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8.4 What does the Slave Compensation Act tell us about the British Empire?

When did English privateers first take enslaved people from Africa, transport them to the Americas and trade them for goods and money?

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Lesson description

This lesson looks at the Slave Compensation Act in depth, and asks what it can tell us about the British Empire.

At first glance, the term ‘Slave Compensation Act’ might seem to suggest that the British government paid compensation to enslaved people, for the horrors they had experienced.

Join our detective and her team they discover the truth about this controversial act.

Lesson highlights

  • A close look at different views of the Slave Compensation Act
  • A journey through the campaign to end slavery in the British Empire, and key facts about the context of the Slave Compensation Act
  • An introduction to building different historical arguments about the Slave Compensation Act and the British Empire

Fact Sheet

What was the Slave Compensation Act?

The Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, which made the ownership and sale of human beings illegal. The 1837 Slave Compensation Act was a supplementary piece of legislation which granted compensation of £20,000,000 (the modern equivalent of billions of pounds) to previous slave-owners for the loss of their enslaved labour force. 


Who claimed compensation?

There were over 40,000 claims for compensation from abolition. Slave-owners in Britain who owned enslaved people in the Caribbean were known as ‘absentee’ slave-owners. These people were middle and upper-class, lived all over the country, and came from many different careers.


How do we know about slave-owners?

A database built by researchers at University College London, called Legacies of British Slavery, used government surveys to compile data about who owned enslaved people, who claimed compensation, and how much they received. This data is freely available to the public.


Why did abolition come about in Britain?

Abolition was primarily a result of strong campaigning from abolitionists paired with increased resistance to slavery by Enslaved people. 


White abolitionists such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson campaigned in parliament. Women, such as Elizabeth Heyrick, also advocated for the emancipation of enslaved people. Influential black abolitionists in Britain, such as Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, were able to gain support for abolition through writing about their experiences being enslaved. Enslaved people such as Samuel Sharpe held rebellions and uprisings against plantations, many giving their lives towards the ending of slavery. The aftermath of these undermined popular confidence in slavery.


