Middle Class Slave Owners

We often think of owners of enslaved people as wealthy landowners, merchants and members of the aristocracy, who owned large scale plantations in the Caribbean and other British colonial territories. In Leeds, the Earls of Harewood owned significant amounts of land and numbers of enslaved people in Barbardos and Jamaica.  However, many people who owned enslaved men and women were members of the British middle classes. They did not consider themselves slave traders or merchants, but rather investors seeking to generate enough income through business interests to sustain their life in Britain. Most will never have visited their plantations, met, or even thought much about, the enslaved people they owned.

The slave trade was abolished in 1807. From then, it was illegal to buy and sell people, but you could still own enslaved people.

It took a further 26 years until 1833 for the full emancipation of the enslaved people in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape.

Why did it take so long?

Anyone making money out of a business interest is likely to be against legislation that would jeopardise that income, especially if the power to make the laws is in their hands. However, by the 1830s the mood was changing. There were doubts as to the long term financial and commercial benefits of slavery, there had been sustained resistance from enslaved people (including a major rebellion in Jamaica in 1831) and support for abolition was growing across the United Kingdom. It was a political and business decision. However, even the 1833 legislation did not completely emancipate enslaved men and women. It brought in a system of apprenticeship and indenture which tied the ‘freed slaves’ into another form of unpaid, or very low paid labour.

It also assigned £20 million in compensation, to be paid by the British taxpayers to slave owners for the loss of their ‘property’.

To receive their share of the compensation, slave owners made a claim to the government. If the claims were validated as accurate, compensation was paid. For compensation purposes, enslaved individuals were classed according to their gender, age, type of work and skill level, as well as the territory where they were owned. There were fixed amounts according to each classification of an individual. Over half the £20 million was paid to owners living in the UK. It is through the records of this compensation, held at the National Archives in Kew, that a group of researchers from University College London have been able to ascertain the scale of slave ownership in Britain in 1833.

In the following chapters are the stories of some of the claimants either living in, or connected to Leeds. Talking openly about postcolonial history, and how it affects the world today, will involve potentially difficult and challenging conversations. It may contain triggers around lived experience of racism, migration, abuse and violence.

Some of the language, terminology and ideas of the past are offensive today and need framing in terms of their historical context. Carefully using source material (letters, diaries, objects) as historical evidence is not a promotion of historical ideas, but a reminder of how easily humans can use propaganda and ideology to dehumanise others. To help with this framing, you may wish to talk about ground rules with the class, and look out for language around ‘otherness’ and difference.