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Database lets British find slave-owning ancestors

LONDON — A database launched Wednesday lets Britons curious about their family history uncover some potentially uncomfortable information: whether their ancestors owned slaves.

Researchers at University College London spent three years compiling a searchable listing of thousands of people who received compensation for loss of their ‘‘possessions’’ when slave ownership was outlawed by Britain in 1833.

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About 46,000 people were paid a total of 20 million pounds — the equivalent of 40 percent of all annual government spending at the time — after the freeing of slaves in British colonies in the Caribbean, Mauritius, and Africa.

‘‘This is a huge bailout,’’ said Keith McClelland, a research associate on the project. ‘‘Relatively speaking, it is bigger than the bailout of the bankers in recent years.’’

Compensation for slave owners was opposed by abolitionists, who argued it was immoral, but it was approved as the political price of getting the abolition bill passed.

The database includes details on the 3,000 compensated slave owners who lived in Britain — rather than its colonies — and includes the ancestors of several present-day politicians and the writers Graham Greene and George Orwell. Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair, and the trustees of his great-grandfather, Charles Blair, were paid 4,442 pounds for 218 slaves on a plantation in Jamaica.

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