Lloyd’s of London slavery review fails to settle heated question of reparations

Modern Britain’s slow, contested moves towards facing the crimes of its past have two connected parts: acknowledging the history, and acting to repair it – making reparations.

The insurance titan Lloyd’s of London, multibillion pound cornerstone of the City’s wealth, power and renown, has taken steps since 2020 to admit its immense historic involvement in slavery, and has published powerful research on the evidence in its archives.

The chairman, Bruce Carnegie-Brown, followed the insurance market’s apology made in 2020 at the height of the Black Lives Matter campaigns with another, saying Lloyd’s was “deeply sorry for this period of our history and the enormous suffering caused to individuals and communities both then and today”.

But the initiatives Lloyd’s announced as its response, “Inclusive Futures”, focusing principally on a £12m programme to increase ethnic diversity in its workplace, and £40m profit-making investments in the African and Inter American development banks, has landed it in the increasingly heated argument about the scale of reparations needed.

Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, responded by pointing out that Lloyd’s’ centuries-long prominence in insuring, financing and profiting from the transatlantic slave trade was already “common knowledge”.

He pointed out that Lloyd’s status as a London home for slavery was covered with dishonourable mentions in Eric Williams’ landmark book Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, and argued that the reparatory initiatives on offer fell far short of substantial.

Lloyd’s says it has developed its response, and programmes to improve diversity at all levels including on the board, with “black experts and ethnically diverse colleagues across the Lloyd’s market to deliver meaningful, sustainable change in building a more inclusive marketplace and society”.

Andrews argues that having policies to attract and recruit a more ethnically diverse workforce is good practice for any organisation, but is unrelated to slavery or making reparations for the trade’s generational damage and enduring inequalities.

“This is the key thing about slavery reparations: Lloyd’s has that wealth and money because of its role in slavery,” he said. “Repair means repair. There is a massive debt that corporations like Lloyd’s owe, and if they’re serious about it, they should direct massive resources to the descendants of the people who were enslaved.”

The research, conducted by Black Beyond Data, based at Johns Hopkins University, charts some of the extensive English establishment networks that grew rich on slavery, with the intimate involvement Williams documented. Alexandre White, who led the research, explained that the documentation held in Lloyd’s archive was limited, so this could not be a full accounting of the vast fortunes made by its underwriters from slavery insurance through the centuries.

It did include some of the original adverts Williams wrote about, which were placed in the London Gazette in the 1700s for “runaway” enslaved people to be identified, caught and returned – to Lloyd’s coffee house, the original base of today’s corporation.

White’s research has also tracked the astonishing extent of slave shipping insurance business conducted by a single Lloyd’s underwriter, Horatio Clagett, in 1807, the last year before the slave trade was outlawed. The archive has also highlighted senior Lloyd’s figures who were centrally involved and influential in the establishment’s decades-long opposition to abolition of slavery, which finally passed in 1833.

Joseph Marryat, an MP who became Lloyd’s chair in 1811, was described by William Wilberforce, the leader of the parliamentary abolition campaign, as a pro-slavery “fanatic”, according to Michael Taylor’s book The Interest. Marryat, with a Lloyd’s subscriber and slaver, Alexander Anderson, and his brother John Anderson, who co-owned a slave castle in Sierra Leone, “wrote petitions against the abolition of the slave trade which were read before parliament in 1807”, White noted.

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Other men on the Lloyd’s governing board, steeped in slavery and plantation interests, included Robert Shedden, who married into a Virginia family who “owned” slaves on their plantation, and James Swanzy, formerly a commander of slaving forts in west Africa.

The resources are being made publicly available online, with a principal aim to project this history for the widest possible education, and aid greater public acknowledgement. The archive opens an insight into how central slavery was to London’s fortune, White said: “London’s growth as a metropolis in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was built on the trade of enslaved people and also the goods that were produced from enslavement.”

Andrews argues that Lloyd’s should be considered one of the most notorious of British companies, fundamental to the industrialised enslavement of people and the financial fortunes made from it.

“This moment is a reminder of just how important insurance was to the system; slavery couldn’t happen without insurance. Lloyd’s itself, the fact it has done so well and is so wealthy today, is a good example of how slavery birthed modern capitalism.”

Governments and national reparations commissions in the Caribbean and other regions that were devastated and still suffer from the inequalities caused by enslavement, are making an increasingly public, concerted case for action. Their argument now stands on research by the consultants Brattle published in August, that worked to quantify the financial harms caused by slavery. It found that Britain has a debt of £18.8tn for its role in the slave trade.

Gradually, despite resistance, this history is being more openly acknowledged, and Lloyd’s is a formidable corporation to do so. But the question of reparations remains a long way short of being answered.

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