Originally published on theJournal.ie in 2014
When the British government finally abolished slavery in most of its colonies on 1 August 1834, it paid slave owners over £20 million in compensation for the loss of their “property.” This was around 40% of the government’s annual expenditure. This exceptionally generous payment to so many elite members of the British Establishment (including MPs, Peers and Archbishops) contrasts quite dramatically with the then-ongoing reform of the Poor Laws, which reduced exchequer expenditure on the poor and established the punitive workhouse system as a “deterrent to idleness”.
Daniel O’Connell (an anti-slavery advocate from the 1820s onwards) protested against this compensation payment and requested that the names of those receiving this money be made public. This Parliamentary return (1837–8), which is over 300 pages long, lists the basic information about those who received compensation. Researchers at University College London have studied this parliamentary return along with the full Slave Compensation Records and have created a new online database which reveals that nearly 100 different individuals, either born or based in Ireland, benefited directly from this slave compensation; (compared to circa 36 from Wales, 394 from Scotland and 1,879 from England).
It makes for an interesting read, highlighting the need for further research in this area to shed light on the connections between slave compensation and its impact on Irish society. This article will briefly consider two claims from this list.
Two Irish families that benefited from Slave Compensation
Peter and William Diggs La Touche, private bankers in Dublin, received a payment of nearly £7,000 for their 396 slaves on two plantations in Jamaica. These plantations were previously owned by their relatives who were planters on the island. By 1818 the La Touches owned 500 slaves. That same year, one of their slaves was recorded to have died due to “eating dirt”. The phenomenon of slaves eating dirt was likely due to malnutrition (particularly of protein, calcium and iron) or even suicidal intent. Thus a weakened slave eating mud would have precipitated a quicker death. Many planters of course, did not wish for their “stock” to expire any quicker than was “natural.” As a solution any slaves caught eating dirt, wore “dirt-eater masks.” This method of torture gained the maximum value from their “investment” while prolonging their slave’s suffering.
We also find some Irish claimants holding a high level of office in the colonies, such as Howe Peter Browne, the 2nd Marquis of Sligo, of Westport House, Co Mayo. In 1809 he inherited slave plantations in Jamaica from his father and he continued to profit from them (a sum of £20,000 per annum) until his appointment as Governor of Jamaica in 1833. Then he submitted a claim for 286 slaves and was awarded £5,525. He was also responsible for overseeing the fraught transition on the island from slavery to apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship meant that former slaves were forced to work for their masters for 40 hours every week for zero pay. In their “free time”, they were allowed to work for wages. When he spoke to the slaves about the upcoming change in the law (from slavery to apprenticeship) his tone was patronising in the extreme.
The way to prove that you are deserving of all this goodness, is by labouring diligently during your apprenticeship. You will, of the first of August next no longer be slaves, but from that day you will be apprenticed to your former owners for a few years, in order to fit you for freedom.
The slave uprising in Jamaica
Browne resigned his post in 1836 due to his dysfunctional relationship with the planter-dominated Jamaica Assembly. To his credit, he had lost their trust when he was perceived to have taken the side of the Missionaries and former slaves during the transition. He also criticised the Assembly for not ending the practise of whipping female slaves despite his own personal protestations.
Sligoville, the first town for freed slaves in Jamaica, was established in 1835 by a Baptist missionary, Rev James Phillippo, and he named the town in honour of Browne. Phillippo also asserts that Browne was the only planter in Jamaica to emancipate his apprentices before full emancipation was made law in 1838. On Emancipation Day in Spanish Town, Jamaica on the 1 August 1834, a silk banner bearing the words “Marquis of Sligo” was among those carried by the celebratory procession through the streets.
Browne is commonly referred to as a “champion” “emancipator” and “protector” of slaves, but this hyperbole stretches the white saviour narrative to its absolute limit. Browne benefited from slavery from the cradle to the grave and did not free his slaves until the institution of slavery was abolished by an act of parliament. His decision to forego apprenticeship (after receiving ample compensation) is to be commended but some perspective is necessary. This tendency to overstate the role of the “white saviour” obscures the resistance to slavery from the slaves themselves.
Samuel Sharpe, a slave and Baptist preacher who led the slave uprising in Jamaica in 1831–1832, is rarely mentioned in the same narrative as the Marquis of Sligo, despite the fact that this rebellion was a major factor in the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 and that Sharpe was executed for his efforts. This says much about how those that benefited from slavery choose to remember this crime.
The ‘danger’ of judging slavery?
Upon researching the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade, many examples of the racist logic deployed by supporters and apologists for slavery are encountered. Including claims that slavery was merely a process of “civilising the savages.” Confederate General Robert E Lee wrote that “the painful discipline [slaves] are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race.” These arguments, and there are too many to list here, were nothing more than the rationalisation of self-interest.
Moral relativists refer to the “danger” of judging slavery using today’s ethical norms. This temptation to excuse the crimes of the past with “historical sympathy” is the unconscious perpetuation of the arrogance of the oppressor, that serves to diminish the voices of slavery’s millions of victims.
Originally published on theJournal.ie in 2014