George Floyd protests force Britain to reckon with its role in slavery, leading some companies to pay reparations

June 18, 2020, 2:42 PM UTC
Black Lives Matter protestors roll the statue of Edward Colton, who was active in the slave trade, towards the harbor where they will later dump it.
Protesters transporting the statue of Colston towards the river Avon. Edward Colston was a slave trader of the late 17th century who played a major role in the development of the city of Bristol, England, on June 7, 2020.
Photo by Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Bank of England apologized on Friday for its historic links to slavery and promised to ensure no images of former bank officials who owned slaves or profited from slavery are on display.

The U.K. central bank had 27 former members, including 11 former bank governors and 16 directors, who owned slaves or profited directly from the slave trade, according to a database maintained by University College London.

The bank’s announcement comes one day after two venerable brand-name British companies, insurance exchange Lloyd’s of London and the brewer Greene King, announced that they would make reparation payments for the historic role the firms played in slavery. The Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the country’s biggest retail banks, which had several slaveholding directors, told the Daily Telegraph that is considering doing the same.

The announcements are a significant victory for the U.K.’s Black Lives Matter protests which, while sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the U.S., have sought to highlight racial inequalities and injustices closer to home. The current movement has succeeded where earlier attempts to wrest compensation from companies with slave-tainted pasts, including several lawsuits against Lloyd’s of London filed by the descendants of slaves in the U.S. in the early and mid-2000s, had failed.

Lloyd’s was founded in a London coffeehouse in 1688 and later underwrote insurance policies on voyages transporting slaves, as well as the commodities, such as sugar, coffee, and cotton, that their labor produced. The company said in a statement that it “cannot always be proud of our past.” It apologized “for the role played by the Lloyd’s market in the 18th-and 19th-century slave trade—an appalling and shameful period of English history, as well as our own.”

The exchange said it would invest in ways to recruit, retain, and develop more black and minority ethnic market participants and provide financial support to charities and other organizations promoting diversity and inclusion, among other steps.

Greene King, which was launched in 1799, said one of its founders profited from slavery and argued against abolition in the 19th century. The company’s chief executive officer Nick Mackenzie said this past was “inexcusable” and that the company would make “a substantial investment” to benefit the black, Asian, and Middle Eastern community in Britain.

Just as statues of Confederate generals have become a focal point for Black Lives Matter protesters in the U.S., in Britain, protests have targeted statues of those who profited from the transatlantic slave trade. In Bristol earlier this month, a statue of Edward Colston, a major benefactor to the city in the early 18th century, was tossed into the harbor. Colston had been a director of the Royal African Company, which in the 17th century held a monopoly on the British slave trade from the West African coast.

The next week demonstrators cheered as a statue of Robert Milligan, an 18th-century merchant who had built one of London’s most important docks, was removed from its plinth. Milligan’s ships plied the Triangle Trade between England, Africa, and Britain’s American possessions, and he led efforts to build London’s West India Docks, where goods produced with slave labor, such as sugar, rum, and coffee, were landed.

The statue-toppling campaign has brought renewed attention to the country’s role in slavery and the extent to which the nation’s wealth is built on the back of that historic crime. It has added momentum to calls for the modern-day beneficiaries of that wealth, especially corporations, to pay reparations.

A neglected subject

Slavery is a neglected subject in the U.K., where popular history has tended to focus more on the nation’s leadership in helping to abolish slavery with the passage of the 1807 Slave Trade Act than on its culpability in the 150 years that came before. (In addition, British textile mills remained heavily dependent on slave-produced American cotton right up until the end of the Civil War. Despite official British neutrality in that conflict, many British citizens and businesses provided financial and material support to the Confederacy.)

This myopia applies to Britain’s public spaces too. “The physical environment in Britain has worked to elide slavery and privilege abolition,” the historian Nick Draper wrote in an essay published earlier this month in the journal History & Policy. “Memorials to those who participated in slave-trading or slave-ownership celebrate their activities in other spheres but remain silent on their connections with slavery, while numerous statues commemorate the abolitionists and their gift of freedom to captured Africans.”

Draper is former director of the UCL (University College London) Legacies of British Slave Ownership project, which has sought to document all the ways in which wealth from the slave trade and slave labor is infused throughout the British economy and society. Activists have used the database the project maintains to identify companies such as Lloyd’s of London, the Greene King, and Royal Bank of Scotland, that have been pressured to pay reparations. It is also the UCL database that was used to identify the Bank of England members associated with slavery.

But Draper and other historians who have studied Britain’s connections to slavery are wary that the current drive to remove statues and demand reparations, in its zeal to correct the injustices of history, may wind up doing damage to it.

Draper points to calls to remove a bust of Henry Tate, the 19th-century sugar magnate and collector of British art who endowed the great London art museums that now bear his name, as an example of where the removal movement may be going astray: Sure, Tate made his money in an agricultural commodity, sugar, whose cultivation was originally made possible by slavery. But, Draper says, Tate himself was not a slave owner and did not profit directly from the trade. Slavery in Britain was abolished before he was born and ended in the Caribbean when he was just a child.

