Chris Evans on Nicholas Draper's Price of Emancipation

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When Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833 it set up a £20 million compensation fund. The compensation was not intended for the ex-slaves, however; it was awarded to their masters.

This was a huge sum of money, for which the British state had to raise the largest single loan in its history. But who did the money go to? This is the question that Nicholas Draper sets out to answer in The Price of Emancipation. He’s able to do so because the records of the Slave Compensation Commission, set up to administer the fund, are preserved at the National Archives in London.

By wading through a lot of material, Draper has been able to establish how many people in the British Empire actually owned slaves. He’s also been able to plot where slave owners lived. (Were they based in the West Indies or were they absentees living in Britain? And if living in Britain, where did they reside?)

The results reveal a lot about the importance of slave-generated wealth in British society at the start of the Victorian age. The research is on-going with the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project at University College London .

The Price of Emancipation is only available in hardback at the moment but a cheaper paperback edition is likely. Meanwhile, read an extract here.

Chris Evans is the author of Slave Wales (forthcoming 2010) and teaches modules on Atlantic History and the Abolition of Slavery.