UCL British slave ownership study makes city businesses apologise

3 July 2009

Anti-slavery icon

UCL historians’ major investigation into Britain’s debt to slavery has revealed founders of banking dynasties who benefited from slavery.

The UCL study, which aimed to create the first ‘encyclopaedia of British slave owners’, has furrowed the brows of financiers Rothschild, the merchant bank, and Freshfields, the City law firm. These are the first UK businesses to express regret for their historic links with slavery.

Rothschild said in a statement that the information had been new to the company, adding: “We greatly regret that Rothschild is linked in any way to the abhorrent institution of slavery. Rothschild as a firm strongly supports equal opportunities and human rights.”

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer said in a statement: “We greatly regret that the firm is linked in any way to the inhumane institution of slavery. Freshfields has a long tradition of supporting equal opportunities, human rights, and access to justice and we are deeply committed to promoting these objectives.”

Documents from the project, published in the Financial Times this week, revealed that the founder of the banking giant, N. M. Rothschild, had mortgaged 88 slaves in Antigua, used the slaves as collateral, defaulted and then sought to recoup the £3,000 he was owed through a government compensation scheme. Such schemes were set up to bail out slave owners after the abolition of slavery in the 1830s.

These documents have come to light since the launch of the three-year UCL project, ‘Legacies of British Slave Ownership’ sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council. Led by the team from UCL History, Professor Catherine M Hall, Dr Nick A Draper and Keith McClelland, the project built a systematic analysis of the economic, commercial, political, cultural, social and physical legacies of slave ownership. The study sought to highlight the major companies, art collections and institutions that can trace their existence back to colonial slavery in the 19th century.

 

UCL context

UCL History’s expertise spans the fourth millennium BC to the contemporary world, and its specialities are the Ancient Near East and the modern Americas. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, 40% of its research was rated ‘world-leading’ – a figure equalled by only two other UK history departments and bettered by none.

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