Compensating the Slave Owners

A mini hullaballoo arose earlier this year when the Independent newspaper revealed that the UK Government had paid some £20M to pay off the slave owners in 1833. It was a sort of ransom money, and the usual suspects were expressing their shock and horror at such largess.

“Britain’s Colonial Shame” screamed the headlines. It was a typical Main Stream Media “holier than thou” comment with little interest or appreciation for the problems of 180 years ago. We only needed calls for the likes of David Cameron to apologise to someone and our self flagellation would be complete.

At the time Buxton was subject to a considerable vilification. One of his children reported:

“And now the Anti-slavery people are so violently turned against my father for not voting against the 20 millions that they can hardly find word to express their displeasure. I must say that his spirit through all is wonderful. He is as uninfluenced by the attacks of friends as of foes and goes straight on to his mark with a degree of firmness which considering it is unaided by that very supporting quality, natural obstinacy, seems almost incomprehensible. Every day he receives violent letters of censure.”

Politics has always been the art of the possible. But what if Buxton had dug his heels in and insisted in no compensation; there would certainly have been an impasse. Another slave revolt would have been likely with lives lost and property destroyed. Of course the USA had seen their own slave crisis looming for many years (“A firebell ringing in the night” said Thomas Jefferson), but the country either lacked the will or found it impossible to resolve it. Eventually this was resolved by a bloody civil war at great cost.

We recall the prayer by Abraham Lincoln on Saturday March 4th 1865 at his inauguration for his second Presidential term (just 6 weeks before he died from an assassin’s bullet)

. . .Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” . . .

The cost to the USA of that civil war was estimated at the time as $8,000,000,000 (8 Billion dollars). Three quarters of this was spent by the Union, the other $2 Billion by the Confederacy. Even at the devalued dollar exchange rate (10:1), 8 billion dollars is still equivalent to £800,000,000 in 1865 moneys.

At a cost of £20M, it seems that Buxton got quite a good deal, especially as many of the beneficaries invested their ill gotten gains in the burgeoning railways.