Opinion: The slavery business contributed to the building of modern Britain. Can we make amends?
24 June 2020
Emeritus Professor Catherine Hall (UCL History) welcomes the decision of businesses to make reparations after evidence emerge that they had benefitted from slavery, and discusses future research into the Britain’s legacy of slave ownership.
The news that major British institutions, from the Bank of England, a number of universities and Oriel College Oxford, to companies such as Lloyds of London and the brewery Greene King, have acknowledged their links to the slave trade, slavery and empire is most welcome. They have announced that they will interrogate the place of portraits and statues, provide money to redress inequalities, and be more inclusive in their practices.
It has been a long time coming. The scale of the George Floyd demonstrations, and the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue, alongside public recognition of the disproportionate number of the deaths of south Asian and black people due to Covid-19, have compelled responses from institutions and companies that have had the information available as to their shameful histories for years, but have chosen to ignore it.
The Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) database was made public by University College London in 2013, and we have been adding material to it ever since. The database invites the nation to actively engage in reparative history, by which we mean exploring and understanding wrongs of the past in order to address the ways in which injustices may be acknowledged and put right.
The initial research concerned the £20m paid in compensation to slave owners when their human property – enslaved men and women across the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape – were emancipated in 1834. Slave owners were paid a proportion of what was deemed to be the market value of these 670,000-plus persons. People who had been bought and sold were now for the last time priced as commodities, and the money went to the owners. They invested their spoils on a whole range of economic, political and cultural activities – from building railways and developing merchant banks to buying artworks, some of which now grace our national collections (helping to refurbish country houses preserved by the National Trust and English Heritage). They also invested their capital, both human and mobile, in the development of the new colonies of white settlement in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Emancipated men and women, meanwhile, struggled with their varied degrees of freedom.
Our subsequent research has focused on the Britons who owned property in land and people in the Caribbean from the mid-18th century to 1833 – opening up the long histories of white families who lived off the exploitation of enslaved people over generations. Our aim has been to provide unequivocal evidence of the ways in which white Britons have benefited from the slavery business, and how practices of racial injustice are historically embedded in British society and culture – how the past lives on in the present.
We use the term the “slavery business” to encompass the range of economic activities associated with British slavery. There is confusion in many people’s minds between the slave trade – the capture of men, women and children, mainly in west Africa, their sale to European traders in exchange for guns, textiles etc and their terrible forced crossings of the Atlantic and sale in the New World – and slavery. The latter refers to the condition of being enslaved, regarded as property, with that status passed on generationally. It meant working on plantations, in stock-breeding pens and as urban workers in the Caribbean, producing the sugar which had become part of British life, treasured not least for that iconic English cup of tea.
Both the slave trade and slavery were supported by a host of other activities which were crucial to the development of the British economy in the late 18th and early 19th century. Merchants provided the credit lines for both traders and plantation owners; the metal industries produced guns, fetters, bolts, nails, and all manner of iron work necessary for the plantation economy; the famous engineering firm Boulton and Watt sent some of its earliest steam engines to Jamaica; the shipbuilding industry, the dockworkers, the sailors; the sugar refining industry; the grocers who sold to the consumers – and so it went on.
None of this stopped after emancipation, when British capital moved into cotton and fed the massive expansion of slavery in the US south, the extensive use of indentured labour on the tea plantations in India and for sugar in the Caribbean. Contrary to the myth, Britain’s economy became more dependent on slavery after emancipation than it was before.
The history of Greene King gives a glimpse into some of these entanglements. Benjamin Greene started off as an apprentice to the leading brewing firm Whitbread in London, and would go on to inherit estates in the island of St Kitts, becoming one of many absentee slave owners living off their Caribbean property. Once emancipation happened he was one of the 4,000 people in Britain (20% of whom were women) who received compensation. His share was £4,000 – £270,000 in today’s money – for 1,396 enslaved men and women in St Kitts and Montserrat.
In 1836, he established a leading London merchant house dealing in colonial goods and shipping. His son Benjamin Buck Greene, who spent time in St Kitts and was a successful planter, married the daughter of a prosperous merchant trader in Mauritius and set up a partnership with him. Greene gained recognition as a respectable entrepreneur and philanthropist, and was appointed governor of the Bank of England in 1873. Meanwhile the brewery flourished under the management of Benjamin’s third son Edward Greene, and the Caribbean estates continued to be profitable up to the 1840s.
Another son, Charles, was dispatched to St Kitts aged 16 to look after the estates but died three years later having fathered, it was believed, 13 illegitimate children. The novelist Graham Greene, his great-nephew, wrote in his autobiography, A Sort of Life, of encounters with his “coloured Greenes”, one of the many legacies of British slave ownership. His family’s activities as slave owners and merchants, buttressed by inheritance, strategic marriages and partnerships, had secured their fortunes for generations. The “coloured Greenes”, as he called them, alongside the descendants of the enslaved and the indentured on their plantations, bear witness to the unequal legacies of racial capitalism as it was practised across the empire.
In the next phase of our work, LBS aims to document the enslaved of the British Caribbean in the last decades before emancipation, tracking connections between named men, women and children, the slaveholders, and the estates and properties between 1817-33. Who knows what connections into the present will emerge from this work, and what demands it will be possible to make on the basis of new evidence?
This article was first published in the Guardian on 23 June.
- Emeritus Professor Catherine Hall’s academic profile
- UCL history
- UCL Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences
- Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership