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Profit and Loss

Documentary about the abolition of slavery. Huge sums of money were paid out in compensation, not to slaves, but to slave owners.

In 1834 Britain abolished slavery, a defining and celebrated moment in our national history. What has been largely forgotten is that abolition came at a price. The government of the day took the extraordinary step of compensating the slave owners for loss of their 'property', as Britain's slave owners were paid £17bn in today's money, whilst the slaves received nothing.

For nearly 200 years, the meticulous records that detail this story have lain in the archives virtually unexamined - until now. In an exclusive partnership with University College London, historian David Olusoga uncovers Britain's forgotten slave owners. Forensically examining the compensation records, he discovers the range of people who owned slaves and the scale of the slavery business.

What the records reveal is that the slave owners were not just the super-rich. They were widows, clergymen and shopkeepers - ordinary members of the middle-classes who exploited slave labour in distant lands. Yet many of them never looked a slave in the eye or experienced the brutal realities of plantation life.

In Barbados, David traces how Britain's slave economy emerged in the 17th century from just a few pioneering plantation owners. As David explores the systemic violence of slavery, in Jamaica he is introduced to some of the brutal tools used to terrorise the slaves and reads from the sadistic diaries of a notorious British slave owner. Elsewhere, on a visit to the spectacularly opulent Harewood House in Yorkshire, he glimpses how the slave owners' wealth seeped into every corner of Britain.

Finally, amongst the vast slave registers that record all 800,000 men, women and children in British hands at the point of abolition, David counts the tragic human cost of this chapter in our nation's history.

59 minutes

Last on

Thu 2 Jul 2020 21:00

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Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:17

    Max Richter


  • 00:24

    Nils Frahm


  • 00:53

    Nils Frahm

    Old Thought


Role Contributor
Presenter David Olusoga
Writer David Olusoga
Executive Producer Chris Granlund
Series Producer James Van Der Pool
Director James Van Der Pool


Featured in...

Legacies of British Slave-ownership

Legacies of British Slave-ownership

Search UCL's database for the names of Slave owners