George Floyd protests force Britain to reckon with its role in slavery, leading some companies to pay reparations

by Madison Luna

Black Lives Matter protests in the U.K. have forced a reckoning with the country’s historic involvement in slavery. Protesters in Bristol roll a statue of slave trader Edward Colston toward the harbor where they later dumped it.

The Bank of England apologized on Friday for its historic links to slavery and promised to ensure no images of former bank officials who owned slaves or profited from slavery are on display.

The U.K. central bank had 27 former members, including 11 former bank governors and 16 directors, who owned slaves or profited directly from the slave trade, according to a database maintained by University College London.

The bank’s announcement comes one day after two venerable brand-name British companies, insurance exchange Lloyd’s of London and the brewer Greene King, announced that they would make reparation payments for the historic role the firms played in slavery. The Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the country’s biggest retail banks, which had several slaveholding directors, toldthe Daily Telegraph that is considering doing the same.

The announcements are a significant victory for the U.K.’s Black Lives Matter protests which, while sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the U.S., have sought to highlight racial inequalities and injustices closer to home. The current movement has succeeded where earlier attempts to wrest compensation from companies with slave-tainted pasts, including several lawsuits against Lloyd’s of London filed by the descendants of slaves in the U.S. in the early and mid-2000s, had failed.

Lloyd’s was founded in a London coffeehouse in 1688 and later underwrote insurance policies on voyages transporting slaves, as well as the commodities, such as sugar, coffee, and cotton, that their labor produced. The company said in a statement that it “cannot always be proud of our past.” It apologized “for the role played by the Lloyd’s market in the 18th-and 19th-century slave trade—an appalling and shameful period of English history, as well as our own.”

The exchange said it would invest in ways to recruit, retain, and develop more black and minority ethnic market participants and provide financial support to charities and other organizations promoting diversity and inclusion, among other steps.

Greene King, which was launched in 1799, said one of its founders profited from slavery and argued against abolition in the 19th century. The company’s chief executive officer Nick Mackenzie said this past was “inexcusable” and that the company would make “a substantial investment” to benefit the black, Asian, and Middle Eastern community in Britain.

Just as statues of Confederate generals have become a focal point for Black Lives Matter protesters in the U.S., in Britain, protests have targeted statues of those who profited from the transatlantic slave trade. In Bristol earlier this month, a statue of Edward Colston, a major benefactor to the city in the early 18th century, was tossed into the harbor. Colston had been a director of the Royal African Company, which in the 17th century held a monopoly on the British slave trade from the West African coast.

The next week demonstrators cheered as a statue of Robert Milligan, an 18th-century merchant who had built one of London’s most important docks, was removed from its plinth. Milligan’s ships plied the Triangle Trade between England, Africa, and Britain’s American possessions, and he led efforts to build London’s West India Docks, where goods produced with slave labor, such as sugar, rum, and coffee, were landed.

The statue-toppling campaign has brought renewed attention to the country’s role in slavery and the extent to which the nation’s wealth is built on the back of that historic crime. It has added momentum to calls for the modern-day beneficiaries of that wealth, especially corporations, to pay reparations.

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