If we hear at all about Britain’s involvement in slavery, there’s often a slight whiff of self-congratulation – for abolishing it in 1833, 32 years ahead of the US, where the legacy of slavery is still more of an open wound. Less well known, however, is the enormous cost of this decision for the taxpayer – the British government spent £20 million, a staggering 40% of its budget in 1833, to buy freedom for slaves. That’s equivalent to approximately £20bn today, making it one of the biggest ever government bailouts. The cost was so high, the vast loans the government took out to fund it were only just paid off in 2015.
This article was originally published in February 2020
Which is mind-boggling stuff, but if you’re thinking you can’t put a price on freedom, brace yourself for bad news – the money didn’t go to the slaves, but to their owners. That’s right: the British taxpayer, until five years ago, was paying off debts that the government racked up in order to compensate British slave owners for their loss of ‘property’. Records show that ancestors of former Prime Minister David Cameron and authors George Orwell and Graham Greene all profited at the time from these massive pay-outs, as did Prime Minister William Gladstone, who helped his father claim for £106,769. That’s a payment of around £83 million in today’s money, to just a single family.
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And what’s even more shocking is that supposedly freed slaves were in fact committed to six to 12 years of further service as unpaid ‘apprentices’, meaning slave owners were compensated to the tunes of millions – and continued to get free labour. It wasn’t until 1838 that these admittedly wildly contentious apprenticeships were abolished too, and slaves in the British Empire were truly emancipated.