The “Slavery & the Bank” exhibition at the Bank of England claims to “explore[s] the history of transatlantic slavery through its connections with the Bank of England.” While it was better than expected (and expectations were low), it is not an exhibition by Black people, for Black people. The team responsible for curating the exhibition are not Black, including the exhibition researcher Dr. Michael Bennett. The only input from Black people was via consultation with an external group. The facts omitted are that the horrors of slavery and colonialism are made possible through services provided by the Bank of England to individuals and companies here and in Afrika and the Caribbean.
The first paragraph on the introductory exhibition board and guide reads, “For over 300 years, the slave trade tore more than 12 million Afri[k]an people from their homes and families. Forced into slavery, they worked without pay and with no rights to their humanity, heritage, culture or family ties.”
It goes on to read that “slave trading was the central business of British companies such as the Royal Afri[k]an Company (RAC) and South Sea Company (SSC). Whilst the Bank of England was not directly involved in this way, it became linked to the slave trade through its role in the wider financial system.”
So the museum claims that our ancestors “worked without pay” when in reality they were worked to death. Also, the museum claims that the Bank of England at least “was not directly involved in this way” as if this was some sort of consolation, yet as you progress through the exhibition, it is clear to see how instrumental the Bank of England became to the trafficking and enslavement of Afrikan people.
“The money invested into Bank stock by some of the Governors and Directors will have included wealth they had generated through slavery. The Bank of England then used this money to carry out its day-to-day business,” reads one board.
“Beyond this, the Bank provided a variety of services benefitting merchants, including discounting bills of exchange (cashing payment agreements early). This was particularly useful for merchants who dealt in foreign bills used in the slave and plantation trades. It also offered current account and overdraft services for individuals and businesses. Clients included those at the forefront of Britain’s colonial expansion and its part in the slave trade, such as the East India Company, the Royal African Company and the South Sea Company.”
In the exhibit, there is an account of and names of enslaved Afrikans “bought” by the Bank of England from a Scottish merchant firm.
“When Alexander & Sons went bankrupt in around 1774, the Bank of England (along with several other creditors) came into possession of two sugar plantations in Grenada. By 1788, the plantations were worked by 599 enslaved Afri[k]ans.”
“When a credit crisis hit the City of London in 1772, the Bank of England restricted the ability of businesses to discount bills of exchange (cash-in payment agreements early). However, for the Scottish merchant firm Alexander & Sons, the Bank allowed them to do this on the condition that they provide security by mortgaging land and property. The security offered was an estate in Scotland called Cluny and two sugar plantations in Grenada called Bacolet and Chemin, along with their enslaved workforces.”
There was an above-head section display of the 599 names of the children, men, and women enslaved from the Bacolet and Chemin plantations inventories. Their role on the plantation and “value” was also on record. The Bank of England states that they “cannot be sure these were the names they were born with.” They were all primarily non-Afrikan names so they were likely names given by the “enslavers”
There was a space for visitors to leave comments where more was made plain than in the exhibition. Several commenters asked what the Bank of England was going to do now, and a few actively called for reparations:
“Time to compensate the islands of the Caribbean. It is needed!”
“We still need to have the discussion on reparations, for the islands.”
“Still shocking! There should be some repayment.”
Maybe this is just the start. However, the truth is, if the Bank of England and the West were to acknowledge their role in world history, the whole system would come tumbling down. It is a classic case of White psychosis, of Whiteness, distancing itself from its “direct involvement” in the ills of the world to maintain its supremacy.
What is of particular interest is how the Bank of England directors and generals (who were directly involved in the slave trade) are described so objectively and impartially. For instance, take the board entitled “Humphrey Morice: ‘Prince of Slavers’.” It describes Morice’s archives as offering a “unique insight into the activities of one of the most ‘successful” private businessmen involved in the slave trade in the early 1700s.” It goes on, “his interests were primarily in transporting enslaved West Afri[k]ans to plantations in North America and the Caribbean, investing in at least 103 voyages to Afri[k]a. Around 30,000 Afri[k]an men, women and children were forced across the Atlantic in Morice’s’ ships.”
Words here such as “Unique insight,” “most ‘successful’ private businessmen,” and “his interests” portray little in the tone of horror, outrage, and utter contempt for this man and his wilful selfish, callous, and absolute disregard for Afrikan people. Instead, there is a complete lack of awareness of the murderous logic and psychopathy in the description of a man who has “earned… the name the ”prince of slavers”.” A man who was the director of the Bank of England “four times” and the “Bank’s deputy governor and governor.
The same sterile descriptive impartiality is applied to the other directors and generals, like Bank of England director Sir Robert Clayton (who was on the “management board of the Royal African Company” and owner of a “75-acre plantation”); Bank of England director and governor Sir Gilbert Heathcote (“involved in the slave trade, particularly the selling of enslaved Afri[k]ans to the Spanish colonies”) or Bank of England director Sir George Harnage (“slave owner”).
From the Bank of England’s governors and directors who got wealthy off slavery to its provision of financial services for its slaving and colonizing clients and companies. To the underwriting of expensive colonial wars that expanded Britain’s empire and trade routes. The Bank of England shaped the slave trade, and the slave trade itself was integral to the economic and industrial development and prosperity of England and the West and the underdevelopment of Afrika (that we see today).
The Slavery & the Bank is a watered-down project–whitewashed–that does not reckon with what is owed. Despite this denial and distancing of itself from the true legacy of empire, it reinforces the need for us to write our own stories. The story is not the whole story, and Afrikan people are not truly represented in the exhibition. It was the White version, not the right version of the events. The author, curator, and researchers responsible for this whitewash are habitually and professionally disconnected from the experiences of people whose descendants are enslaved and colonized. You have to ask yourself if this is White liberal lip service to Black liberation and another diversity tick-box exercise that reveals a relentless intergenerational inability of White people as a group to be morally persuaded from acting like White people in causing harm and showing indifference to the suffering of others. This is not a project immersed in the need for social and political change. This is not for us.