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U.K. biz study uncovers slavery profits

Stephen Beard Jul 21, 2009
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Kai Ryssdal: There’s a university project over in Britain that’s causing quite a stir in that country’s business community. A team of researchers is compiling a database of every British company that has historic ties to the slave trade. From London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports the uncomfortable discoveries have already begun.


STEPHEN BEARD: This exhibition in the London Docklands not only recreates some of the miseries of the Slave Trade. It also demonstrates the depth of Britain’s involvement. Museum guide Daniel Nunes says the site of this exhibition is significant.

DANIEL NUNES: You’re in warehouse number one. There were nine of them originally. And they stretched for more than half a mile. The largest brick building in the world.

Before the Slave Trade was abolished these warehouses would have been packed with up to 20,000 casks of rum and 80,000 barrels of sugar from the West Indies.

NUNES: The products of slavery ended up here. And were stored in these very warehouses that you’re in now.

It’s also well-known that London helped finance and insure the slave trade. But how big a role did this barbaric business really play in the British economy as a whole? Catherine Hall, professor of history at University College London has just launched a major study to find out.

CATHERINE HALL: To what extent slavery as an institution contributed to the development of Britain as the major industrial society, the dominating world power in the 19th and early 20th century.

With fellow historian — Nick Draper — Catherine has embarked on a three-year project compiling a list of every company and individual that profited from slavery. They’re trawling through an extraordinary but little-known record.

NICK DRAPER: This in fact is a merchant called Thomas Philpotts in Trelawney, Jamaica.

HALL: I wonder which plantation?

In 1833 Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire. And the government paid a huge sum to compensate slave owners. Catherine and Nick are now poring over the archive identifying those who claimed compensation. Among them: the highly respected merchant bank — Rothschilds.

DRAPER: That claim was transferred to the Rothschilds as part of a private banking transaction between Rothschild and the client.

BEARD: They were using slaves as collateral?

DRAPER: They were indeed.

Another big name in the City of London has also been shown to have benefited from slavery. It’s one of today’s top four law firms — Freshfields.

DRAPER: It tends to highlight how slavery and slave ownership permeated British society even in places where you wouldn’t expect to find it.

Rothschilds and Freshfields have both issued statements regretting their historic links with what they call this “abhorrent trade.” Both insist their forbears actually opposed slavery. Neither firm wants to make any further comment. But Aidan McQuade of Anti-Slavery International certainly does.

AIDAN McQUADE: The impoverishment brought about by the transatlantic slave trade still affects much of the west coast of Africa.

And he has a suggestion for Rothschilds and Freshfields.

McQUADE: That they should invest one percent of their pre-tax profits in programs of democratic development in the countries which were devastated by slavery at that time.

No lawsuit seeking reparations for the Slave Trade has ever succeeded. But American campaigners have made some headway. They’ve persuaded a number of U.S. banks and insurance companies to express regrets for the sins of their forbears. JP Morgan set up a $5 million scholarship fund for African-American pupils.

As the slave trade database expands here in Britain, British companies will be invited to follow the American example.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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