Image of Kemptown in 1838

Tracing Brighton’s forgotten slave-owners

Research by University of Brighton academics has revealed that Brighton and Hove residents received significant financial compensation after the end of British colonial slavery in the Caribbean.

The British government paid £20 million of taxpayer’s money to plantation owners when enslavement in the Caribbean ceased in 1833. A considerable number of those who were compensated lived in Brighton and Hove.

In just half a mile along the seafront running east towards Sussex Square, eight houses were occupied by recipients of substantial payments. Sixty-nine slave-owners and former slave-owners had a property in Brighton or Hove in the 19thcentury.

Dr Cathy Bergin and Dr Anita Rupprecht, lecturers in the University’s School of Humanities, published their findings in their co-authored article ‘Reparative histories: tracing narratives of black resistance and white entitlement’, featured in the Race & Class Journal.

Dr Louise Purbrick and Dr Gill Scott were also part of the research team. They drew on UCL’s ‘Legacies of British Slave Ownership’ database in the course of completing the study.

The research team said: “Currently, the database shows a total of 69 slave-owners and former slave-owners who had a Brighton or Hove address between about 1800 and 1880. The majority of them received compensation awards in the 1830s.

“These slave-owners constitute a sub-set of a large and strikingly transient network of colonial entrepreneurs. Among other things, their appearance in Brighton is illustrative of the town’s rapid growth as a fashionable health resort: while only two of the 69 are evidently Brighton-born, another 45 retired and/or died here.”

Among the city’s residents who were paid by the British government was Caroline Anderson, who lived in Bedford Street in Kemp Town. She received money as an inheritor of the sugar estate owned by her father Andrew on Tortola in British Virgin Islands.

“We were drawn to the case of Caroline Anderson because it illuminates the British colonial wealth derived from Caribbean slavery and, at the same time, reminds us of the ways in which the enslaved themselves always resist their bondage,” said the researchers.

“Caroline Anderson’s personal inheritance highlights how many ordinary middle-class British people, including women, benefitted from the compensation paid to owners of the enslaved when the institution was ended.”

The article also outlines how, three years before emancipation, slaves on Caroline’s father’s sugar estate developed a plan to revolt against their oppressors and sail to Haiti to freedom, a plot which contributed to the last wave of slave resistance across the Caribbean.

“The fact that the enslaved peoples on her father’s Caribbean plantation planned to rise up in 1831, just two years before British Emancipation, is a reminder of the crucial role played by the enslaved themselves in the struggle to end slavery,” said the research team. “Her case enabled us to write a connected history that relates struggles ‘from below’ with financial accumulation ‘from above’”.

The researchers said that they think “some people will be surprised” by the revelations of their journey entry, but that “that in itself is not surprising.”

They said: “Memories of the British Empire have always been, and still are, highly selective, complicated and contested. Britain’s historic role in transatlantic enslavement has been largely forgotten until very recently – not just in Brighton but nationally.

“Britain’s role in ending enslavement has been traditionally celebrated instead. The conversation about transatlantic enslavement and its legacies has certainly shifted over the last decade, but this national forgetting is reflected in the ways in which Brighton’s history is very much associated with its development as a fashionable resort for the wealthy during the Regency period, with no mention of the fact that this was precisely the period when Britain’s global Empire was flourishing and the Caribbean sugar colonies were still a major source of Britain’s wealth.”

“The impact of imperialism on eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain is visible everywhere in Brighton, especially in its dramatic ‘Orientalist’ architecture. The violent sources of the colonial wealth that helped to build Brighton, however, is more difficult to represent.”

Early aspects of this research were represented in the ‘Maps and Lives’ exhibition, curated by Dr Louise Purbrick, held at the Phoenix gallery in Brighton on November and December 2017.

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