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'The idea that slavery is over-exposed is a myth'


WHEN PEOPLE complain they are tired of hearing about slavery, historian and BBC broadcaster David Olusoga asks them to do two things: name a British slave owner and name a slave plantation.

Like me, they would generally be stuck for an answer because, actually, the side of the slave trade we know about is the brutality, the inhumanity, images of shackles, and endless days toiling in crop fields in the Deep South and across the Caribbean.

No one generally thinks about the other side of the story: the face at the other end of the whip, so to speak; the beneficiaries of that free backbreaking labour.

It is these characters Olusoga has brought to the fore in his two-part documentary on Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners which reveals the extent to which the country profited from slavery, as well as how common slave ownership was among ordinary members of society, including the clergy and widows.


This work was done in partnership with UCL academics Catherine Hall and Nick Draper, who have been doing groundbreaking research through the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project.

One of its key findings was the millions of pounds in compensation slave owners were paid by the Government as a sweetener when slavery was outlawed in Britain. The figure would have been billions of pounds by today’s standards.

That these stories have remained buried for so long is no mistake, the Nigerian-born historian says.
“We know the abolitionists. We know their names but they were involved in a two-way conversation about slavery, because you can’t have an abolition movement without opposition, and that opposition has been forgotten along with the slave owners,”says Olusoga.

“They fought a bitter and desperate battle in defence of their industry and in doing so left us with the toxic legacy of much of the racial ideas that we have struggled with for the past 150/200 years.”

He adds: “Historians are saying this is part of our history that was deliberately concealed and buried.
“People pretend it didn’t happen. Families involved rewrote their family history as if it didn’t happen but it is part of our history.

THE FULL STORY: The plight of enslaved Africans is only one side of the slave trade

“There is this idea that we have heard too much – we haven’t heard anything. What we can tell you, is about [William] Wilberforce, because we have used that story, that one redemptive chapter in the whole story, at the exact point where we look really good…I have deep admiration for the abolitionists but they are the last chapter in a story that begins in the 16th Century under the wing of Elizabeth I. The idea that the story of British slavery is over-exposed is a myth.”

Olusoga, who grew up in Gateshead in the North East, said his family were the targets of racists, which compelled him to seek answers about where that almost unfathomable hatred came from.
It has led to him becoming an expert on the British Empire, copping two awards for BBC 2’s The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire about the contribution of African Caribbean soldiers to the war effort.


He adds: “I look to history to make sense of the world that I find myself in…When you encounter racism and understand where it came from, it’s a defence mechanism. That’s why history has a very special and specific function to play.

“We needed to explain the context that black people find themselves in, but we are also one of the few peoples, perhaps the only group, who have had our history denied. Imperial powers didn’t try to tell the Chinese that their 5,000-year culture did not exist. There was an attempt, a quite brutal and sustained attempt, to convince Africans that they were a people without a history, as [German philosopher] Hegel said.

“That idea has been repeated in the 19th and 20th Century. When something is denied to a people it becomes especially important, so I have tried to be an historian, a general historian, but one who is trying to answer some of those questions, that we do have history and why has it been so neatly tucked away?”

Hall and Draper have previously said that their work was not designed to make people uncomfortable, but to put slave owners back into British history.

Olusoga adds: “There were there thousands [of slave owners], tens of thousands of them and they were us. They could be your ancestors; the person who built the house you live in or founded the company, or the precursor company, you work for. They are part of the fabric of this country and we have pretended that they didn’t exist out of discomfort.”

The first part of Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners first aired on BBC 2 on July 15 and the second will be shown on July 22. If you missed it, you can watch it on BBC iPlayer.

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