WEALTH: The Bank of England grew rich because of slavery
THE EXTENT to which some of Britain’s wealthiest families profited from the exploitation of enslaved Africans has been made public for the first time.
Historians from University College London (UCL) spent three years compiling the database, which exposes individuals and companies who made a fortune from the Empire’s dark past.
The Legacies of British slave-ownership project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), breaks down a £20million sum of taxpayer money paid to slave-owners in compensation for the loss of their ‘property’, when slavery was made illegal in 1834. The sum represented 40 per cent of the Government’s annual spend and would be worth £16.bn by today’s standards.
Project leader, Professor Catherine Hall, told The Voice: “We want to put slavery properly back into British history. It’s a time associated with shame and there’s a real reluctance to talk about it.”
Compensation was paid, Hall explained, to get the powerful slave-owners, a strong interest group with representation in both the House of Commons and House of Lords, to agree to the Emancipation Act.
She added: “It had long been accepted that if the government took ‘private property’ then it should be compensated as they would do with docks or railways.
“The irony of that is that the whole moral argument for abolition was that people should not be property, so the £20 million goes right against the case people had been making. Radical abolitionists were opposed to it but in the end it was the only way to get the legislation through.”
Hall said that it was clear that historians from 1808 onwards, following the 1807 Slave Trade Act, were already focussing their writing on abolition as the story that should be told.
“The focus on our project is slave ownership,” said Hall. “It’s specifically about the Britons who were involved and who brought the profits back here. We think that’s something British people ought to know about. We are also returning to Eric Williams’ [first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago] argument about the link between capitalism and slavery. Our findings absolutely confirm and extend the arguments that Williams makes.”
Williams argued in the 1940s that the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 was motivated primarily by economics not morality.
Despite the huge compensations paid to former slave owners, the freed slaves received nothing. Most were forced to work as apprentices to ‘earn’ their keep.
Activists have long been calling for the British Government to accept their role in slavery through meaningful amends.
Hall said that “proper evidence that is properly accessible about the scale of the money that came in” could form an important aspect of the reparations argument.
However, activists wanted to make clear that compensation did not necessarily mean financial payments.
“Reparations to rigidly locked into financial compensation; that undermines the ethics of the whole situation. However, despite David Cameron’s recent comments about colonialism having some good sides, Britain owes Africa and her children across the diaspora an immeasurable debt that still has not been repaid," said Toyin Agbetu, founder of Pan-African human rights organisation Ligali.
Esther Stanford-Xosei, co-vice chair of the Pan-African Reparations Coalition in Europe, said: “The economic disempowerment is very real for the descendants of the enslaved in terms of the lives we lead in Britain today.”
The experienced reparations activist, who is undertaking a PhD in the history of the movement in the UK, added: “It’s problematic to just see reparations as money, it’s much broader than that. Reparations comes from the Latin word which means ‘to repair the damage.
“People of African descent have been harmed and continued to be harmed by the legacy of slavery even within our own personal families. You see it in street violence, and in inequalities in health, education and the criminal justice system. There is a real need for internal cohesion. Despite being fractured by history, the best way to get this taken seriously is for the community to show a united front”.
Five strands of reparations based on 1995 UN Framework for Reparations
1. Restitution: to put a people or group in the position they would be in had slavery/colonialism not happened relating to property, land and restoring dignity
2. Compensation: for loss of income, damage to reputation and loss of trading rights with regard to economic activity
3. Rehabilitation: social welfare and legal support a community which has experienced historical disadvantage need
4. Satisfaction: initiatives like memorial days, changing the curriculum
5. Guarantees of non-repetition: a commitment it will never happen again
The database is available online at www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs