Slavery was abolished in most of Britain’s colonies between 1833 and 1838 and compensation was paid to the slave-owners rather than the enslaved who received nothing. Under the Emancipation Act, the government paid out £20 million over 40,000 separate awards – equivalent to a mammoth 40% of the government’s total annual expenditure. Compensation forms and slave registers make clear that up to emancipation the enslaved were viewed as property that was to be passed down from generation to generation.
As London entered the 19th century it was the leading international centre of finance and British slave-ownership and slavery fuelled its prosperity. The focus of the display is a map of Harley Street and the surrounding area pinpointing the homes of slave-owners.
Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, MP George Watson Taylor, Lord Mayor John Atkins and lawyer J W Freshfield and are just some of the residents who benefited from slavery. At the same time, abolitionists such as Thomas Fowell Buxton also lived close by in Marylebone. Despite their differences, the neighbours formed part of the cultural, social and political elite and attended the same churches, worked together and enjoyed evenings in the same clubs.
Dr Nick Draper’s research into the compensation awarded to slave owners in London is extensive and this display throws light on a small portion of the money that was awarded. Dr Draper says ‘It’s important that we recognise the ways in which slavery permeates London’s history, not only through direct slave-ownership by Londoners but also through more complex financial and commercial ties between the slave-system and people living and working in London. Slavery was not the only influence on London’s development, but it was an important one, especially in areas such as Marylebone, and is too often overlooked.’
Today’s Londoners have also been given the opportunity to express their views in a film accompanying the exhibition. Inclusion Officer, Lucie Fitton says: “We gave a group of emerging film makers a challenging brief asking them to respond creatively to the display. It was a subject they knew very little about and their inspiration came from the Museum and gallery space enabling them to produce a touching and informed film.’
A research guide written by Dr Nick Draper, of University College London, which may help people find clues to their ancestry, is available free of charge to those wanting to find out more. It also includes information about places people can go to for more details on slave owners as well as slave registers at The National Archives, which list every enslaved person, their gender, age and plantation.
Slavers of Harley Street runs from 14 November 2008 to 31 March 2009 at Museum of London Docklands.