Since we began this project in 2009 our aim has been to explore and document some of the ways in which colonial slavery shaped modern Britain. One very important means by which the fruits of slavery were disseminated was through slave-owners, with wealth derived from both ownership of enslaved women, men and children and, at the point of abolition in 1833, as beneficiaries of compensation from the British state for the loss of their ‘property’ in the Caribbean. Researching and analysing whose these people were and their legacies – economic, cultural and political – are a key to understanding the extent and limits of slavery's role in shaping modern British society. These legacies reach into the present. As such our project can never be, and should not be, a disinterested examination of the past. Reparative history charges us to explore and understand the past in order to address the ways in which injustices may be acknowledged and set right.
No one can deny the urgency and importance of this work. We look at the state racism evident in the Windrush scandal in the UK documented by Amelia Gentleman or the long history associated with the idea of a ‘hostile environment’ towards immigrants written about recently by Catherine Hall in the London Review of Books; we reflect on the gross inequalities revealed by the pandemic in which those of black or ethnic minority heritage are disproportionately blighted or killed by the illness; we see and hear the anger of many outraged by the persistent presence, across Britain, of memorialisations to those involved in the slave trade and slavery while efforts to commemorate those who were victims of slavery or fought against it have faced many blockages, as Nick Draper has recently discussed in History & Policy.
Our database contains details of some 61,000 individuals connected as owners or associates to the slavery business – a system which embraced the slave trade, the plantation economies of the colonised Caribbean, the many ancillary economic activities associated with sustaining the colonial economies, the systems of law and state which regulated imperial relationships. It is possible to track many individuals through various strands of their presence within British and Caribbean societies over more or less long periods. But in the end these individuals should not be seen as merely individuals but as part of a structure – materially in their capital of various forms but also in the racialisation of social and political relations which have had, and continue to have, profound consequences for us now.
Ours is an educational and research project building, with many others, a new understanding of the past and its life in the present. We are moving beyond a focus on slave-owners to document the lives of the enslaved – so far as possible to recognise the humanity and individuality which was denied them by slavery. This is a history which we have all been shaped by, albeit unequally: understanding that is a responsibility for all of us so that we may do things differently.
The CSLBS team, 12 June 2020
The Home Office, citizenship and history
As we say above, doing ‘reparative history charges us to explore and understand the past in order to address the ways in which injustices may be acknowledged and set right’. A related, recent, statement is on the website of History, the journal of the Historical Association, in which a large number of historians have called for a review of the Home Office Citizenship and Settlement Test because of the ‘on-going misrepresentation of slavery and Empire in the “Life in the UK Test”, which is a requirement for applicants for citizenship or settlement (“indefinite leave to remain”) in the United Kingdom.’