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The University of Southampton
HistoryPart of Humanities

Research project: Gender, family and British slave-ownership

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This project explores gender, family and absentee slave-ownership in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain.

Fig. 1: Victoria Adukwei Bulley, ‘A Series of Unfortunate Inheritances’ (2018).
Fig. 1: Victoria Adukwei Bulley, ‘A Series of Unfortunate Inheritances

It examines what it meant — materially, legally, symbolically — for men and women, to own property, both metropolitan and colonial, landed and in the form of other human beings. Using one particular family, the Chandos/Grenvilles, to explores the lives of the men and women who helped to bring slave-ownership ‘home’ to metropolitan Britain, it demonstrates that the histories of Britain and the Caribbean cannot be conceived of separately; they were inextricably intertwined.

The project explores how gender shaped the experiences of both slave-owning women and men, complicating traditional ideas about what it meant to be a slave-owner, ‘West Indian’ and absentee. But it places a particular focus on female absentees, demonstrating how integral they were to the practice of British slave-ownership in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The work raises the question as to how we should view female property-owners when their ‘property’ included those they violently enslaved. In highlighting how important it is to include slave-ownership in discussions of female property-ownership more broadly, it emphasizes the necessity of always exploring power in intersectional ways, taking account of race and class as well as gender.

Although it takes absentee slave-owners as its object of study, this project is not solely about slave-ownership. This is because it can’t be. Slave-ownership was not somehow insulated or isolated from the wider lives and experiences of British absentees. The people at the heart of this research were not just slave-owners; they were also husbands and wives, aristocrats, politicians and philanthropists. It is only by investigating the variety of endeavours undertaken by such absentees that we can begin to fully understand the complex ways that slave-ownership was integrated into British society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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