The news that major institutions from the Bank of England, a number of universities and Oriel College Oxford, to companies such as Lloyds of London and Greene King have acknowledged their varied links to the slave trade, slavery and empire and announced their intentions to take down portraits and statues, provide money to redress inequalities and be more inclusive in their practices is most welcome. It has been a long time coming. Attempts to address Britain’s historic engagement with the slavery business and its life into the present have been going on for decades. Visual artists, film makers, writers, activists and historians have worked to unpick the national story of a liberty loving and humanitarian people who led the world in the abolition of slavery, and challenge the assumption that race and slavery are problems for the US, not here. The bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 kick-started an unfinished and unresolved national conversation about the meanings and legacies of race and slavery. This time the serious protest movement in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd and the toppling of the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, under the banners of Black Lives Matter, ‘end racial injustices’ and ‘we can’t breathe’, has forced another reckoning. There are huge differences – not least the scale of the angry, passionate and energetic involvement now of young people – black, brown and white – and the role of social media in mobilising protest. In 2007 Blair refused to apologise for Britain’s slave trading past. This time the scale of the major demonstrations alongside public recognition of the disproportionate number of South Asian and black deaths due to Covid-19 have forced 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 database (www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs), was made public in 2012, and we have been adding material to it ever since. The recent press coverage of Lloyds, Greene King etc has drawn directly on the research conducted by the LBS team, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Board and supported by UCL. Public money has produced public history. The initial research concerned the 20m paid in compensation to the 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 300,000+ persons. People who had been bought and sold were now for the last time priced as commodities and the money went to the slaveholders. They invested their spoils in a whole range of economic, political and cultural activities – from building railways and developing merchant banks to buying art works some of which now grace our national collections, refurbishing country houses some of which the National Trust and English Heritage preserve, and investing 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 conditions of limited freedom. Our subsequent research has focused on the Britons who owned property in land and people in the Caribbean from the mid-eighteenth 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 benefitted 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, their terrible forced crossings of the Atlantic and sale in the New World – and slavery, the condition of being enslaved, 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 C18 and early C19. Merchants provided the credit lines for both traders and plantation owners, the metal industries produced guns, fetters, bolts, nails, all manner of iron work necessary for the plantation economy, the famous firm of Boulton and Watt sent some of their 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. And none of this stopped after emancipation, when British capital moved into cotton and fed the massive expansion of US slavery in the South, the extensive use of indentured labour on the tea plantations in India and for sugar in the Caribbean.
The history of Greene King gives one glimpse into some of these entanglements. Benjamin Greene was the son of a draper and apprenticed to the leading brewing firm of Whitbread in London. In 1801 he moved to the country town of Bury St Edmunds and established a partnership with William Buck, the father-in-law of the famous abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. A neighbour, Sir Patrick Blake, owned estates in St Kitts and when he died childless Greene became the manager of the estates. In due course he inherited the estates from Blake’s widow and he also took over the management of properties belonging to a Norfolk family. There were many West Indians, as they were called, absentee slave-owners living off their Caribbean estates, not to speak of the widows enjoying annuities funded by enslaved labour. Greene became an active pro-slaver, and in 1828 bought the Bury and Suffolk Herald to use as a platform for his ultra-Tory views. He steadfastly opposed parliamentary reform, attacked Thomas Clarkson and defended the West India interest. He was one of the c4,000 in Britain (20% of whom were women) who received compensation. His share was £4,000 for 1,396 enslaved men and women in St Kitts and Montserrat.
In 1829 he had sent his oldest son Benjamin Buck Greene to manage the estates and he gained a great reputation as a successful planter. By the time he returned in 1836 there were 18 properties and he had substantially increased the family fortunes. His father moved to London that same year and established a shipping and sugar importing firm in Mincing Lane. Benjamin Buck Greene married the daughter of a man with extensive trading and sugar interests in Mauritius and a new partnership, Blyth and Greene, became a leading London merchant house dealing in colonial merchandise and shipping. Benjamin Buck Greene gained recognition as a most respectable entrepeneur, public man and philanthropist, ‘a pattern of what an English merchant should be’. He was appointed a deputy governor of the Bank of England in 1850 and served as Governor from 1873-5. Meanwhile the brewery flourished under the management of his brother Edward Greene, later to partner with King, and the Caribbean estates continued to be profitable up to the 1840s.
A younger son of Benjamin Greene, Charles had been dispatched to St Kitts aged 16 to look after the estates but died 3 years later having fathered, it was believed, 13 illegitimate children. The novelist Graham Greene, his great-nephew, wrote powerful depictions of the closing years of empire in his fiction, peopled with disillusioned colonial officials and whisky sodden priests, one of the traces of a long history of connection between metropolitan and colonial worlds. In his autobiography, A Sort of Life, published in 1971 Greene does not mention slavery but records his encounters with ‘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’, alongside the descendants of the enslaved and the indentured on their plantations bear witness to the unequal legacies of racial capitalism as it was practiced across the empire.
In the next phase of our work we aim to aim to establish a new database documenting the enslaved of the British Caribbean in the last decades before emancipation, thus facilitating tracking connections between named men and women, 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?