Tuesday, 13 February 2018

History Sweet And Sour

The Britain bashers have having another go on the subject of slavery referring again to the 1830's compensation of the former slave owners. The £20 million (from one source) is said to be 37 plus billions in modern money. It was and is a lot of money whether you think the comparative 21st Century equivalent is more or less, given the intricacies of comparing money values for two very different periods in history.

We are all to blame apparently and should grovel. I have a problem with this in that none of my known ancestors owned slaves being of the lower orders in the UK of that time and before. I suspect that they did not eat much sugar, if only because of price. The sugar tax of the early 19th Century was one reason and an important item in the government budget.

The Abolition Act of 1833 to end slavery in the colonies came at one of the most turbulent periods of our history. Between 1829 and 1841 there were six general elections. Governments came and went and in 1832 Earl Grey put through the Great Reform Act which preceded it. Because of the crisis relating to the Great Reform Act the Abolition Act came in its train.

The electorate, despite reform was still only a small proportion of the male adult population and far from being representative. The Act itself in detail was not a good one, political compromise and fudge are always with us. The former slaves became indentured apprentices for six years and for them it did not seem much of a difference. The slaves wanted wages and it simply led to further unrest.

The troubles and the decisions in terms of the indentures and compensation seem to be illogical and inexplicable to us in the 21st Century. But the saying " follow the money" has a real meaning in this case. Only the money was difficult to follow as there wasn't much to be had, sometimes none at all at times when hoarding was rife.

In looking at the subject one of the surprises I had was the returns submitted by plantation owners stating their wealth for the purpose of taxes and death duties etc. The figures put on the slaves for market value seem to be far higher than the reality of plantation life would allow as well as the mortality statistics.

The answer lies in the levels of borrowing by very many of the plantation owners and at rates of interest that were high, which is not surprising given all the risks. Crops might be good or bad and often the latter. A great many owners failed and their bankers took over the property, usually to sell, but some kept the better ones.

The compensation was to allow the write off of slave values on the books to be matched by created funds. We are back now with the familiar sight of a money go round and to find out who were turning the wheels takes you to Threadneedle Street and the streets around it in the City of London. This was not the only problem.

If the plantation workers were to be paid that meant hard cash and it was hard to find and sometimes not to be had. This was a period when the supply of specie, the actual coinage based on silver and gold, was often short of demand, trouble enough in itself.

When spasms of hoarding or severe shortage occurred the economy would crash and revolutionaries would take the streets. The 1830's was the age of "Captain Swing". With population increasing and people coming down from the hills to the towns the situation was becoming much worse.

Who would a serious financial crash in the West Indies affect as well as the plantations?  Well, most of the House of Lords, quite a few in the House of Commons and in the government itself. If £20 million went out to the owners of slaves, it might not go to paying wages but it went a long way to propping up the estates of many of the aristocracy etc. and their banker associates.

Meanwhile back in Hampshire the landed class Magistrates were transporting the relations and friends of our families to the new colonies as convict labour for offences against the game laws, stealing a sheep or punching the estate foreman on the nose.

And in our case for burning the local workhouse down.


  1. Burning down the local workhouse? There must be a story in that.

  2. "The Act itself in detail was not a good one, political compromise and fudge are always with us."

    Very much so. It was pushing it uphill the whole way.