David Olusoga Talks About the Importance of Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

On the 1st August 2015, hundreds of people will meet at Windrush Square in Brixton, south London and march to 10 Downing Street to commemorate Emancipation Day (the Slavery Abolition Act August 1, 1833) and to reaffirm the demand for Reparations:

Reparation – The action of making amends for a wrong one has done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged.

These demands will be bolstered by the recent discovery of files (T71s), found at the national archive in Kew consisting of 1,631 volumes of ledgers, which form the correspondence of the slave compensation commission. A commission set up primarily to distribute money to those people who had previously kept slaves, but after August 1st 1834 were mandated, by law to set them free. This groundbreaking discovery by researchers from UCL (University College London) will be the focus of a two part BBC documentary series Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners produced and presented by Anglo-Nigerian historian David Olusoga. Who, whilst undertaking research work with Dr Nick Draper and Professor Catherine Hall, came across these records which have all but been forgotten, remaining virtually untouched for over 180 years.

“Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labor each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation. In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission” – Olusoga, Guardian July 2015

david_olusoga_book-copyOlusoga is no stranger to the reparations debate; his seminal book, which he is rightly proud of, The Kaiser’s Holocaust (Faber & Faber), describes the ‘Vernichtungsbefehl’, or ‘extermination order’ of 1000s of Namibians during the German invasion of Namibia in 1833. Cited to be the first documented genocide of the 20th century. Olusoga’s book is currently being used as evidence in a lawsuit for reparations brought against the German government by the descendants of those Namibians tortured and killed during this rarely mentioned period of German occupation.

In his recent article for the Guardian, Olusoga states how the importance of the T71 documents should not been underestimated as the cost to the British taxpayer was immense. Equating to 40% of government spending for the Year 1833-1834:

“The compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009”. – Olusoga, Guardian, 2015.

I was naturally keen to find out what motivates someone, who has struggled with dyslexia and whose interest in uncovering the uncomfortable truths of the empire wouldn’t make him popular in a media landscape which prefers to push the narrative of a fair-play society within a great, enlightened and christianised kingdom.

Why do you choose to write about the enslavement of African people?

I see myself as an historian of the empire. There are people who are just slavery scholars but I’m not a specialist of anything except that I see myself as a generalist of the empire in its broader sense; not just the British Empire but also the European empires in Africa and around the world. I am particular interested in Africa and African peoples wherever they were sent. African people were the most hyper-mobile people. The empire moved African people in ways it moved no other peoples around the world – as soldiers, as commodities, as human property. The demography of the world, wherever blacks are in the world, is a product of empire and that’s what interests me.

Explain the focus of the series ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners’…

The story of slavery focuses primarily, and quite rightly at the experience of the enslaved and less at those who were running the empire, the doctors, the scientists, the politicians, theorists… but for me it’s not an either/or, I think you can do both. But what we’ve accidentally done by doing that is we haven’t really shone much of a light on the slave owners and that fits in with the desire of many people who want to marginalise the story of British slavery. So by not being interested in the experience of the enslaver, we have actually done some of the work of people who want to pretend slavery was not what is was, or it was a smaller event than it was; we’ve done their work for them as we haven’t really examined the slave owners. They’ve deliberately airbrushed themselves out of slavery. It’s very important sometimes to look at the perpetrators and not only the victims.

Do you consider yourself an historian, a Pan-Africanist or both?

I draw a line between my personal and the professional. I am an historian in the classical European and also traditional African sense. I think historians become less influential, less powerful, less effective when they also become political advocates. I see myself, which may seem pretentious, in the very African tradition – as a storyteller. I also see myself as being in the very European tradition of an historian coming from classical history – as someone who tells uncomfortable truths. Someone who is half African and half European. Doing both those jobs. The African job of telling the story of ‘our tribe’ but also being an historian in a classical lucidity sense.

How long did the project take; do you feel it’s a completed body of work?

The work Catherine (Hall) and Nick (Draper) have done has been to re-inscribe slave ownership. It is their research looking through 46,000 documents that is at the heart of this project. Britain has taken the one redemptive chapter, the bit where we look good – Wilberforce the Abolitionist. Choosing to forget all those who grew rich from the toils of slavery. Deliberately airbrushed themselves out of slavery. The outcome of this project is to make it impossible for people to forget that this happened.

