Hackney history: How a £20m government compensation pot went to slave owners - and not slaves

Jacques Callot, The Slave Market, 1629. Picture: National Gallery of Art / CC0

Jacques Callot, The Slave Market, 1629. Picture: National Gallery of Art / CC0 - Credit: National Gallery of Art / CC0

In the gentle quiet of St Mary’s churchyard, behind Stoke Newington Church Street, stands a half-hidden tomb covered in leaves with the simply-carved name James Stephen barely visible.

This is the monument to the abolitionist lawyer who wrote the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which ended the British transatlantic slave trade.

Elsewhere in the graveyard lies the forgotten remains of Ebenezer Fernie, trustee for one of the last slave owners.

World transatlantic slavery persisted for 350 years. Twelve million captive Africans were transported to the plantations of the New World, many dying en route. Their children were born into bondage.

By 1760, Britain was the biggest slave trader in the world with its ships carrying 40,000 enslaved Africans, packed like sardines, across the Atlantic every year.

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Slavery was part of everyday life, the slave plantations supplying the sugar in our tea and the tobacco in our pipes.

The battle to end slavery was a centuries-long struggle. The 1807 act banned the trading of slaves, but plantation slavery dragged on until the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act ended it in most British territories.

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But there was still the matter of compensation - for owners, not slaves - and this was agreed in the Slave Compensation Act of 1837. The government stumped up £20 million (up to £100 billion at today’s values) to buy the slaves from their owners. The sum nearly bankrupted the country, amounting to 40 per cent of the Treasury’s annual receipts.

The debt raised to pay the bill was only cleared by the British taxpayer in 2015.

Bookkeeping required to pay off the owners left a trove of dusty ledgers, unearthed by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) project at University College, London, and transformed into a database of all the owners who were paid for handing over their slaves at the bitter end of slavery.

Here we can find the last slave owners of Hackney. There were 29 of them: the Hackney residents who received money for freeing their slaves under the 1837 Act.

In all, they received £204,415 (£12.34 million in today’s money) for a total of 7,877 slaves, nearly 1pc of all the freed slaves of the British Empire.

None of the slaves were in Hackney - slave ownership in the British Isles had been outlawed in the 1770s.

Hackney’s newly-freed slaves lived in the Caribbean or South America: British Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, St Vincent, Trinidad and Grenada.

The owners varied from Mary Burman of St George’s Terrace who was paid £38 for her one slave in Barbados, to Claude Neilson of Summit House, Stamford Hill, who received £46,964 for 1,936 slaves in Antigua, Grenada, St Vincent and Trinidad.

Many owners were merchants, clustered in the grand houses of Stamford Hill, like Dutchman Jacob Bernelot Moens of Old Terrace who received £6,338 for his 292 slaves in British Guyana, where demerara sugar comes from.

Or John Payne Blount, paid £10,559 for 195 slaves in British Guyana.

Based at Chatham Place, merchant John Amos made 30 claims, receiving £3,580 in total for his 369 slaves in Jamaica.

Other owners were slave traders, like Thomas Gudgeon of Stamford Hill, the co-owner of three slave voyages. He died before compensation but his executors successfully claimed for 157 slaves in British Guyana with a payment of £7,659.

Ten of the owners were women. Anna Maria Lucas of Navarino Terrace had acquired slaves through her husband. She was from a slave-trading family, her father recorded as receiving in 1806 four slave ships in the Caribbean direct from Africa with up to 290 captive Africans each on board.

Mrs Lucas received £57,971 for the 1,121 people she owned in British Guyana and St Vincent.

Dozens of other beneficiaries did not live in Hackney but had close links, such as marrying in a local church. St John at Hackney was the church of choice for slave owners to be hatched, matched and dispatched.

An owner with Hackney connections was Ralph Bernal of Tower Hill who was educated in Shacklewell at the Reverend John Hewlett’s school. He spent £60,000 on trying to get elected to Parliament three times.

After he finally won a seat, he made a speech in 1826 against emancipation, arguing that slaves needed long-term “religious improvement” before they could be freed.

Mr Bernal hung on to his slaves until slavery was banned. He received compensation of £11,460 for his 564 slaves on three Jamaican estates.

The double standard that swept slavery under the carpet of pseudo-piety is unsurprising given the complicity of the Church of England.

Its bishops sat on the Board of Trustees of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Lands (SPG). The SPG owned the Barbados Codrington Plantation, where, in 1740, 40pc of slaves died within three years of arrival in a suspected “work to death” policy.

A century later, the SPG received £8,823 in compensation for their 411 Codrington slaves.

West Hackney man of the cloth, Rev Stephen Isaacson, received £60 for his three slaves in Barbados.

History shows some slave owners were of mixed heritage. One example was Jemima Johnson Thompson of Shoreditch, recorded as a “free mulatto”, who received £1,724 for 78 slaves in Jamaica.

The money didn’t necessarily buy happiness. Charles Ingledew of Hackney Road found himself in debtors’ prison while receiving £2,259 for 41 slaves.

Years later, John Williams, paid £7,196 for 262 Jamaican slaves, died a “lunatic”.

Although he inherited half his father’s compensation and was paid £17,227 for his own 892 Jamaican slaves, George Rutherford shot himself at home in Dalston Terrace after trying to kill his mistress.

It is not just about remembering the dead and buried. There have been calls from the slaves’ descendants for reparations for an injustice that has echoed down the years as inequality and racism.

The Caribbean economic group Caricom has requested national restitution for the legacy of distorted slave-plantation economies.

The last slave owners, meanwhile, could use their compensation windfalls for lucrative investments in the Industrial Revolution.

Ebenezer Fernie, who lived in Tottenham, was buried at St Mary’s, Stoke Newington. As a trustee, he received a share of £11,051 for 681 slaves in Antigua and Montserrat.

His son became a pioneer of the Scottish shale oil industry and the firm is still a thriving business today.

The LBS project is now working on compiling data that will help descendants of slaves trace their ancestors. The database is available online at ucl.ac.uk/lbs/.

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