The Bank of England has apologized for the links some of its past governors had with slavery, as a global anti-racism movement sparked by the death of George Floyd forces many British institutions to confront uncomfortable truths about their pasts.
The central bank called the trade in human beings “an unacceptable part of English history,” and pledged not to display any images of former leaders who had any involvement.
“The bank has commenced a thorough review of its collection of images of former governors and directors, to ensure none with any such involvement in the slave trade remain on display anywhere in the bank,” the institution said in statement.
The decision comes after two British companies on Thursday promised to financially support projects assisting minorities after being called out for past roles in the slave trade.
Insurance giant Lloyd’s of London and pub chain Greene King made the pledges after media highlighted their inclusion on a University College London database of individuals and companies with ties to the slave trade.
Launched in 2013, the database shows how deeply the tentacles of slavery are woven into modern British society.
It lists thousands of people who received compensation for loss of their “possessions” when slave ownership was outlawed by Britain in 1833. It reveals that many businesses, buildings and art collections that still exist today were funded by the proceeds of the slave trade.
Those listed on the database include governors and directors of the Bank of England, executives in companies that are still active and forbears of prominent Britons including writer George Orwell and ex-Prime Minister David Cameron.
About 46,000 people were paid a total of 20 million pounds — the equivalent of 40 percent of all annual government spending at the time — after the freeing of slaves in British colonies in the Caribbean, Mauritius and southern Africa.
Some slave owners were paid vast sums. John Gladstone, father of 19th-century Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, received more than 100,000 pounds in compensation for hundreds of slaves, at a time when skilled workers earned 50 to 75 pounds a year.
But not all the slave owners were ultra-wealthy. Middle-class Britons up and down the country were paid compensation. The loan the government took out to cover the payments was so large that it was not repaid in full until 2015.
Information about the role played by British firms and individuals in slavery has been available on UCL’s database for seven years. But corporate apologies are only coming now that the Black Lives Matter movement has thrust the issue of racial injustice into global prominence.
Keith McClelland, a researcher with UCL’s Legacy of British Slave-ownership project, said many parts of British society had been unwilling to face up to the past.
“The dominant narrative from the 1830s onwards was that the great thing about Britain was that it had abolished the slave trade and then abolished slavery,” he said.
“And this wasn’t just a narrative being told about Britain at that time. (Former Prime Minister) Gordon Brown (and) David Cameron made speeches saying in the 2000s saying, there is this golden thread of liberty that runs through British history, one component of which was the abolition of slavery. Fine. Except neither of them actually mentioned that behind that was 200 years of slavery.
“It seems to me just incomprehensible that you can laud the abolition of slavery without talking about slavery itself. But that’s what has happened.”
The racial-equality protests that followed Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis have sparked a reassessment of history, with demonstrators in several countries toppling memorials to people who profited from imperialism and the slave trade.
Earlier this month, protesters in the English city of Bristol hauled down a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, and dumped it in the city’s harbor. City officials fished it out and plan to put it in a museum, along with placards from the protest.
Oxford University’s Oriel College has recommended the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist in southern Africa who made a fortune from mines and endowed Oxford’s Rhodes scholarships for international students.
McClelland said Floyd’s death and its aftermath could bring major change in how Britain faces its past — but it’s too soon to say..
“There are a lot of statements coming from companies about regret,” he said. “Will this make a concrete difference? Ask me in two, three, four, five years’ time. Have they actually done anything rather than say, ‘Oh, well, we’re terribly sorry?’
“We’ll see. I am not entirely optimistic.”