Published by EH.NET (October 2010)

Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xiii + 401 pp. $95 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-11525-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jennifer L. Anderson, Department of History, Stony Brook University.

In the wake of abolition in 1833, the British government paid out ?20 million, an astonishing sum at the time, to reimburse slaveholders for their emancipated human property. A veritable feeding frenzy ensued as West Indian slave owners, as well as many absentee owners in England, clamored for payments. In The Price of Emancipation, Nicholas Draper (University College, London) offers a fascinating analysis of the politics and public discourse surrounding the decision to award compensation, who its beneficiaries were, as well as how the fund was organized, financed, and administered. In so doing, he also illuminates the larger conflicted issue of how — after years of abolitionist attacks — slave holders perceived themselves, as well as how others characterized them.

Historians have long strived to assess the pervasiveness of British slave holding and the penetration of slave-derived wealth into the nation’s overall economy, but it has proved a difficult task. By the early nineteenth century, the structure of slave ownership, as well as the resulting income streams, had become extremely convoluted. This complexity was the cumulative effect of repeated, in many cases multigenerational, transfers and divisions of property, often involving multiple interested parties, due to inheritances, marriages, annuities secured on West Indian properties, as well as shifting business partnerships, absentee management arrangements and snarled webs of debtor-creditor relationships. Moreover, in the decade leading up to Emancipation, many English slave owners deliberately obscured their West Indian associations in the face of growing public hostility. Some sanitized their slave-derived profits by sinking them into English land or more respectable enterprises. Ambivalence about their status was particularly common among those absentees who acquired slaves passively (due to a bequest or defaulted mortgage) and had no direct West Indian experience. Regardless of slave owners’ lack of personal contact with their slaves, however, abolitionists were quick to expose those who whitewashed their colonial connections.

As Draper convincingly demonstrates, the records of the Commissioners of Slave Compensation offer a unique window onto the murky inner-workings of slave ownership. Ultimately the Commissioners made over 40,000 awards that detail the name of each recipient, the number of slaves claimed, and the amount of money allocated. In addition, the records contain petitions from individuals bemoaning their personal financial circumstances, expressing their fears for the future, and often revealing a strong sense of entitlement to monies in exchange for their sacrifice in relinquishing ownership of other human beings. In their own words, these embattled slave owners asserted their identities as masters and mistresses.

Although the Compensation Commission records have been cited by numerous scholars, Draper offers the most detailed, comprehensive analysis of them to date. While contextualizing his study within the long eighteenth century, his focus is on the late 1820s and 1830s when, after many failed attempts at amelioration, the institution of slavery had few remaining overt defenders. Once emancipation seemed all but a certainty, public debate shifted to the question of whether slave owners should be reimbursed for their lost property when the slaves were freed. Compensation proponents, for example, tweaked the national conscience by highlighting the plight of “widows and orphans” in danger of destitution because of their dependence on slave-derived incomes. The compensation plan — approved, at last, in the name of preserving the supposed sanctity of private property — required an incredible bureaucratic feat to evaluate, process, and pay thousands of awards.

The latter half of the book focuses on quantitative analysis of the compensation records, which Draper has supplemented with extensive research, categorizing awardees by class, occupation, and place of residence, as well as by the scale, type, and location of their slave holdings. While in large measure, Draper’s analysis confirms earlier broad-stroke interpretations of British slave owning, he adds considerable nuance to our understanding through his insightful interpretation of the resulting demographic patterns, social relations, interpersonal and business networks, and the convergence of slave owning with other economic activities. Very usefully, he outlines the geographical distribution of compensation awards, revealing concentrations of slave ownership in certain neighborhoods and regions.

His most systematic analysis is of awardees compensated for slaves worth over ?500, a minority group that included members of the aristocracy, lesser gentry, and West India merchants. Among the former, he figures that a mere six percent owned slaves, acquired predominantly via marriages or inheritances dating back to the eighteenth century and situated overwhelmingly in the older colonies. He finds that Parliament members’ slave ownership, however, has been previously underestimated. In a very interesting chapter on the merchants, bankers, and agents, Draper reveals their central role in the compensation process as both as financiers and claimants.

Of the 25,000 who received lesser awards, Draper’s analysis is less comprehensive but shows that, while most were located in the colonies, there was broad-based dispersion of small-scale slaveholding in England — from the free black servant woman in London who claimed one West Indian slave to the retired colonial official who still hired out a few slaves at his former post. Draper pays particular attention throughout to how female petitioners presented themselves before the Commission in light of a patriarchal system that did not expect women to be vocal self-advocates. Also fascinating is Draper’s discussion of disputes adjudicated by the Commissioners involving a wide range of social disruptions, such as divorce, mental illness, inheritance disputes, and contested ownership.??

Given the difficulty that absentee owners had in selling West Indian properties on the eve of Emancipation, Draper concludes that the Compensation Commission played a vital role in salvaging slave owners’ fortunes, transforming “hard-to-realise value thousands of miles away” into new liquidity that, in turn, stimulated the overall British economy (p. 202). The slaves, on the other hand, received no compensation. Most extraordinary, the Compensation Commission flushed reticent absentee masters and mistresses from their cover as they voluntarily revealed the extent and intricacies of their slave holdings, exposing at times also their greed and other very human frailties. Draper’s excellent analysis helps us understand more fully the myriad ways in which, even as it was being dismantled, slavery, and the wealth that it generated, came home to England.???

Jennifer L. Anderson, Assistant Professor of History at Stony Brook University, is currently working on a monograph about the Atlantic mahogany trade in the eighteenth century.?

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