How slavery built modern Britain
PADRAIC X. SCANLAN
464pp. Robinson. 25 [pounds sterling].
How the British establishment resisted the
abolition of slavery
400pp. Bodley Head. 20 [pounds sterling].
THE NEW AGE OF EMPIRE
How racism and colonialism still rule the world
288pp. Allen Lane. 20 [pounds sterling].
WHAT DO THE FOLLOWING have in common? Graham Greene and George Orwell. The founders of Barclays and Lloyds. The accounting firms Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers. The insurance companies Royal Sun Alliance and Indemnity Mutual Marine (Aviva). The former Lord Chancellors Douglas Hogg and Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham). The former Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha. The family of the Earls of Harewood, and the Holland-Hibberts family (the Viscounts Knutsford). The Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins and the writer Marina Warner. The Codrington Library of All Souls College, Oxford. The Universities of Cambridge and Glasgow. The Bank of England, the British Museum, the National Gallery and the National Trust.
You will know the answer of course, especially after the many museum exhibitions, community events, educational initiatives, and mass media discussions that took place in 2007, the bicentenary of the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The families of these individuals, and the founders and benefactors of these institutions, had all originally derived their wealth and standing from slaveholding, together with the generous compensation 20 million [pounds sterling], calculated as around 1.8 billion [pounds sterling] in today's money, or over 76 billion [pounds sterling] if seen as an equivalent proportion of GDP--that was paid to slave-owners when slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean in 1833 (the largest payout ever by the British state until the banking rescue package of 2008). And this is of course only the tip of the iceberg, the names that titillated the public when the matter was being aired. For those who wanted to learn more, the best resource was and is the "Legacies of British Slave-Ownership" database (www.ucl.ac.uk./lbs), a prosopography compiled and managed by Nicholas Draper, Catherine Hall and others at University College London. Nicholas Draper's The Price of Emancipation (2010) laid out impressively the details of the over 40,000 awards to individuals who were compensated after 1834, showing that they represented a good cross-section of British society; and Catherine Hall and others drew out the full implications of the settlement, along with much other material on slavery's contribution to the development of modern British society, in their Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial slavery and the formation of Victorian Britain (2014). From this and other publications from the UCL group you might think that slavery had been the main building block of modern Britain (the opium trade, according to Amitav Ghosh and others, is another powerful contender). Slavery--Black slavery--seems to have penetrated every nook and cranny of British society, working its effect long after its supposed demise. "Britons make it; it makes Britons", ran the old Shredded Wheat advertisement. Now perhaps one could say, of slavery, "Britain made it;...