The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Project

‘Slave Emancipation or John Bull Gulled Out of Twenty Million’, Woodcut (G. Drake, 12 Houghton Street, Clare Market, London). Image © UCL Art Collection, UCL EPC8032.
My name is Kate Donington and my PhD Studentship is attached to the ESRC fundedLegacies of British Slave-ownership Project at the History Department in UCL. The Project began in September 2009 and will run until September 2012. The historians working on the project are Principal Investigator Professor Catherine Hall and Research Associates Dr. Nicholas Draper and Mr. Keith McClelland. The Project Administrators are Rachel Lang and Ben Mechen.
The Project is unique in its combination of historians each with specialisms in cultural, social, political and economic history. An integrated approach to the treatment of history has been vital to the project. Alongside the historians working on the database, the Project has a debt of gratitude to the many local and family historians who have generously contributed to, and enriched it. It has been a truly collaborative project which has engaged with groups both nationally and internationally through the communication networks facilitated by Rachel and Ben, its regional workshops and an international conference. An open access online encyclopaedia of slave-ownership will be made available in the summer of 2012 for use by researchers interested in anything from the study of slavery to family history.
The Project came about following PhD research undertaken by Dr. Draper which resulted in the publication of his award winning book The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (2010). As part of the package of measures taken by the British government to secure the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, the Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius in 1833, compensation to the tune of £20,000,000 was paid to the slave-owners. This was largely the result of successful lobbying by a group known as the West India interest. This faction comprised of, in the main, slave and plantation owners and West India merchants. The group was further supplemented by its powerful family and friends amongst them many naval and military men, insurers, financiers, members of the House of Lords, and parts of the Royal family. Outside of the corridors of power additional influence was sought from the sugar refiners, rum distillers and the manufacturers who provided goods for the plantations.
As can be seen from the image by C. J. Grant above, slave compensation was a contentious issue for a number of reasons, not all of them altruistic. It was not just the proslavery lobby who agreed that slave compensation should be paid – the abolitionists were divided on the issue. Enslaved people were defined in law as the chattel property of the slave-owners. During the period of abolition (1787-1838) property was held in almost sacred regard; an attack on property for many recalled the anarchy and violence of that great epoch definer, the French Revolution. Using the example of compulsory purchase orders made to facilitate for example, the building of the West India Docks, the slave-owners campaigned for and eventually received the staggering sum of £20,000,000 alongside an agreement that the enslaved workers would be forced to endure a system of apprenticeship before being made, in their view, ‘fit for freedom’. The unpaid labour they undertook until the apprenticeship system was abandoned early in 1838, should likewise be considered as contributing towards the cost of paying for emancipation.

Image © National Archives of the United Kingdom.
In order to claim compensation a large scale bureaucratic system was implemented in both the colonies and in Britain. People who wished to make a claim had to register themselves; the resulting registers have been used by the Project to identify the slave-owners resident in England, Scotland and Wales in 1838. The Project has used this information to trace these individuals’ impact on the cultural, social, economic, political, imperial and physical formation of modern Britain. This has involved identifying whether or not the individual went on to have a political career in Britain. Did they become involved with colonial administration? Did they invest their money in businesses either at home or in the empire? Or did they perhaps put their money into new technologies and innovations like, for instance, the railway boom? Did they build city villas or country houses? Was their money spent on amassing collections of art or books? Were they philanthropic and if so what institutions did they found or support? Did they engage in any large or small scale public works like the building of roads, canals or docks? If they went on to become writers – what memories of slavery did they create in their narratives? It is hoped that by making this information available people will be encouraged to think about, in precise terms, what slavery meant for Britain during the period and beyond.
In the next instalment of this blog you can read how this framework for analysis has been put into action through a case study of the subject of my PhD – George Hibbert M.P. (1757-1837).
- Kate Donington
Useful links:
Legacies of British Slave-ownership Project:
National Archives Guide to Research on Slave-ownership and Slavery:
London, Sugar, Slavery – a permanent exhibition at the Museum of London in Docklands:

‘I believe it will ever remain, so long as that Family exists’: commercial, family and kin networks in the slavery business, c.1730-1830