Was researching this painful history traumatic, or is the uncovering of these uncomfortable truths par for the course for an African historian?

I am writing a history of slavery; looking at the global history of slavery. My role is to put it down in a language that people can understand and appreciate. But it is difficult [when] you see documents of a man who will die a slave. Children bought and sold, families being separated, it’s affecting. But as an historian, if you can’t figure out how to use the information, then you can’t do your job.  If I sat in the archives crying I wouldn’t be much use to anybody. But there is something about seeing names with prices next to them, especially when they are children. It’s difficult to accept. You don’t need to be of African heritage to find that repellent.

Can you name some of the high profile recipients of these payouts?

It has been rumoured that David Cameron’s family along with ‘owning’ kidnapped Africans, may well have also benefited from such a pay out after the abolition of the slave trade … I believe Downing Street was asked in 2013. I believe the reply came back as ‘no comment’. The family of the author, Grahame Greene received payouts. The family of George Orwell, my hero, his ancestor, Charles Blair owned 218 slaves in Jamaica.

The historical, forensic and financial work of how much slave money and compensation fed into the wealth of Britain will continue long after we have left this world. The aim of our work is to get the slave owners back into our understanding of our history. Families who made vast sums of money through slavery created euphemisms to hide behind. ‘Planter’, ‘West-Indian merchant’ euphemisms for ‘slave owner’. These people consumed the lives of others for their financial gain. That crime has to be a part of our history. That crime is a part of our history. Weapons of torture used to restrain enslaved Africans.

Archivist Lauris Codling at the Institute of Jamaica shows a variety of slave shackles and instruments of punishment, pictured above by Ben Crichton.
Archivist Lauris Codling at the Institute of Jamaica shows a variety of slave shackles and instruments of punishment, pictured above by Ben Crichton.

Are you not concerned that programs and books, which expose this ‘shameful’ part of the world’s history, only serve to alienate and create upset and may well reinforce a sense of self-loathing?

My job is to find information and tell compelling stories. Frantz Fanon talks of the burden of representation. I go to history talks there’s no one there that’s not white. I go to history festivals and there’s no one non-white. There are so few [black] historians. I need to be an historian first and foremost. I’m trying to tell a story. Rather than personally represent people. There are always going to be people who don’t want to know their histories [because they] think it’s an attack on them. I don’t think we should take pride or shame in the actions of our ancestors. I am not proud and neither am I ashamed of my ancestors. I’m interested in them. I can take no credit for their actions, good or bad. I think it’s an unhelpful way of thinking. We should never sugar the pill of the most difficult parts. We should look at events how it happened and why it happened.

What positives will come out of this series when it’s aired tonight and next week?

What I would like is for to people to put their names into the database UCL has put together, black and white. To see that slave owners were not in a separate category. It’s a really complicated history. We need to accept that this is part of our history. We can’t hide behind Wilberforce for another century. Britain can’t deny the fact that 40% all of those enslaved taken from Africa were carried in British owned ships. We can’t deny that this country carried more people into bondage than any other county. We have to accept this happened in the name of empire. Its legacy is all around us.

Can these documents be used in the fight for reparations?

Dr. Nick Draper has said this is of interest to people who are part of the reparations battle. The idea that slave owners could be compensated must form a part of the conversation about the question of reparations for those descendants of the slave owners. The principal that the removal of your human property is damage for which you can seek ‘repair’ then that historic fact has to feed into the discussions on reparations.  But I am an historian and not an advocate of a political campaign. I’m mindful of sharing my personal views on reparations. My primary objective is to bring hidden things to light.

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners – Profit and Loss, the first of two episodes, presented by David Olusegun, will be broadcast on BBC2 @ 9pm, Wednesday 15th July…

Watch clips:

  • Instruments of torture – David Olusoga has a close encounter with instruments of torture used to punish slaves.
  • The Price of Freedom – David Olusoga reveals that the abolition of slavery in 1834 came at a price. The equivalent of £17 billion was paid in compensation. Not to the slaves, but to the slave-owners.

Whitewashing slavery – David Olusoga examines James Hakewill’s sanitised vision of slavery. The images were used by British slave owners in their vicious propaganda war to defend their trade.

The T71 files have been converted into an online database; a free, publicly available resource. Click Here


Latest articles

Related articles