Keeping records

A key document for the UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership project is the record of individuals who received compensation from the British government under the 1837 Slave Compensation Act. This law reimbursed former slave owners for the “property” they had lost when Parliament finally got around to freeing all slaves in British territory. (Although Britain outlawed participation in the transport of slaves from Africa for sale in the Americas in 1807, it did not actually free most slaves held within the British Empire until 1833—or, in the case of slaves held in India and modern-day Sri Lanka, until 1843). More than 40,000 compensation awards were made from a 20-million-pound fund set up to reimburse former slave owners—the single largest U.K. government bailout of an industry prior to the 2008 financial crisis. (Meanwhile, the freed slaves themselves received nothing.) Researchers connected with the project estimate that between 10% and 20% of Britain’s wealthiest individuals owe some portion of their fortune to the slave trade.

The tentacles of slavery, and the money derived from it, extended into distant corners of society and the economy. “It was a system that so permeates the Western maritime economy, where do you start and stop responsibility?” James Walvin, an emeritus professor of history at the University of York who studies the slave trade, says. “Everyone is involved, from the royal family on downwards. What about the ordinary sailors who crewed the ships or the gunsmiths who equipped them?”

That said, a few industries in particular have come under scrutiny. One is insurance. Most British slaving voyages in the 18th century carried insurance, not just for the ship, but for its human cargo too. Over time, these policies became ever more sophisticated—if not any less immoral: They compensated shipowners in cases where slaves were killed in the course of putting down shipboard revolts, but charged large excesses to encourage captains to guard against insurrections. They compensated shipowners for slaves lost to “perils of the sea,” such as storms, or because of lack of water owing to long periods of becalment, or lack of navigable winds, but not for those who died en route from more routine causes, like disease, a refusal to eat, or suicide.

Historians Robin Pearson and David Richardson of the University of Hull estimate that the slave trade generated at least 40% of marine insurance premiums in the late 18th century, and some other historians have put the figure even higher. “It was probably the single largest contributor to the growth of marine insurance,” Richardson notes.

But the two historians say, with the exception of Lloyd’s of London, it is difficult to find any modern insurance companies that are the direct inheritors of slave trade underwriters. After the Royal African Company went bankrupt in 1708, slaving voyages were undertaken by individual shipowners or groups of wealthy merchants in cities like London, Liverpool, and Bristol. The insurance policies for those ventures tended to be underwritten by syndicates of other slave-ship owners in those cities. The syndicate was formed for just one voyage and disbanded after the ship returned home, Pearson says. “There was no corporate continuity to any of these enterprises, and none of them got absorbed into any modern marine insurance company,” he says.

The banks’ role

A similar issue has stymied efforts to scrutinize the finance industry for its role in the slave trade. The directors of some banks that were later absorbed into some of Britain’s largest retail banks—most notably RBS, Barclays, HSBC, and Lloyds Bank (not affiliated with Lloyd’s of London)—do show up in the UCL database. But, in other cases, the money trail is harder to trace.

For instance, those 20 million pounds paid out to former British slave owners. It represented about 40% of the British Treasury’s annual income. To find the money, the British government borrowed three-quarters of it from the banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild and his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore, according to Draper’s research. It is believed Rothschild and Montefiore syndicated the loan to other banks and investors, since, then as today, this was common practice for such large loans. But Draper and others have been unable to find any record of exactly who held the loan notes.

Naomi Fowler, who works for the Tax Justice Network, wrote a blog post detailing her efforts to find out more: She filed public record requests with the U.K. Treasury and Debt Management Office in 2018. She found out the original slave compensation loan was consolidated with other government bonds with a 4% interest coupon, redeemable after 1957, and that it was fully redeemed only in 2015. But, since the bonds could have been freely traded many times in the intervening years, tracking exactly who profited from the coupon payments is almost impossible to determine.

“The names and details of those creditors and investors remain frustratingly out of sight,” Fowler writes. Fowler says she is hoping to replicate what happened in the U.S. in 2005, when JPMorgan Chase acknowledged that two of its predecessor banks had, between 1831 and 1865, allowed slaves to be used as collateral for loans and had wound up owning 1,250 of them in Louisiana as a result of defaults. To make amends, the bank agreed to provide $5 million over five years to pay full tuition for black undergraduates from Louisiana to attend college there.

Given the difficulties of untangling the modern-day inheritors of slave wealth, many reparation campaigners have turned their attention to the British government itself. Kris Manjapra, a Tufts University historian, has called on Britain to pay reparations. So too has Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, whose 2012 book, Britain’s Black Debt, led to increased calls from Caribbean nations, the majority of whose citizens are descended from British slaves, for the U.K. to pay reparations. Those calls have been taken up in the past week by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This story has been updated to reflect Friday’s announcement from the Bank of England.