Sir John A. Macdonald is best known to Canadians as the country’s first prime minister and a father of Confederation. He also had a family connection to the slave trade and now a new database shows just how much his father-in-law received in compensation from the British government in return for freeing roughly 100 slaves in 1833.
Mr. Macdonald is among more than 40,000 entries in the online collection, unveiled this week in London by the University College London. It offers a rare insight into slave owners, who they were, where they operated and how much they received in compensation for liberating their enslaved. The database took more than six years to complete and it pulls together a host of previously undocumented information.
The list also includes ancestors of many famous Britons such as Prime Minister David Cameron, authors Graham Greene and George Orwell, and poet Elizabeth Browning. The academics estimate that “somewhere between 10 to 20 per cent of Britain’s wealthy can be identified as having had significant links to slavery.”
One reason for the project was to rewrite “British history to include chunks that have been left out in the past partly to do with the Empire and specifically to do with slavery,” said Nick Draper, one of the researchers.
While Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, it took another 26 years to effect the emancipation of slaves. The delay was due, in part, to the protracted negotiation with owners over how much compensation they should receive for giving up what was essentially their property. In the end, the British government paid out £20-million in total compensation, representing about 40 per cent of the government’s entire annual budget at the time. None of the money went to the slaves, who still had to do some unpaid work for their owners under an “apprenticeship program” that ran for four years.
Figuring out compensation for each slave wasn’t easy. Much depended on what the slave did. For example, a domestic servant might fetch around £20 in compensation while a field worker would be worth up to £50. Owners “received amounts that varied from a few pounds to tens of thousands of pounds, which was serious money,” Dr. Draper said.
Mr. Macdonald’s father-in-law, Thomas James Bernard, was among the owners generously compensated. Mr. Bernard lived in Jamaica, where he had a sugar plantation and owned 96 slaves, according to the database. He received £1,723 from the government, a vast sum considering the annual salary for a skilled worker in Britain at the time was around £60. Mr. Bernard died in Jamaica in 1850 and his widow and children eventually moved to Upper Canada. Mr. Macdonald married Mr. Bernard’s daughter, Agnes, in 1867.
There are 31 other slave owners in the database with ties to Canada. They include merchant Robert Neilson, of Hamilton, who owned 568 slaves in Trinidad and received £28,763 in compensation. Sir Thomas John Cochrane, governor of Newfoundland from 1825 to 1834, claimed to have loans tied to 72 slaves in Trinidad but had his request for more than £3,000 in compensation rejected.
Dr. Draper said the research team plans to keep updating the database with more biographical information. And they will soon start looking into the history of some of the large estates in the Caribbean to develop a portrait of the slaves.