Some Comments on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership Database

1 03 2013

A new website dealing with the history of slavery in the British Empire has been created. As you can see from my comments below, I have mixed feelings about it.

First, some background. Legacies of British Slave-ownership is a project led by historians at University College London. It was designed to teach the public about the impact of slave-ownership  on Britain at a crucial time in the country’s economic history. The aim of the project’s creators was to demonstrate to British people that much of the wealth of the country was based on slavery overseas.  

When slavery was abolished in the British Empire in the 1830s, parliament set up a fund to compensate the slave owners. Slave holders had to apply for compensation, of course, and had to provide documentary proof of how many slaves they had lost. The records of their applications have survived. The interesting thing is that many of these slave owners had addresses in the United Kingdom.  Some of these addresses were great country houses. The UCL project involved digitizing the records and placing them online.

I have a few observations about this website.

First, actual scanned images of the relevant primary sources are not available as part of the database. Including these images along with transcribed text of each document would have increased the reader’s sense of immediacy. This has been done with the Jeremy Bentham and Abraham Lincoln papers (see example below) and could easily have been accomplished here.  People like looking at images of the actual primary source. For one thing, it allows them to check whether it has been transcribed accurately. It also draws in the reader’s attention.

Letter from Abraham Lincoln

Second, the creators of the website could have done a better job of linking the places mentioned on the website to existing online maps. For instance, the addresses of some of the absentee slaveholders are country houses that still exist in England. A few are even open to the public.  A link to the relevant address on Google Maps could easily have been inserted. Doing so would have allowed readers to see where in the UK the absentee slaveholders were concentrated or to look for slaveholders in localities of interest to them. It would be nice to able to Google Street View those properties. Such links also might have encouraged people to visit the properties. The overseas plantations mentioned in the documents should have received the same treatments If the creators of the website thought that creating such links were too much work, they could have created a function to crowdsource this task to the public.

Third, the website has few images! Human beings are visual creatures.  Pictures of the slaveholders, their residences, etc., should have been included. The absence of images makes the website look a bit amateurish or at least like something from say, 1999. I know that there are sometimes copyright issues but there are plenty of public domain images of some of the individuals mentioned in the database.

That being said, there is a great deal of value in this website.

My readers in Canada may be particularly interested in the references to absentee slaveholders who were living in Canada when they filed their claims.  See screen grab image below:

Search - Legacies of British Slave-ownership Canada

 

If you type “Canada” into the search engine, you will see a number of references to slaveholders with Canadian addresses who received compensation after 1833. For instance, you will see that James William Johnston, a lawyer and Conservative politician in Nova Scotia, received £514 15S 7d for his losses when the slaves on the Mount Salas estate in St Andrew Parish in Jamaica were freed.

Sir John A. Macdonald, who married a white Jamaican woman in 1867, is also mentioned in the database, although the exact way in which he had a financial interest in slavery isn’t clearly established.

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