George Hibbert by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Oil on canvas, 1811. Image © Museum of London
This is Part II of Kate Donington’s discussion of the histories and legacies of British slave ownership. See here for Part I (‘The Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project’).
My PhD focuses on one of the staunchest advocates of slave-compensation, George Hibbert (1757-1837). George was a sugar commission agent, a merchant, a financier, he supplied plantation goods and luxuries from home to his correspondents. Head of a commercial house which was recognised as the first in the Jamaica trade, he represented the London West India interest as an M.P., acted as Chairman for the Society of West India Planters and Merchants and was Agent for Jamaica (1812-1831). He was instrumental in the transformation of the Isle of Dogs into the West India Docks. He helped to found the London Institution and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. He was a botanist, philanthropist, cultural connoisseur and eventually a country gentleman. He was also a plantation and slave-owner who defended and prolonged the institution in a career which spanned the duration of the campaigns for both the abolition of the slave trade and finally slavery.
Hibbert cannot be understood without embedding him within the family and kinship networks which structured his world. The centrality of both family and kin to the study of eighteenth century business formations has been explored to great effect not least in Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff’s Family Fortunes (1987). The extent to which this text would influence my work was unknown to me until I began to unpick these complicated relationships. This process began the old fashioned way with pen, paper and a family tree. This document still remains at the centre of my research, not least of all necessary for navigating the many individuals who shared the family practice of inheriting names. Once each Thomas, Robert and George Hibbert had been identified and placed within the family formation the work began of reconstituting how these relationships operated, within what contexts and across which colonial spaces.
The Hibbert family and their associates were located within some of the key sites which made up the heartlands of the slavery business; Manchester, Liverpool, London and Jamaica. They began as Manchester cotton merchants; their cotton was delivered to Liverpool where it was then shipped to the coast of Africa and traded for enslaved people whose final destination was the plantations of the British West Indies. Like many commercial families the Hibberts saw the colonies as a source of potential wealth and sent their eldest son Thomas (1710-1780) to Jamaica in 1734. Thomas founded what would become a Transatlantic business empire. Thomas’ work in the colonies was supported and expanded through a series of key alliances made through his siblings’ marriages at home. A key factor in these unions was the role of Unitarianism; the close-knit world of Manchester’s non-conformist commercial elite ensured that business contacts and profit remained within a few hands.

Thomas Hibbert (1710-1780), artist unknown, oil on canvas. A copy of this portrait hangs in Thomas Hibbert’s Kingston townhouse which has since become the headquarters of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.
By the time George took his place within the family firm, his kith and kin were represented among a number of the most profitable aspects of the multivalent slavery business. His uncle had branched into the transportation, insurance and distribution of sugar, as well as money lending and had opened up a commercial house in London. The wealth produced from these ventures had enabled the family to both marry into, as well as purchase land in Jamaica. In two generations they had become a dominant force there owning sizeable estates, large enslaved workforces and with interests in scores more properties through the system of debt and credit which characterised the plantation society. Economic success was followed by political power with those resident in the colonies becoming members of both the judiciary and the Jamaica Assembly. At home in England the acquisition of country houses and civic power consolidated the Hibberts’ position.

Plate depicting a monument to Thomas Hibbert on his plantation Agualta Vale in Jamaica. Artist James Hakewill. A Picturesque Tour of the island of Jamaica, from drawings made in the years 1820 and 1821 © The Boston Public Library.
The Hibbert family story is complicated through the existence of characters whose narratives do not fit easily into the traditional racial binaries of colonised and coloniser. The family patriarch Thomas conducted a thirty year relationship with a free woman of colour, Charity Harry, and their daughter Jane (1756-1784) was sent to England to be educated. Jane converted to Quakerism, a decision which saw her excluded from the family circle, and had set her mind to returning to Jamaica to free her mother’s enslaved workers when she died aged twenty-eight following childbirth. Jane and George were born within a year of each other but were separated by geography, race, gender, religion and legitimacy. Their parallel stories offer an opportunity to think about family through these various lenses and ask what it meant to be a Hibbert during the period.
This question finds alternative meaning when considering who else was connected through the Hibbert family name. Also implicated by name are those who passed through the Hibberts hands as the human cargo necessary for their slave factorage and plantation businesses. The slave registers for Jamaica record thousands of instances in which ‘Hibbert’ appears within the person’s given name between the period 1817-1832. Not part of the family but central to the maintenance of it, their names act as a reminder of the brutal means through which the Hibberts came to power. These Hibberts whilst lesser known to history are the fundamental connection between Britain and its slave colonies.

Extract from the 1817 slave registers. ‘George Hibbert’ was a forty year old African male, resident in St. Thomas in the East, Jamaica. Thomas Hercey Barritt Esquire claimed ownership over him.