Originally posted on The Fall of Albion:
Last week, University College London publicly released a database that allows users to look up the names of people who were reimbursed by the British government for the slaves they owned after Britain banned slavery in 1833. It has touched off a debate over how to think about things in the past that we find morally repugnant in the present, as well as many other spin-off debates, such as the relationship between money and morality, past or present.
A brief historical excursus – the British state banned slavery on an incremental basis starting in 1807, when it forbade the slave trade within the British Empire. Slavery itself, or the ability of British subjects to own slaves, was banned in 1833 in the UK and took another decade or so to legally permeate the whole Empire. As part of the political deal for abolition, the state agreed to compensate slave-owners for their lost property. To pay for this, the Treasury set aside £20 million to be paid out in annuities. If you’re really interested you can read the specifics of the legislation here.
Put simply, this is a huge public expenditure of cash. There are not many precedents or good analogies for it – to use 21st century parlance, it is one part bailout (of the slave industry, if you will) and another part nationalization (of privately-held assets, though the state didn’t buy them to keep). I haven’t been able to find any really savvy appraisals of the sum in 2013 money (rudimentary calculations of £2 billion have been thrown out, but that is deceptively low because it tracks purchasing value against a basket of goods that isn’t as useful for this. This Wired UK article gives higher numbers but doesn’t show its work). One thing we know for certain is that the compensation fund represented about 40% of UK annual government expenditure in FY 1833. How do we make sense of that, historically?