Dispossession: a history of inequality and the British Empire

Bev Skeggs

Academic Director, Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity

Here at the LSE’s International Inequalities Institute we aim to understand the root causes of global inequality. They are structural and systemic, long and deep.



Firstly, one of the most important causes to understand is the history of dispossession, a global phenomenon which continues into the present but which began here in the 1300s. It was a long process which started when people were thrown off the common land as ownership of common property was claimed by the powerful.

But what to do with all the people who had been thrown off the land and had no means to sustain themselves?

By the 1600s a solution had been found. The relationship between the King, the state, and the Virginia company enabled those not employed or made useful to be imprisoned and transported to the new world – Virginia – to build slave colonies. This incarceration and transportation was legitimated by labelling the commoners as “monstrous” and branding them, literally with a V, as vagabonds.

This legitimation, known as a “theory of monstrosity” led to the development of “scientific racism” and to what we experience today as institutional racism. The British state was obsessed with classification: Francis Bacon, The Lord Chief Justice of the Kings Bench from 1592-1604 and a leading organiser of the Virginia Company, listed 30 different types of rogues and beggars and classified them into five main groups.


The value of human life

The historical legacies of dispossession are thus not just about global economic forces but also about what it means to be human. In 1781, 133 African slaves were thrown overboard by the crew of the British slave ship Zong in order to claim insurance, to maximise the profit that could be gained. When the case came to court the disputed legal issue was not their death and the inhumanity of the decision, but whether this was an honest insurance claim. The slaves were classified as goods and chattel, not humans.

The category ‘A Fit and Proper Person’ (for which I have been assessed in my role as a Charity director, but which is usually applied to football club owners in the UK) was based on a case in Bristol where a slave trader, Lascelles, was assessed for his responsibility to own slaves. The ‘proper person’ became the foundation of the seventeenth century political discourse of the possessive individual, institutionalised in the social contract.

Prior to, and in, the social contract women were dispossessed of their bodily integrity, their property and their dignity in a variety of different ways. Remember the legal enforcement of the marriage contract was always part of property law. In the 16th and 17th century witch hunts were used across the globe to eradicate the ungovernable and the fecund. They also became part of the symbolic legitimation of 'the monstrous'.

This legacy leads us to Eugenics and considerations of who should be a member of the British nation. It also informed ideas about 'civilising'.

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The impact today

These are just a few of the legacies connected to dispossession, colonialism and slavery developed by the British Empire. We should remember that many of the financial institutions which now shape our lives: investment vehicles such as stocks and shares, banking systems, insurance companies, and debt, were all forged and/or developed through slavery. All were built from dispossession.

Against this potted sweep of the history of capitalist development though colonialism, slavery, dispossession and dehumanising, we also know of the struggles that were constantly waged against inequality, brutality, dehumanising, property, profit and power. It is from this architecture that we have the structures that we know as race, class and gender today. The many headed hydra kept rearing up after one of its heads was cut off. The policy of transportation attempted to solve the problem of quelling rioters as well as providing free labour for colony building, but they continued to riot. The legacy of this technique and its resistance remains to this day in Africa, India and Australia. The “Rhodes Must Fall” movement in South Africa is a result of this dynamic.

We know that real change comes from people, a fact that drives the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.