations, his personal reflections interspersed with brief interviews with some of those involved in the UCL project, as well as experts on Caribbean history, and even descendants of slave-owners. His generally dispassionate tone broke only once, when he was being shown the instruments of restraint – torture might just be too laden a word, but the distinction is surely academic – that discouraged slaves from escape or resistance. (Archivist Lauris Codling at the Institute of Jamaica shows a variety of slave shackles and instruments of punishment, pictured above by Ben Crichton.)

We learned more of some of the individuals involved. Slave-owner Thomas Thistlewood wrote 90 volumes of diaries which include regular recitations of slit noses, branding and hanging as punishment, and “recipes” for causing pain to recaptured slaves; even by the standards of his contemporaries Thistlewood’s immorality stood out – over 37 years, he recorded some 4,000 sexual encounters, many of them rapes. The mixed-race offspring of such unions were plentiful, but far fewer those who were recognised by their white fathers, from whom they duly inherited, like Nathaniel Wells; sent to England at the age of nine, he duly became a respected country gentleman, even a magistrate. The paradox was that he was “too black and too rich” for his native St Kitts, where he would have been on the other side of justice. With a moderation that didn’t rock society’s boat, we were told that Wells freed some of his relations on his mother’s side.  

Next week’s episode “The Price of Freedom” brings home the financial realities, and how the repercussions of slavery stretched right across the economy of its time. After compensation was paid, it duly filtered down in investment in the fields that proved crucial for Britain’s 19th-century development, not least the railways.

The individual ironies of history were as rich as some of those involved became: the man who received the biggest sum in compensation was James Gladstone, father of the liberal prime-minister William, no less. William Wilberforce, the undisputed hero of abolitionism, worshipped at the same Clapham church, Holy Trinity (stained glass window telling the abolitionism story there, pictured above), as George Hibbert, the prominent slave-owner who orchestrated the slavery lobby’s attempts to ensure compensation with tactics that come straight out of today’s PR industry (that more recent phrase "too big to fail" also cropped up revealingly here). Full plaudits to director James Van Der Pool for striking a convincing balance between social and economic history, and not losing us when the latter increasingly came to dominate. Olusoga’s tone might occasionally seem to have understated his subject, but that restraint actually allowed the facts to speak more deeply. Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners was a salutary watch in every respect.


I really would like to know why this show was only shown at 11.30 / 12 middnight! This is very important and interested facts about the history of Slavery and how thousands of people benefitted in the UK whilst people the caribbean islands were being worked to death. IF THIS DOCUMENTARY WAS ABOUT THE JEWS OR ASIAN COMMUNITY IT WOULD HAVE BEEN SHOWN DURING PRIME TIME! Why do the establishment continue to try to hide and minimise the knowledge about our black history. Watch documentaries like Hidden Colours it shows you some great things about our history and how facts have been removed and altered to suit similar minded people! I have series linked this documentary as its very interesting the great capital London that everyone raves about built on the back of black slavery billions of pounds! CLEARLY SHOULD BE EARLY VEIWING EDUCATING ALL!!!

It was in fact first sceened on Wednesday, starting from 9 pm, so we can hope it reached a much wider audience before it wa repeated late-night yesterday. The second episode will follow that pattern.

Lets hope this excellent UCL project now turns its attention on current and historical Arab and African slave owners. Let's not forget that Britain was the first country in the world to abolish slavery and that slavery is still rampant in Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan.

Completely different - arab's lived with there slaves and didn't receive a payout. Neither did it shape a continent or the Caribbean. Britain May have 'abolished' it but no one else took it to that level... So yea, blame whitey for everything (world wars, global warning etc)

How can I watch this excellent show in the U.S.A.? Side Note -the comment by Blame Whitey is pure comedy.....I'd imagine he will be starting 2nd grade this September....LOL....

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