Law, history, slavery

15th June 2020

Many people – even those who have studied law and history – know almost nothing about how the law was used to facilitate slavery in English history.

People may have heard of Wilberforce and that the slave trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.

They will therefore know a bit about how slavery ended but not how it was kept in place.

Over on Twitter I have recently done a couple of threads on law, history and slavery.

The first is on the Yorke-Talbot Opinion of 1729.

The second is on the Zong case of 1783.

I also did a thread in response to a former Member of Parliament who had invoked the jurist William Blackstone to suggest slavery had been abolished in 1753.


The point of these threads is to show that slavery was, at the time, commonplace and was facilitated by the law, as well as by insurers and so on.

Slavery was not just Edward Colston of Bristol going off on a frolic of his own.

There was an immense legal, commercial and administrative apparatus in place to enable slavery.


Slavery is about property in human beings, and the slave trade is about transactions in respect of that property.

Slavery was managed from afar: few slave merchants and very few domestic owners of slaves ever saw the enslaved face-to-face. Slavery was thereby dealt with by correspondence: with crews, agents and estate managers.

And so, because it was about property and transactions and done from afar, there are lots of records.

Lots and lots of records.

And so like that modern horror, the Holocaust, you can see the dealings with slavery in record after record.

For those involved, it was mundane.

Slaves bought and sold, and managed, by ink and paper, by everyday people on an everyday basis.

Great Britain’s very own banality of evil.


Nowhere has this been shown so well as in the BBC documentary on Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners.

In this documentary David Olusoga uses the detailed records of the immense compensation paid to slave owners in 1833 to demonstrate just how far and wide slave ownership was in British society.

Slave ownership was like owning a time-share in Spain or a special savings account.

The import of all this should be to correct the skewed cod-history of British nostalgic exceptionalism and to remind us of the extent to which Britain was involved in (and benefitted from) slavery and the slave trade.

And a rounded, more accurate understanding of our past is a good thing in itself.


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13 thoughts on “Law, history, slavery”

  1. Thank you for explaining this so clearly. As you point out, those records are extremely valuable – and potentially dynamite. I hope lots of history scholars are gearing up to tackle them in depth,following David Olusoga’s sterling work.

  2. As ever, your forensic analysis of the facts and evidence, stripped of the emotive language and metaphors that so often flourish in these matters, allows the reader to make up their own mind – and in this case, doesn’t leave any room for missing, or misidentifying, the morality of the issues.

    I don’t believe that we should judge the actions of the past by our standards (it is going to be embarrassing enough when people look back in a century’s time, if we haven’t destroyed ourselves, to many things going on now!), but we can learn the lessons, set our standards higher, and strive to do better.

    This can only happen with a careful and disinterested factual analysis of what actually happened, rather than assertions of what some people would like other people to think happened.

    I always look to you for precisely this former type of analysis. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful summaries here and for the reminder that many, many professions were engaged in this trade.

    Should Yorke-Talbot and Zong make us think again about the moral complicity of lawyers (or bankers or insurance agents) acting on behalf of their clients? In particular should the cab-rank rule in civil litigation be amended? Clearly there are few examples as abhorant as slavery, but these cases have parellels in litigation today where litigants use English law (and English lawyers) to cover up human rights abuses or aid corruption.

  4. Thank you for this very illuminating and timely post. Your Twitter threads and this blog are indispensable lamps to help guide us through the fog of ignorance, misinformation, and disinformation that now seem permanently to envelop us.

  5. Yes, this post is very useful and informative – highly relevant to current circumstances. Thank you.

  6. I offer the case of Somerset v. Stewart 1772 not as a counter-example or in the interest of a dubious (at best) balance, but ask as better way to understand the American “Revolution.”
    Somerset was as slave brought his master, Stewart, to London. He escaped, was captured and put on a ship bound for Jamaica. A writ of habeas corpus brought Somerset to court. Lord Chief Justice Mansfield argued slavery was odious and unknown to English law. On narrow grounds, he freed Somerset.
    The furore in the colonies was immense and it was this which pushed the Southern and Middle colonies into supporting the rebellion to protect slavery. It was a counter-revolution.
    And what is the US constitution but Montesquieu’s misunderstanding of the English constitution of an earlier time minus the hereditary principle PLUS entrenched protections of slavery.

