Surrey and Slavery

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773</br>(SHC Ref.1487/118, p. 1)

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773
(SHC Ref.1487/118, p. 1)

The slave trade was a complex institution with extensive roots in the past and it has huge repercussions today. Seen as a huge asset to Britain’s Empire, it also caused a great, pioneering human rights movement to bring it to an end.

The British first began to take slaves to the West Indies in the sixteenth century and the slave trade grew, with more people investing in slave labour and industry in plantations in British colonies such as Jamaica, up until abolition in 1833. By then, the list of slave owners in Surrey alone numbered over one hundred, owning many thousands of enslaved Africans between them. Click here to learn more about the slave trade.

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, c. 1880s (Ref/1714/1)

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, c. 1880s (SHC ref/1714/1)

One notable Surrey resident, the MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Henry Goulburn, possessed a large number of slaves in Jamaica. The story of his successes and failures on his slave plantations is known in detail.

An inhumane institution, slavery attracted vocal critics and in Surrey there were a variety of movements to abolish it.  Each had their own unique perspective. Abolition of slavery in the West Indies, where the treatment of slaves was arguably the worst, was finally achieved in 1834.

Researching slaves and slavery

Find out more about how to research slaves and slave owners at The National Archives

The registers of the enslaved are held by the National Archives; you can read a brief account of them on the archived website Moving Here (archived pages).

There is also an enormous amount of information about the enslaved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and the African origins website

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

In 1833 Parliament finally abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. The slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but it had taken another 26 years to effect the emancipation of the enslaved. However, in place of slavery the negotiated settlement established a system of apprenticeship, tying the newly freed men and women into another form of unfree labour for fixed terms. It also granted £20 million in compensation, to be paid by British taxpayers to the former slave-owners. That compensation money provided the starting point for the University College London (UCL) project ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’. Visit the project website to search a database of the Slave Compensation Committee records (1812-1851) and discover how slavery shaped modern Britain.

The fascinating and revealing records of the Slave Compensation Commission, which can often make for uncomfortable reading, feature Surrey slave owners who received compensation following the abolition of slavery. Discover the full story here.

Read more about the BBC series, presented by historian David Olusoga, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners(broadcast in July 2015), which is based on the UCL project research output

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