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Britain Comes Clean on Slave Fortunes

One hundred eighty years after abolishing slavery, the United Kingdom is coming clean about fortunes founded on slave ownership and the slave trade.

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While it took a bloody civil war to outlaw slavery in the United States, the United Kingdom outlawed slavery 32 years before us, in 1833.

Lest anyone think that Britain had nothing to lose in outlawing slavery, remember that the UK controlled a string of Caribbean islands full of sugar plantations, including Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados.

Now, British government funded research is unveiling which of today’s British fortunes are directly tied to slave ownership.

Researchers at University College London (UCL) have published a database of roughly 4000 British slave owners who were compensated by the British government in 1833 for the emancipation of their slaves. Their Legacies of British Slave-ownership project also includes details of 613 companies that benefited from their histories of slave ownership.

The great irony, of course, is that Britain did not compensate the slaves for their slavery. The British government compensated the owners for liberating their human “property.” It’s as if we compensated the Germans and Japan for taking away their conquests in World War II.

The second irony is that Britain is coming clean on the slave foundations of its fortunes before we do. America has no comprehensive database of who owned slaves before 1865. How many of today’s American fortunes have their origins in slave ownership? No one knows.

The academics behind the UCL database have been widely quoted as estimating that some one-fifth of nineteenth century British fortunes were founded directly on slavery. That doesn’t include all those who profited indirectly from the fact that other people owned slaves. Given the scale of the Atlantic slave trade, the true figure is almost certainly higher.

In America, however, we had a whole society based on slavery, directly in the southern states and indirectly in the economic profits that southern slavery brought to the country as a whole. It ended in 1865 without compensation, but the overt abuse and exploitation of African-Americans continued for another hundred years.

Since the 1960s discrimination against African-Americans has gone underground, but it has never gone away, and it exists in all states, north and south. Residential and educational segregation are rampant. We have never come to terms with our legacies of slavery.

If our government won’t fund reparations for the descendants of slaves, it can at least fund research into the beneficiaries of slavery. Let us look into the mirror and see ourselves for who we are. That would be far from a final resolution of our slave heritage, but it would at least be a first step in the right direction.

US Rep. John Conyers has a bill before the House, HR 40, that would “establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans.” He has introduced the same bill at the opening of every Congress since 1989.

No one in Washington takes any notice. Rep. Conyers no longer even mentions the bill on his website. But the most important issue in American politics isn’t going to go away just because we ignore it.

After the UK finally abolished slavery in 1833, it still took us 32 years and a civil war to follow suit. We should be able to catch up a little faster this time.

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