The slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 but it was not until 1833 that the Slavery Abolition Act finally banned the ownership of other human beings. However, 46,000 slave owners continued to benefit financially as the subsequent Slave Compensation Act provided £20m in payments – a sum worth billions in 2020 terms. Despite the name of the act, the former slaves were not compensated.
University College London’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership project shows that 10% to 20% of Britain’s wealthy can be identified as having had significant links to slavery. The amount of money borrowed to pay off slave owners was so large that the government only repaid it fully in 2015. Companies with links to slavery in their past include:
Royal Bank of Scotland
RBS was founded in Edinburgh in 1727, but among the hundreds of banks it later acquired some could trace their history as far back as the 1640s (in the case of Child & Co). A 2009 report funded by the bank found that directors of RBS predecessors had owned slaves, as well as giving loans and other support to plantation owners. Eighteen linked directors are referenced in the UCL database. The bank was bailed out by the UK taxpayer in 2009, and the government retains a 62% stake.
A spokeswoman said: “We have a strong multicultural network across the bank and have recently set up a taskforce led by our BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] colleagues which will look at what more we can do as a bank. This includes looking at making contributions to BAME groups.”
Barclays traces its history back to two goldsmith bankers in London in 1690. The name of one of its 250 predecessors gives a clear indication of its role in the British empire: the Colonial Bank finally merged with Barclays in 1925. Two managers, a subscriber and three directors are named on the UCL database as having been involved in the slave trade or received slave compensation.
A Barclays spokesman said: “The history of Barclays, like other institutions, is being examined following recent events. We can’t change what’s gone before us, only how we go forward. We are committed as a bank to do more to further foster our culture of inclusiveness, equality and diversity, for our colleagues, and the customers and clients we serve.”
HSBC was founded in 1865 to finance trade between Europe and Asia, but its 1992 merger with the UK’s Midland Bank gives it earlier roots. Those include the London Joint Stock Bank, whose first manager, George Pollard, shared £2,416 (more than £230,000 today) in compensation for giving up 134 enslaved people in Nevis.
A spokeswoman said: “HSBC has operated across the globe for over 150 years and is fully committed to driving a diverse and inclusive culture. We are committed to learning from the past and, in particular, anything that would be inconsistent with our values today. HSBC has zero tolerance towards racial discrimination, or any other type of discrimination.”
Lloyds Banking Group
For its first 100 years Lloyds Bank operated from just one office in Birmingham. However, in the 1860s it embarked on a period of rapid expansion. John White Cater, a director of one of the rivals it acquired, received compensation for five estates that enslaved 80 people at the time of abolition. Eight former companies associated with Lloyds have links to claimants or beneficiaries in the UCL database,.
A Lloyds spokeswoman said: “A lot has changed during the 300-year history of our brands and while we have much within our heritage to be proud of, we can’t be proud of it all. We stand against racism, slavery and discrimination in all its forms and truly believe that by reflecting, understanding, promoting and valuing the diversity of our colleagues, we will deliver better results. We can do more, we can do better and we will do it together.”
Lloyd’s of London
The insurance market started in a coffee house more than 330 years ago. By the 1730s it was dominating shipping insurance around the world, and playing a key role in the UK’s empire building. That meant it was also intimately involved in the slave trade. Simon Fraser, a founder subscriber member of Lloyd’s, held at least 162 people in slavery and was paid the equivalent of nearly £400,000 for ceding a plantation in Dominica. Descendants of slaves brought action for reparations against Lloyd’s in 2004.
Lloyd’s of London said the slave trade was “an appalling and shameful period of English history, as well as our own, and we condemn the indefensible wrongdoing that occurred during this period”. It now plans to provide cash help to organisations that support BAME groups and “invest in positive programmes to attract, retain and develop black and minority ethnic talent”.
Both of the private bank’s founders, Alfred Latham and James Alves Arbuthnot, were linked to the slave trade. Latham received compensation after the 1833 abolition of slavery, co-founding the bank in the same year. The bank grew into a major funder of Britain’s colonial exploits, including Cecil Rhodes’s gold fields in South Africa.
A spokesman said: “Arbuthnot Latham stands against racism and discrimination in all forms, and is committed to diversity across the bank.”
Pub chain Greene King, which runs 3,100 pubs, restaurants and hotels, has been brewing beer since 1799 when it was founded by 19-year-old Benjamin Greene. Greene went on to own cane sugar plantations in the West Indies where slaves worked, and he criticised abolition campaigners. He received nearly £500,000 in today’s money for three plantations in the West Indies.
“It is inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery and argued against its abolition in the 1800s,” said Nick Mackenzie, Greene King’s chief executive. The company plans to offer financial reparations.