A new exhibition has opened at the Bank of England’s museum that reveals not just how it was involved in the financing of slave traders, but an unexpected discovery that the Bank itself owned slaves.

As one of the major financial institutions of the country, it’s not that big a surprise that it was involved in financing people involved in the slave trade. In fact, it would be a shock if it hadn’t been, as it’s a bank and banks lend to businesses, sometimes businesses involved in trades that we later look back on in horror.

Many of the Banks directors and governers, as leading people of the time, were personally involved in the slave trade though, as that’s often how they made their fortunes, on the slavery of others. The exhibition, in the centre of the museum, looks at how the Bank’s leaders made their fortunes and the wider way that Britain’s hunger for sugar was based on the back of slavery.

The Prince of Slavers

Humphrey Morice was a four-times director of the Bank of England and invested in over a hundred slave voyages, earning him the later nickname of the prince of slavers, as he kidnapped and shipped around 30,000 Africans to the plantations.

On display is a copy of a bill of exchange where he sold “one negro man” for £30 to another slave trader. His archive is now owned by the Bank of England, whereas is often the case, researchers can learn a lot about the slaver, but hardly anything about the slaves. They were just property, no different in their eyes to cargo in the ships heading back to the UK.

The Bank didn’t do that well out him either, as it turned out he swindled the Bank out of £29,000 (about £6.9 million today) although that only came out after his death.

Post abolition

There’s a section on the post-abolition and how the Bank helped the government fund the payments to slave owners in compensation for the loss of their “property”, and the efforts some slavers took to fight this.

The Bank’s own slaves

Back in June 2020, the Bank apologised for its involvement in financing the slave trade and started to remove paintings of former Directors found to have been active in the trade. At the time, the Bank said that it “was never itself directly involved in the slave trade”, but last year as part of a wider review of its history, they commissioned research into the archives.

In the heart of the exhibition is what they found, that the Bank had in fact owned a plantation and owned slaves – 599 of them. And the display explains how this came to pass, not because the Bank decided to buy slaves, but because it foreclosed on the debt owed by a slaver, and took possession of the plantation.

They eventually sold it, treating the slaves no different than how a bank today would sell a repossessed mortgage on a house.

There are notes for people to submit their thoughts:

“We should prioritise ending modern slavery by the TNCs and stop pulling down historical statues of slave traders”

“Would there have ever been any recognition by the Bank of England without the BLM spotlight!!”

“More exhibitions like this please. Today’s people need to think and reflect more about the past and what to do for our culture”

As an exhibition, it’s informative, almost dry at times, but that makes it a better exhibition as it doesn’t try to justify or excuse the past – it simply provides the facts, because the facts are horrific enough on their own. The cold dispassionate display if anything elevates the horror inherent in the cold clinical trade that treated people as mere commodities to be bought and sold, or even dumped overboard as unwanted cargo.

The exhibition, Slavery & the Bank is open at the Bank of England Museum now, Monday to Friday 10am – 5pm, with late openings until 8pm every third Thursday of the month.

As with the rest of the museum, the exhibition is free to visit – just turn up and go in

The exhibition is temporary, but there’s no end date announced yet. Typically their previous exhibitions have run for about 6 months.

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