Bank of England owned 599 slaves in 1770s, new exhibit reveals | Slavery

IAt the end of the 18th century, Britain’s Caribbean island colony, Grenada, was a place of boom and bust. A hurricane, an ant invasion and Britain’s wars against France and American revolutionaries made the trade in its main commodities – sugar, coffee and slaves – volatile.

Amid the turmoil, ownership changed hands regularly among Britain’s financial elite, but in the early 1770s ownership of two plantations and 599 people passed to an unusual new owner: the Bank of England.

The Bank has previously apologized for its role in the slave trade, but revelations about the institution’s direct ownership of the people have been uncovered in new research commissioned in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

The research has been featured in a new exhibition which opened this week at the Bank’s museum at its headquarters on Threadneedle Street in London. The names of the 599 slaves, acquired by the Bank in the 1770s, take center stage in the free exhibit.

During the protests, the Bank apologized for the 25 governors and directors who had owned slaves. He removed eight paintings and two busts of slave owners from public display, although the display included some reproductions.

It’s part of a reassessment of historic links to slavery and imperialism by institutions ranging from many of Britain’s major banks – Barclays, HSBC, NatWest Group and Lloyds Banking Group – to the insurance market Lloyd’s of London and the brewer Greene King, as well as the National Trust and English Heritage, custodians of British country houses which were in many cases built using colonial wealth or slave labor.

Despite the key role that slavery played in Britain’s imperial economy, this reassessment has become a sensitive topic. The National Trust in particular has faced a barrage of criticism from parts of the Conservative Party and activists who have complained that acknowledging links to slavery and colonialism “would give country home visits a political and racial dimension.

The Bank of England itself came under fire this month for its so-called ‘woke’ policies after it changed the flag depicted on its logo from the English Flag of St George to the Union Flag, to better reflect the role of the central bank in serving the whole of the United Kingdom.

A Bank of England spokesman said: “In 2021, the Bank of England commissioned a researcher to explore its historical links to transatlantic slavery, in collaboration with the Bank of England Museum and Archives. ‘England.

“This research revealed that in the 1770s the Bank made loans to a merchant company called Alexander & Sons. When the company defaulted on these loans, the Bank came into possession of two plantations in Grenada which had been pledged as collateral for the loans. Our research revealed that 599 enslaved Africans lived and worked on these plantations. The Bank then sold on the plantations.

The research was led by Michael Bennett, an expert on the history of modern slavery in Britain and the Caribbean, and followed the work of a small group of volunteers from across the Bank, including members of its network of ethnic minorities.

Michael Taylor, a historian whose 2020 book The Interest showed how the British establishment resisted abolition, said it would be hard to find a British financial institution of comparable age that wasn’t involved in abolition. one way or another in the slave trade.

“During the century before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807-1808, Britain was the world’s foremost slave power,” he said. “Furthermore, sugar, coffee and cotton grown by slaves were among the most valuable commodities in world markets. Together, these factors meant that the slave economy was absolutely vital to Britain’s wider prosperity.

“Owning and managing slave plantations was a capital-intensive business: planters had to buy slaves, import machinery, and build boiling houses, which required massive initial investments and credit extensions. The plantations were then mortgaged and re-mortgaged, and in this way British banking was intimately tied to slavery.

Plantation accounts show expenditures for slave hospitalizations, runaway recuperation and “cage fees”, as well as payments to the Bank of England.

Sign up for the daily Business Today email or follow Guardian Business on Twitter at @BusinessDesk

The plantations, called Bacolet and Chemin, were eventually sold in 1790 to a Member of Parliament, James Baillie, for the equivalent of £15 million in today’s money. The plantations have been owned by nine of Andrew Bailey’s predecessors as current Governor of the Bank.

An inventory of Bacolet from 1788, reproduced in the exhibition, presents the property under several headings: “land”, “slaves”, “buildings” and “livestock”. Most of the men, women and children listed have European names such as Pierre, Alexandre, Catherine and Marie, without any information on the country from which they were taken.

Next to each name is a price in sterling for the person’s value to them or their owners, ranging from £330 for Pierre, a ‘hands-on man’ labeled as a ‘driver’, to £30 for Michell, who is described in a bracketed note as “sickley”.