When I wrote the following piece, I misunderstood the records I was reading. These records are actually the compensation paid to slave-owners upon the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. I feel I’d like to retain the original piece as written, but with this corrective and explanatory note for readers at the beginning. In many ways, it’s even more disturbing to read how great the sums of money were spent on compensating owners, when nothing except liberty was extended to enslaved peoples.
Patrick Mackie 15/07/2015
My mother comes from a long-established family of plantation owners in Antigua, and I have long known that the reality is that her ancestors, and mine, will have been slave owners. Now, I know at least which ancestors bought slaves, and I know how many they bought, and how much they paid for them. Those are possibly the most awful words I have ever written, putting down in perpetuity that my family heritage includes people who owned other people, who paid cash for them and enslaved them for their private commercial advantage. It’s something I knew to be a historical reality, and now, thanks to a project based at University College, London, I can now identify the individuals.
On the 19th October 1835, Elizabeth Sedgwick and her son, Samuel Sedgwick, between them paid £774 19s for the bodies and lives of forty-five people, to become their property and provide the labour that enabled their own prosperity. That sum has an historic opportunity cost of £80,690 at today’s value, £1,793 per person. No doubt they expected that investment to pay a handsome dividend over the lives of their purchases. Samuel is my four-greats-grandfather and Elizabeth my five-greats-grandmother. I am lucky that I have family trees that trace some ancestral lines back into the 17th and 18th centuries in good detail, but the inevitability is that, as we go back in time, we discover things that we would never countenance as moral or ethical behaviour, and from which we naturally recoil, but were the brutal normality of their times. Most people don’t have access to those resources and the modern, unknowing, descendants of slave-owners in Britain alone must number the hundred-thousands, if not more. So, as the old saw goes, when you point one finger at me, there are three more pointing back at you.