Video Transcript

DetectiveThanks for joining, team. We’ve got a big mystery to
solve. We’re here in the library, searching through the
archives. But we also need your expertise, in numbers…
StatsGot you covered, Detective. I basically am maths.
Detective...and digital marketing…
DigitalIt’s true – nothing’s ever been solved without digital marketing.
StatsWhat about before we had computers?
DigitalTsh, when was that?
StatsLike, in the last century.
DigitalThen what are we talking on, right now?
Stats...a computer?
DigitalLet’s get back on topic. Something here just doesn’t add
up. We know the British transatlantic slave trade starts
with John Hawkins in the fifteen-hundreds. Millions of
people are taken from Africa. The ‘slave trade triangle’ is
established, and Britain builds a wealthy empire on the
backs of enslaved people. But there is always resistance;
and in 1833 the British government finally passes the
Slavery Abolition Act, which makes it illegal to own and
sell human beings. So here’s what I don’t get: the British
slave-owners don’t complain. The Act passes through
Parliament with no opposition. Almost like they were
happy for abolition to take place…
ArchivistDetective, you’ve gotta see this. 1837 – the Slave Compensation Act.
DetectiveThe Slave Compensation Act? What’s that – did Britain
compensate enslaved people, for the horror of what
they’d been through?
ArchivistI wish, Detective. But no – it’s the British government
compensating slave-owners for abolition: for the loss of
their ‘property’.
DetectiveThe ‘property’ being the men, women, and children who
they had kept as slaves?
ArchivistExactly. And look at these numbers – twenty million
pounds paid out to slave-owners at the time. That was
nearly half of the British government’s entire tax income
for the year.
DetectiveTwenty million pounds in 1837. What’s that in today’s
StatsBear with, Detective, calculating now… In the 21st century,
that’s between sixteen and seventeen billion pounds.
DetectiveSo British slave-owners were getting very rich from
abolition. Who were these people?
StatsTo be honest, they were pretty much everywhere
in British society. There were over forty-thousand
compensation claims. They were old and young, from all
corners of the country; middle and upper class; bankers,
butchers and bakers, home-makers, teachers, vicars,
soldiers, doctors and politicians…
DigitalAnyone from digital marketing?
DigitalWell, she was listing jobs, so I thought she might say
someone from digital marketing. Which is my job.
ArchivistI don’t think they had digital marketing in 1837.
DigitalOh, right – well that’s an error. It’s pretty essential for
building an online following.
ArchivistThey didn’t have – y’know what, doesn’t matter.
DetectiveTell me more about these slave-owners. How do we know about them?
StatsThere’s a big free database of slave compensation, built
by researchers at University College London. They based
their research on the government’s own survey of 1834,
which asked British people how many slaves they owned
and where, and how much the enslaved people were
worth. This would decide how much compensation you
ArchivistNow this is a fascinating document. It’s one of the first
ever standardised forms, where you fill in the boxes with
your name, occupation, and address. Forms like this are
everywhere in society nowadays.
DetectiveWait, we have their home addresses? So we can see
exactly where slave-owners lived?
StatsAbsolutely. Zoom in anywhere.
DetectiveMy goodness. They really were everywhere. People still
live in these houses today.
StatsAnd it’s not just individuals – businesses got rich too.
Even today, a lot of the top companies and banks were
built on slave compensation money. And the British
Government was still paying off the debts in 2015!
ArchivistYou can see why slave-owners didn’t complain when
abolition was passed. It was an opportunity for them to
make big money, and to own even more things.
DetectiveThat’s it – it’s about property. They realised it didn’t
matter what they owned – it could be people, land, or
money, as long as it was property of the same value.
StatsYes – in fact, a majority of British laws are about
property rights. It’s a bit of an obsession.
DetectiveSo from their point of view, they were just exchanging
one kind of ‘property’ for another. I wonder how the
abolitionists felt about that.
ArchivistIt does make their victory of abolishing slavery seem
much less glorious.
DigitalAlthough... it probably depends which abolitionist you ask.
DigitalWell I guess some would say it’s a price worth paying,
if it means they can achieve the aim of abolishing
slavery. The white British campaigners like William
Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson might have thought
that, for example.
DetectiveI’ve heard about Clarkson and Wilberforce...
DigitalRight. That’s partly because they were wealthy powerful
men, who could buy great marketing! Thomas Clarkson’s
friend Josiah Wedgwood made this famous campaign
image, showing a Black man in chains begging for
freedom. It became a very fashionable accessory. ‘Am I
not a man and a brother?’ – top slogan.
DetectiveI can see how that stirred sympathy among the British
public. But enslaved people did much more than
begging, right?
StatsThat’s true. Enslaved people had been rising up for
centuries. In 1831 Samuel Sharpe led a rebellion of
sixty-thousand people in Jamaica, just two years
before abolition.
ArchivistAnd don’t forget the excellent books written by Mary
Prince and Olaudah Equiano. They each wrote detailed
first-hand accounts of being enslaved, which were
hugely popular, and swayed public opinion in favour
of abolition.
DigitalIn fact, Mary Prince’s book sold out three whole print
runs in a single year. Now that’s what I call influencing.
She would’ve loved digital marketing.
Detective...she says that about everyone…?
ArchistWhat do you think Mary Prince would have made of the
Compensation Act?
DigitalHard to say, isn’t it? But put it this way: she had seen
first-hand the cruelty that happens when some people
have too much power over others. Abolition meant there
were no slave-owners any more. But compensation
meant that the people who had been slave-owners
kept their power – it was just converted into another
currency. And she might have worried about what those
people would do next.
StatsThat’s good. You should put that on the internet.
DigitalIt’s a bit long for the internet. I’ll just take a screenshot of
us lot. Smile! Nailed it.