By Christina Parsons.
Researchers at University College London recently compiled all the individuals who were compensated by the British government for emancipating slaves in a database. This database is now online and searchable by the public (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/). The Globe and Mail published an article on March 1st, 2013 entitled “Sir John A Macdonald Had Family Ties to Slave Trade”; this article discusses the money that Macdonald’s father-in-law was given for freeing slaves from a plantation in Jamaica after British emancipation in 1834.
The The Globe and Mail article also explains the database project and the discovery of evidence that Sir John A. Macdonald’s family had benefited monetarily from the end of slavery in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, the article sensationalizes the story somewhat. It should be surprising to very few that wealthy colonial families owned slaves during this time period. It was, in fact, quite common. That said, The Globe and Mail seemed to find it particularly noteworthy that the country of Canada was founded by money made off of slavery. This notion paved the way for some very controversial responses in the comment section that followed the article.
Many of the comments on The Globe and Mail’s website express the sentiment that this information is not important to the Canadian public or that it does not change the positive memory of Macdonald in Canadian history. Canadian patriotism causes many Canadians to react negatively to any inference that the country has an imperfect past, but that sentiment conflates the past and the present. Acknowledging injustices of the past and working towards rectifying them is one of the things that discussions of history in the public sphere can help shape. Acknowledging the unpleasant parts of our country’s past should in no way be seen as attempting to tarnish public perception. Rather, recognizing all aspects of a country’s history can only be productive, as these historical injustices still shape contemporary issues and acknowledging that makes us a better country.
This evidence of Canadian ties to Caribbean slavery also situates Canada within a colonial context. What is novel about this evidence is that it shows transnational links of how colonialism operated, outside the power dynamic of Britain the colonizer and the Caribbean as the colonized. Canada, while a colony of Britain, was also part of the colonizing process, and not simply on Canadian soil. This information gives historians a different framework for approaching how Canada was formed. Discussing the transnational nature of Canadian colonialism allows for a more complete picture of the economic and social ties around the Empire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
One of the project’s researchers is quoted in the article saying that a motivation for the team was to illuminate parts of British history that have traditionally been ignored, particularly aspects of Empire and slavery. This database project lets historians’ access information on who benefitted from not just slavery, but the ending of slavery. The narrative of emancipation has long been one of forward-thinking, empathetic British citizens acting to liberate slaves who could not act to free themselves. While some abolitionists fit this description, it adds another layer of depth to the story of emancipation to know how much money was given as compensation to slave owners in response to the liberation of the enslaved. Slave-owners were privileged even when deprived of their unpaid labour force.
The Globe and Mail’s article on Sir John A. Macdonald’s family links to slavery in the Caribbean is an interesting departure point for discussion on the international implications of slavery and colonialism. Macdonald is a high profile example of the ways in which money and social capital were earned by some through the exploitation of others. The database that was developed by the team at University College London makes the history of colonialism accessible to the public in a very interactive way. A searchable database opens up the discussion of what types of people held more socio-economic power in the 1830s and if those trends are still prevalent today.
Christina Parsons, MA (History).
Christina Parsons is an historical research consultant. She recently graduated from Carleton University where she studied eugenic thought in Porfirian Mexico.