Fact check: United Kingdom finished paying off debts to slave-owning families in 2015

The claim: The U.K. government only just finished paying its debts to slave owners in 2015

Recent fatal police shootings in the United States have led to a global reckoning on the role of race and injustice in society. In the United Kingdom, this dispute has centered on the country's imperial history and legacy of slavery.

“In 1833, Britain used 40% of its national budget to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. Britain borrowed such a large sum of money for the Slavery Abolition Act that it wasn’t paid off until 2015,” a graphic posted by the political activist Raheem Kassam reads.

“This means that living British citizens helped pay for the end of the slave trade with their taxes,” the graphic continues. The post has been shared almost 20,000 times.

The story is echoed in an article by the website Your Black World.

When the United Kingdom abolished slavery, the government compensated slave owners for the value lost from freeing enslaved people. It is true the Bank of England only recently paid off these debts.

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Slavery and abolition in the British Empire

The British played an integral role in building the Atlantic slave trade, which enabled chattel slavery, the brutal practice that defined most societies in the Atlantic world.

"Portugal and Britain were the two most ‘successful’ slave-trading countries accounting for about 70% of all Africans transported to the Americas. Britain was the most dominant between 1640 and 1807 when the British slave trade was abolished," the British National Archives found.

In total, about 3.1 million African people were transported to British colonies across the Americas and Caribbean, though only 2.7 million people survived the harrowing "middle passage" in the confines of slave ships across the ocean.

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Anti-slavery sentiment grew in the Britain during this same period, with many British and African abolitionists agitating for an end to the trade and abolition of slavery. In 1807, the British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, which outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire.

"Many, however, simply evaded its restrictions. Slave ships were regularly fitted out in British ports like Liverpool or Bristol. In fact, until 1811 carrying slaving equipment like shackles was not considered proof of involvement in the slave trade," Marika Sherwood found in her 2007 work "After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807."

British slavers and capital were still involved in the trading of African people to plantations in major slave societies like Brazil, Cuba and the United States for years after the slave trade's official abolition.

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In 1834, the British government outlawed slavery in Britain and its American possessions, though not in its Asian colonies such as British India and what would become Sri Lanka.

The British government also paid 20 million pounds – the equivalent of around 17 billion pounds today – to compensate slave owners for the lost capital associated with freeing slaves. This payout was a massive 40% of the government's budget and required many bonds to slave owners to effectuate the law.

These obligations to slave owners and institutions are the debts that were paid off by the UK government only in 2015.

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Compensating slave owners after abolition

The UK Treasury continued to compensate the descendants of slave owners for decades after the abolition of slavery in the empire. The payments were not scrutinized until the British Treasury tweeted out the historical fact in 2018.

"The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn't paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade," the tweet read.

The tweet was widely criticized at the time, with many outraged that current British tax dollars were compensating the descendants of slave owners. The Treasury later deleted the tweet.

While the British government hasn't disclosed a complete list of the recipient individuals and firms of bonds related to compensation for slaves, researchers at University College London have compiled a list of over 46,000 current individuals and groups who have received government payouts related to the abolition of slavery. Many powerful British families, including current business and political elites in the United Kingdom, are among the recipients uncovered by the UCL team.

Yet not all recipients were already wealthy or became so due to the payouts; UCL records show many middle-class Britons also benefited from the bonds.

"Britain stood out among European states in its willingness to appease slave owners, and to burden future generations of its citizens with the responsibility of paying for it," Kris Manjapra wrote for The Guardian in 2018.

Recently, economists and political scientists have debated whether the payouts were necessary for the successful abolition of slavery, some arguing that political will would have been better used to compensate Black slaves instead.

Our ruling: True

The British government only paid off its obligations to former slave-owning families and organizations in 2015. When this fact gained public attention, it turned into a major controversy in the United Kingdom, which has since been reignited by international reckoning over anti-Black racism and social justice. We rate this claim TRUE because it is supported by our research.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: U.K. paid off debts to slave-owning families in 2015