by Katherine Quinn (IHR library trainee 2012-13)

Proceedings and resolutions of ‘The West India Body’, consequent on Mr. Secretary Stanley’s communication of the outline of the intended measure respecting slavery was requested from the library’s store today and its subject matter and the items surrounding this document immediately caught our attention. Though fragile and unimpressive in presentation, the document provides a fascinating window into the motivations and argumentation used by the pro-slavery lobby in 1833. Inside the tract, the Committee of West India Planters and Merchants unanimously oppose the abolition of slavery, saying it caused them ‘disappointment and dismay’. Why? ‘Disappointment, because his Majesty’s Ministers had declared that the plan to be proposed would be safe and safe and satisfactory to all parties … dismay, because [the planters and merchants] see nothing in the measure now submitted to them, but confiscation of property, and the prospect of all those calamities which must result from a dissolution of the ties which connect the colonies with the British Empire.’ Equating the emancipation of human slaves to ‘confiscation of property’ may (rather, ought to!) be jarring to modern ears, however the rationale of the Committee ultimately turns on the understanding of its members of the legally established position of slaves: ‘The abstract question of moral right need not be noticed, because, if an untenable right has been received by purchase or otherwise from its original source, compensation of retribution must be made from that source for defective title when ascertained.’

Elsewhere in this boxed collection of letters and pamphlets concerning ‘slavery problems’ is a further Proposal addressed to Mr. Secretary Stanley, on the subject of the abolition of negro slavery, Evidence upon oath touching the condition and treatment of the Negro population of the British West India Colonies and the newspaper editor and ‘Young Englander’ Peter Borthwick’s speech in opposition to the abolition of slavery. Many of the texts in question deal with not only the subject of possible compensation for slave owners, but also the problem of if and how former slaves would be integrated into society.

You can consult these original documents here at the IHR, and view all the titles on our catalogue.

Related links

Legacies of British Slave Ownership  This is an incredible database that has been put together by UCL’s history department under Prof. Catherine Hall. Its remit is to trace the beneficiaries of the £20 million of compensation that was paid following the abolition of Slavery in 1833 to slave owners

ODNB articles:
Earl Grey, Prime Minister at Slavery’s abolition: E. A. Smith, ‘Grey, Charles, second Earl Grey (1764–1845)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [, accessed 26 March 2013]

Peter Borthwick, newspaper editor and oppose of the abolition: H. C. G. Matthew, ‘Borthwick, Peter (1804–1852)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 26 March 2013]