The Bank of England reveals its history of slavery

5 Mins read

We visit a new exhibition that lays bare the institution’s historic links to human trafficking.

The Bank of England’s role in the slave trade was one mostly architected from afar by a few of its most powerful officials, as the bank’s museum reveals, for the first time, the connections between some of its governors and transatlantic slavery.

Jenni Adam is the curator of “Slavery and the Bank”, a new exhibition at the Bank of England Museum with an aim to set the truth in the institution’s past.

“We are talking about late 1700s, early 1800s. And this really is the beginning of early modern Britain. We can’t unpick the situation we are in today unless we can recognise those roots,” she says.

The museum started looking at its historical collections and auditing its portraits back in 2018, but Jenni says the project gained ground in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd and a desire from the public to know how institutions of state are connected to the slave trade.

The bank went through a period of reflection, questioning who those figures hanging on their walls were. The museum’s team started looking at these individuals and their connections.

The role of the bank within the economy was also studied. Transatlantic slavery peaked in the 1780s and Britain was in the eye of it. Examining how this country contributed to it and how much it profited from the trade was important for the museum.

“The Bank of England had possession of 599 men, women and children in the island of Grenada.”

Jenni Adam

The team uncovered information about the bank’s lending history, and it was discovered it owned two estates in the Caribbean in the late 1700s. Jenni refers not just to the property itself, but to people treated as property. The Bank of England had possession of 599 men, women and children on the island of Grenada during that time.

“We put together this exhibition as a way of making sure that these connections are made public, that they are recorded and that the holding of the Grenada plantations is not something that can fall conveniently from institutional memory again,” she adds.

A list of names is splashed on a large banner at the centre of the exhibition. Those are the names of the enslaved people in the Grenada estate. Not much is known about them except the British men who owned them. 

Sir Robert Clayton was one of the bank’s early directors and a slave owner. His wife, Martha, was the daughter of one of the largest landowners in Bermuda. When they married, Clayton’s father-in-law gifted him his estates on the Caribbean island.

He was also a member of the board of the Royal Africa Company and throughout his time in it, the museum estimates that 44,000 people were trafficked. Clayton was also an investor in the RAF, effectively profiting from the enslavement of Africans. He later became involved in the Bank of England.

Inside the exhibition at the Bank of England Museum [Fellipe Pigatto de Andrades]

Another of the bank’s early high-ranking figures was Hilbert Heathcote, depicted in a portrait at the exhibition. Heathcote was the bank’s commissioner – in its initial stage, the Bank of England would call out large lenders to cover some of the government’s financial problems through subscriptions and investments, and Heathcote was one of these investors. 

This was how the bank was consolidated, the idea of a national bank: “Effectively they were part-owners, in a very simplistic way, of the Bank of England,” Jenni says. Heathcote was also the director of the bank for many years and was heavily involved in the trade with Jamaica.

He was later the commissioner for Jamaica and was responsible for handling the transfer of money from the government to the Caribbean. He might have also been involved in naval payments to landowners in the region.

“He was extraordinarily wealthy. When he died, his estate was worth £700,000, £100 million in today’s money. That gives a scale of the money he made from his personal trade with the Caribbean.”

“It paints a picture of the brutality of this trade. That people, humans beings, are no more than a business asset, goods to be traded and trafficked.”

Jenni Adam

The third figure who shaped the trade and connections of the City of London to transatlantic slavery was Humphry Morice. “[He] was known as the prince of slavers because he was so prolific,” Jenni says.

Rather than having a business model of trading outposts on the coast of Africa, the Bank of England governor had a fleet of ships that were constantly in motion. “Trading, moving his cargo, the enslaved people that he was trading from various points in West Africa to the Caribbean.”

Before his death, Morice ran up some serious debts and embezzled £29,000 from the Bank of England to save his failing business. For that reason, the bank seized some of his estate papers to try and get some of the money back.

In some of these documents, the museum found notes belonging to Morice and his ships’ logs, letters from his ships’ captains and, principally, the information Morice was giving them about looking after the welfare of the enslaved on the ships.

But Jenni says this has nothing to do with this concern for them, but with the fact that he was trying to protect his business so that the enslaved people who arrive in the Caribbean are ready to work.

Portraits of figures within the Bank of England are seen above museum murals [Fellipe Pigatto de Andrades]

“It paints a picture of the brutality of this trade. That people, human beings, are no more than a business asset, goods to be traded and trafficked,” she says.

Morice’s portrait at the exhibition, painted by Godfrey Kneller, the most celebrated portrait artist of the time, is nothing short of imposing. It certainly feels like a celebration of his success.

Jenni says the portrait hasn’t been hanging in the museum’s walls for many years. She believes the reason has to do with Morice’s embezzlement with the bank rather than transatlantic slavery.

“For a long time, it was simply as part of the day, part of the business of the day, something that can be brushed away. But of course, now we’re viewing this in a very different way these days,” she adds.

The final figure Jenni talks about is William Manning, an MP and governor at the Bank of England in 1810. He was instrumental in setting up the West India Docks in the London Docklands.

“The docks were opened in 1801 and that was a way to expand the capacity of the port of London to receive imports from the Caribbean.”

At the end of the 1700s, there was a huge demand for goods produced in the Caribbean like sugar and tobacco. “The sugar trade alone was responsible for the enslavement of many thousands of people to produce cheap sugar, so it could be sold in Britain”, she says.

It was a delicate moment because even though the slave trade was abolished over a decade after the opening of the docks, people were still being enslaved. There is this harsh juxtaposition between the booming business in the docks and the horrors of slavery.

“At the same time, we have a growing movement for the abolition of slavery, revolts in the Caribbean, gaining support from white middle-class abolitionists as well,” she adds.

The exhibition does an incredible job of laying out its records and talking about its past connections with the slave trade. It comes at a crucial moment in time when the history of race is being openly debated. 

A mural about Humphry Morice at the centre of the exhibition [Fellipe Pigatto de Andrades]

Jenni mentions that the Bank of England is the first financial institution to talk about this publicly, but she recognises that other organisations are also working out their historic links to transatlantic slavery.

She concludes by talking about the significance of the conversation around the slave trade and the need to integrate it into the museum’s permanent collection.

“It’s a really central part of the history of the early modern economy that we’re still living today and the legacy problems that has brought us, that we’re left with this legacy of racism.”

‘Slavery & the Bank’ runs at the Bank of England Museum until February 2024.

Featured image by Fellipe Pigatto de Andrades.

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