  7. Thank you for these interesting posts on slavery. What is fascinating and horrifying is that it was not a criminal offence to hold a person in servitude until the passage of section 71 of the Coroners & Justice Act 2009. I spent two days in the Bodleian library reading old legislation, unable to believe that slavery had never been made a criminal offence, but it had not. The slave trade was abolished, and many aspects of slavery (eg false imprisonment) were unlawful, but not holding someone in servitude or forcing labour per se. Ken MacDonald and I wrote a (published) opinion saying that this placed the UK in breach of Article 4 ECHR (which was later established in the case of CN v UK which I argued with my colleague Helen Law – and which was not picked up by a single newspaper at the time). The opinion was debated in Parliament and ultimately the law was changed. If you send me your contact details I’ll try to dig out the opinion.

    1. Hello Helen

      Thank you for reading my post and commenting

      I suppose from a neat common law perspective, if a human being cannot be property owned by a legal person then that person is not a slave, and so the problem disappears in a whiff of legal logic. Those held as slaves would not be seen at law as the property of another, regardless of their captive status. No transaction would be recognised by a court and no property right enforced. They may be treated as if they were slaves but there is no property right.

      But of course that does not prevent a person who, in effect, is treating another person as a slave, and is buying and selling them as such. And it also not do anything much to help that person in captivity.

      And so it is right for the criminal law to prevent such real life abuses.

  8. My Quaker take on this would be, that we (that is the 18th century Society of Friends) were very much the foot-soldiers of the abolitionist movement in the UK, and also important in the USA in movements such as the underground railroad. There’s plenty to be proud of there. That they’re not better known for this is simply because they couldn’t become MPs. So the Parliamentary work had to be done by Anglicans like Wilberforce. However …

    Quakers were also dominant in the 18th and early nineteenth century British banking scene. Lloyds, Barclays, and many other Quaker-owned and Quaker-run banks financed the slave trade; protected the interests of slave-trading clients, processed the payments for slaves. And despite the Society formally forbidding its members the ownership of slaves from, I think the 1770’s, the ownership continued.
    I’d be frankly amazed if Quakers weren’t among those compensated for the loss of owned slaves in 1833.

    The Slave Trade is a very tangled thicket.

  9. I have recently, come across both slavers and slaves in my family tree.
    I was pleased to read about the laws dealing with slavery as the information complements the data in my tree: slavers; slaves; freed slaves. I understand that the money paid to the slavers in 1834, formed the basis of the industrial revolution in the UK. An example being the building of Manchester Ship Canal.

  10. Many thanks for this information as it puts a new perspective on what really happened. Also to note that owners of slaves were compensated for the loss when slavery was abolished. They were paid the equivalent of 40% of the UK GDP, at the time, it took 182 years to pay and that the UK paid it’s final installment in 2015 (not a single penny was given to the slaves themselves – crazy)! We must not forget how our past was built so that we don’t make the same mistakes for the future (although we know some who work in Car Wash centres and Nail Saloons are in a form of modern slavery in the UK today).

    1. Sorry to be coming to this a year later, but none of the annuities that were issued to fund the payments to former slave holders in the 1830s were still in issue in 2015. They had been consolidated with other debts and refinanced in 1888, and again in 1927.

      It was the 1927 consols that were redeemed in 2015. And that repayment was financed using the proceeds of another debt issuance. Public debt went up that year, like it does most years.

      If the 2015 refinancing counts as “paying off” the debt owed to former slave holders, why not the refinancings in 1927 or 1888? But if the earlier refinancings don’t count as “paying off” the debt, why does the 2015 one?

      Whatever the government’s 2015 press release says, I think there is a reasonable case to say that either the debt was paid off in 1888, or it still exists.

      For balance, here are two alternative accounts:

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