‘The Price of Emancipation’ by Nicholas Draper

Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery, 2010, 278 p. & appendices and notes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if the government is offering money, then people will emerge from the woodwork with their hands out.  It’s true today, and it was true in 1834 when the British government provided compensation to West Indian slave-owners after slavery was abolished in British colonies.  This book is based on the records and correspondence files of the Slave Compensation Commission which was established in London in 1834 to oversee the awarding of 20 million pounds worth of compensation (value approximately  76 billion pounds today) to over 45000 claimants who owned slaves who had now been liberated (albeit after they served an extra six years of ‘apprenticeship’).

Although there was a swell of support for abolition (which, admittedly, varied from year to year) and  some squeamishness about admitting to owning slaves in Britain, this did not stop people applying for compensation.  The records of the Commission show that absentee slave owners resident in Britain received the bulk of the compensation, and that slave-owning was more widespread than previously understood in metropolitan Britain. While not ubiquitous, it did permeate certain sectors of British society where it was “generally routine, unexceptional and unexceptionable” (p. 273).

Slave-owners were not a homogenous group, and Draper has classified them into three main groups.  First, there were the large-scale rentier-owners, often from among the gentry, who had held slaves and plantations in the older sugar colonies and passed them on through the family over several generations.  They had generally hoped that their West Indian plantations and slaves would attain equivalence with landed property in the UK where it would be transferable by inheritance and be considered a form of permanent security.  This never eventuated for a number of reasons: instability in the West Indies; the lack of the conventional structure of landlord/tenant; reliance on overseers and managers at a distance, and quite frankly slave-owning never attained much social cachet.  However, at a time when traditional ideas of property were under threat, with tithes and sinecures being abolished, slave-owners were able to draw on solidarity with other traditional property owners to claim “we’ll all be rooned” and to demand compensation.

A second group comprised small-scale slave owners, both in Britain and in the colonies themselves.  This group came to be symbolized by the humble widow, left a small annuity of slaves by her father or husband as her sole source of income, and indeed many in this group were women.  Their slaves often worked on tropical plantations rather than in the large sugar plantations or were rented out as agricultural labourers or domestic servants by their absentee owners.  Often these slaves were accumulated during a naval or military posting to the West Indies, or by doctors or church men who had spent time there.  Many of these small-scale slave owners were  resident in the colonies themselves.

Finally there were the merchants, bankers and agents, who have previously been considered to be almost inadvertent slave-owners through defaults on loans to plantation owners in the absence of credit institutions in the colonies.  However, Draper finds that although this may have been true in the older sugar colonies, in the ‘new’ colonies of  Trinidad and British Guiana, bankers and merchants were more active in their own right.

There are many tables and figures in this book, but particularly in the chapters dealing with these three categories of slave-owners there are also many small vignettes drawn from the correspondence of people applying for, or contesting, compensation grants.  In many ways the Slavery Compensation Commission exemplified the new approach to bureaucracy of the 1830s where patronage had less (although still some) sway, with an emphasis on process and transparency, and it was generally considered that the Commission acted efficiently.

Of course, the idea of compensation was never intended to extend to the slaves themselves, and indeed individual slaves, or their experiences, are virtually invisible in this wind-up to the end of the slavery system.  In many ways, it was the closing of one era and the opening to another.  The compensation money, which on paper probably represented a loss, was nonetheless invested in other ventures, most particularly railways, where much larger profits were made.  Likewise, other recipients of compensation money turned to the land colonization schemes that were opening up in Australia and Canada, and making their money and reputations there instead- think for instance, of George Fife Angas in South Australia.

In fact, I’m finding myself becoming increasingly sensitized to the West Indian connections among Australian and Canadian settlers.  The connection is often dismissed in less than a phrase – “born in St Kitts” or “branches in the West Indies”, but it is there nonetheless, and is assuming more interest to me.

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One response to “‘The Price of Emancipation’ by Nicholas Draper

  1. Thank you so much for this – I’ll have to hunt out this book, as it’s relevant to my research, too. I agree with you – the West Indies connection with Australia was much more significant than people tend to assume. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the University of Queensland at St. Lucia – the suburb was named after the West Indian island.

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