Abolitionist Politicians in the Slave Compensation Records

By: Rachel Lang

A very kind correspondent recently sent me a report of a meeting of the Guildford Anti-slavery Committee which took place in Epsom, Surrey, in 1826. One of the speakers at the meeting was John Ivatt Briscoe who described slavery as a “horrible stain [on] the English character”: “Great was the moral guilt of this country in allowing the traffic so long to exist, and he could not entreat a blessing upon his own labours if he did not reprobate the enormous cruelties which were inseparable from it.”[1]

Briscoe became an MP in 1830 and continued his campaign against slavery, declaring in the House of Commons on 23rd November 1830 that slavery was “a crime, and a foul stain on the character and honour of Great Britain”[2] and in a Parliamentary debate on 13th December 1830 that slavery was “a crime disgraceful to man”, adding that “it was revolting to Christianity that it should be argued that slaves, were private property… Parliament must take the matter in hand, and decide that the slave should be set free.”[3]

Yet Briscoe benefitted financially from slave compensation in 1837 when a share of the money for ownership of enslaved people on Lower Berney’s Estate in Barbados was awarded to the trustees of his marriage settlement with Anna Maria Mawbey.

Richard Godson

Briscoe wasn’t the only abolitionist MP who appears in the records of the compensation process. Take for example Richard Godson, MP for St Albans 1831-1832 and for Kidderminster both 1832-35 and 1837-49, who declared in 1832, “I scorn the idea of having property in my fellow subjects” but was awarded a share in the compensation for his ownership of 236 enslaved people on Pusey Hall estate in Jamaica in 1835. Or Sir George Anson, MP for Lichfield from 1803 to 1841, who unsuccessfully claimed for the compensation for 325 enslaved people on Lewis’s estate in Barbados and is described in R. G. Thorne’s, The House of Commons, 1790-1820 as “a staunch friend to the abolition of the slave trade” in 1807.

What do these inconsistencies tell us about the individuals and about the abolitionist cause? Firstly, many abolitionists believed that slave-owners should be compensated for the loss of their property however repugnant such ownership might be. Briscoe himself stated in Parliament in 1832:

If the people of England were sincerely and zealously anxious for the accomplishment of the great object of the abolition of slavery, they should cheerfully pay that amount of compensation which was justly due for the sacrifice thereby occasioned to the properties and fortunes of individuals.[4]

Richard Godson argued that he become a slave-owner against his will, saying that on his marriage to Mary Hargreaves in 1825 he had been “forced to take possession of” a mortgage on a West Indian property. He also saw the welfare of enslaved people as bound up in the protection of the West Indian proprietors:

If [the West Indian colonies] are worth having, they must be treated in a kindlier spirit, and the planters must be enabled to cultivate their estates, not less for their own sakes than for the sake of the slaves themselves, whose emancipation, nevertheless, I should be glad to see.[5]

Some of the abolitionists listed in the compensation records were awarded compensation as trustees or executors rather than as owners of enslaved people, perhaps feeling fewer moral qualms when acting on behalf of other family members. Sir George Anson is an example of this: his sister Mary had married the slave-owner Sir Francis Ford and Anson was awarded compensation as a trustee of the marriage settlement.

Other indirect means of slave-ownership may have sheltered some abolitionists from moral turbulence: perhaps this applied to Henry Alexander, a Quaker banker from Ipswich, who counterclaimed for compensation for New Montpelier Estate in Jamaica as assignee of an annuity. Quakers were barred from owning slaves for religious reasons and active in campaigning against slavery. When Henry’s brother Richard Dykes Alexander made some land in Ipswich available for development in the 1850s he stipulated that some of the streets should be named after leading abolitionists.[6]

The whole issue of slave-owners who had family connections to abolitionists is an interesting one I think, and a subject I’ll be writing about again.

[1] The Herald  newspaper. Thank you to Brian Bouchard for sending me this link.

[2] House of Commons Debate 23 November 1830 vol 1 cc649-52.

[3] HC Deb 13 December 1830 vol 1 cc1047-66.

[4] HC Deb 11 June 1833 vol 18 cc573-98.

[6] Ipswich Historic Lettering website. For more on the Society of Friends (Quakers) and slavery see the Quakers and Slavery Project website.