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Slavery and the Neave Family

Sheffield Neave (1799–1868) English merchant and Governor of the Bank of England from 1857 to 1859.

            Son of slave owner Sir Thomas Neave

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The slave trade was abolished in 1807 across the British Empire, but the ownership of slaves was not finally abolished until 1833. The British government paid £20m in compensation to the former owners of slaves, a vast sum of borrowed money at the time that was only finally repaid in 2015


Compensation claims submitted by the Neave family to the Slavery Compensation Commission included contested claims because slaves were also a ‘financial instrument’ underpinning annuities and mortgages. For example, slave-ownership was normal for wealthy families like the Neaves.

On the 19/6/20 following a worldwide awakening of the way slavery had underpinned the wealth of a very large number of the British aristocracy the Bank of England decided to remove eleven portraits of its former governors who had benefitted from the slave trade. Sheffield Neave, above, was one of those whose portrait was removed.

Neave Slave Figures and compensation

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Following several slave uprisings the government felt it wasn’t worth protecting slavery in the Caribbean for families like the Neaves. The expense of keeping the Royal Navy and army in readiness was a drain on the naval budget, a situation that they were sure would worsen over time. Therefore the British slave-owning class was bought off.

The abolition of slavery in 1833 wasn’t an act of generosity. It was the pragmatic recognition of the odiousness of slavery whilst ‘squaring the circle’ about the importance of slavery to the finances of many British people. That was the genius of the 1833 Act. The government bailed-out the slave-owners, avoided costly military campaigns in the Caribbean and took the moral high ground.


Addendum: from the parliamentary debate 1833


“They were beings of the same flesh, bone, and muscle as ourselves—they were imbued with the same immortal spirit—they were rendered heirs, by the same blood, to the same glorious eternity as we—and was it to become in these days a question and a doubt whether they were entitled to the first birthright of mankind—freedom? He would put a case: suppose that the hon. member for Lancaster who had so ably and eloquently defended the cause of the West Indians, was taken prisoner on his way out to the West Indies, by a corsair, and sold for a slave, should he remonstrate and say he had primitive as well as rational rights which interdicted his being considered as a slave, he would doubtless be told there was a law in that country making him a slave, and thirty-nine lashes would be his least reward for talking reason to his master.” Mr O’Connell Col. 316 HC Deb 3rd June 1833 Ministerial Plan for the Abolition of Slavery 1833




This £20 million is subject to lurid inflation calculations which range from £1 billion ( to David Olusoga’s £16 billion (Guardian 12th July 2015). These calculations serve little purpose and are ‘tabloid’ headline grabbers.


UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership A superb on-line database


Admiral Fleming HC Debate 3rd June 1833 c. 326 see also North East Story: Scotland, Africa and Slavery in the Caribbean


Parliamentary Papers 1836

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