Slavery, capitalism and solidarity

by Simon Korner

Many of the stately homes in Britain were built with slave trade money. The elite landowners who built these country houses, “utilised notions of gentility, sensibility and cultural refinement in part to distance themselves from their actual connections to the Atlantic slave economy”, according to Slavery and the British Country House, an English Heritage study. The reality of that economy entailed kidnap, murder, rape and torture to enforce the commodification of human beings. Yet heritage plaques on buildings still describe former slave traders euphemistically as “West India merchants” and slave owners as “West India planters”. Unlike the US which had slavery on its own territory, Britain has been able to cover up its history because most of its slavery was overseas – though house slaves existed in Britain in the 18th century, often as conspicuous displays of wealth (as portrayed in Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress).


Despite slavery’s low profile in this country, British capitalists made vast wealth out of the slave industry. The growth of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow can be traced to the lucrative slave trade. Where once Norwich was England’s wealthy second city, Bristol’s population overtook it by the 1740’s – Edward Colston’s slave-trading playing an important role. Belfast grew from a small town to an industrial city on the back of trade with Africa and America, its shipbuilding, rope-making and shoemaking supplying the growing slave trade.

In Capital Volume 1, The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, Marx points out that “…the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins“ is one of the elements that “signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” (1)

Earlier, in The Poverty of Philosophy, 1846, he wrote: “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.” (2)


University College London’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership project shows that up to a fifth of Britain’s richest families made their money from slavery. Yet what we hear mostly is a self-congratulatory tale of British decency in abolishing the slave trade in 1807, and slavery itself in 1833. Historian Kate Donington calls this the “moral capital” of abolitionism, which has served usefully as a “means of redeeming Britain’s troubling colonial past”. The Emancipation Act of 1833 only abolished slavery in the Caribbean – stipulating that for four further years, released slaves had to work unpaid for 45 hours a week for their former masters. Meanwhile, slavery remained legal in India until 1848, and in Nigeria till 1901, while domestic slavery continued in northern Ghana till 1948. Indentured labour was not covered by the abolition laws.

Massive loopholes existed after abolition, with British ships using Spanish or Portuguese flags to transport slaves. The Royal Navy’s West Africa (Preventative) Squadron, supposed to catch the now-illegal slave ships off the West African coast, frequently re-sold captured ships back to slavers. British capitalists were still able to invest in the enormous slave markets in countries where it remained legal – Brazil, the Spanish colonies, and the US – and in slave-worked mines and plantations. British consuls in these countries personally owned slaves.

Slave capitalists in Britain were awarded huge compensation for their loss of ‘property’ after 1833: £17 billion in today’s money, which was 40% of total annual expenditure. Meanwhile, the 800,000 British-owned slaves received no compensation at all. The historian David Olusoga criticised the trivialising nature of a Treasury tweet in 2018: “Here’s today’s surprising #FridayFact. Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes.” He pointed out that it took until 2015 for British taxpayers to pay back this government debt, the largest bailout in history before 2009. What the Treasury should have said was: slavers made fortunes from both slavery and its abolition – at the expense of taxpayers, who included the descendants of slaves.


The Black Lives Matter movement has finally forced some of the UK’s major capitalist institutions to issue statements admitting their complicity in slavery. The Bank of England has confessed that 25 of its governors and directors were major slave-owners or slave traders. A spokesperson said: “As an institution, the Bank was never itself directly involved in the slave trade, but is aware of some inexcusable connections involving former governors and directors and apologises for them.”

The big banks have also made statements. RBS, founded in Edinburgh in 1727, said it had financed plantation owners, and that its directors personally owned slaves. “We have a strong multicultural network across the bank and have recently set up a taskforce led by our BAME… colleagues which will look at what more we can do as a bank. This includes looking at making contributions to BAME groups.” Barclays was also heavily involved in the slave trade and stated: “We can’t change what’s gone before us, only how we go forward. We are committed as a bank to do more to further foster our culture of inclusiveness, equality and diversity, for our colleagues, and the customers and clients we serve.” HSBC likewise had slave connections and stated that it is “committed to learning from the past.” Lloyds bank said: “A lot has changed during the 300-year history of our brands and while we have much within our heritage to be proud of, we can’t be proud of it all.” The bank “can do more, we can do better and we will do it together.” Lloyds insurance market, which dominated the British Empire’s shipping trade and likewise made fortunes from the slave trade, said it now plans to support BAME groups. It called the slave trade “an appalling and shameful period of English history, as well as our own”.

Outside banking, Greene King, one of the UK's largest pub chains, whose fortune derived from slave labour, will also make donations. Its founder owned cane sugar plantations in the West Indies and argued against abolition. Individuals such as George Orwell’s great-grandfather received the equivalent in today’s money of £3 million in compensation, as did David Cameron’s family. William Gladstone’s father got the equivalent £83 million in compensation for his 2,500 slaves – Gladstone’s maiden speech in parliament was in defence of slavery. The Church of England also made money from abolition. Altogether its clergymen claimed £46 million in compensation, with 32 new churches built by donations from their windfall money. A spokesperson said: “While we recognise the leading role clergy and active members of the Church of England played in securing the abolition of slavery, it is a source of shame that others within the church actively perpetrated slavery and profited from it”.

What these statements of regret have in common is equivocation. The admissions of guilty behaviour are hedged about by defensive claims. The actions proposed are tokenistic – making contributions to BAME organisations (Which ones? Who decides? How much? Any provisos?). Their apologetic gestures are being offered only after the public mood made it difficult for them to remain silent. This looks like damage limitation. Bravo! The Bank of England is removing slaver portraits from its walls!

Meanwhile, not a hint of apology from the Monarchy.

Not that apologies are enough. CARICOM Reparations Commission – the pan-Caribbean campaigning body for reparations from the former colonial powers – wants more: “We are not asking for anything as mendicant as handing out checks to people on street corners. The issue of money is secondary, but in this instance the moral discharge of one’s duty does require in a market economy that you contribute towards development”. Demands for reparations have been made for decades – in the USA, Africa, the Caribbean and the UK.

Yet far from meaningful action, the opposite is happening. So-called development in the Global South serves to enrich the wealthy ‘donors’. The $134 billion of loans, foreign investment and aid to Africa each year is dwarfed by the $192 billion extracted annually in profits and debt repayments. Debt bondage under neo-colonialism, like slavery, results in black lives foreshortened. Capitalism exacerbates under-development, both in poorer countries and within the ‘metropolitan’ countries (Britain, the US, France, Belgium and elsewhere), where the daily economic and physical subjugation of black people continues. The capitalist notion of individual betterment has proved to be a cruel myth.

As African American campaigner Queen Mother Moore put it: “They took our boots, no less our straps”.


This moment of Black Lives Matter represents an opportunity to revise the complacent history and self-understanding of our country – as a step towards radical change. The movement’s published aims are to “dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and the state structures that disproportionately harm black people”. This is not an exercise in guilt-tripping the white population – the multicultural nature of the demonstrations shows people making common cause against a shared enemy, in the knowledge that racism terrorises the black population daily and allows capitalism to divide and weaken.

Marx’s declaration, “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin” remains as true as ever. (3)


(1) Marx, K. Capital Volume 1, Lawrence and Wishart 1974 p. 703

(2) Marx ,K. The Poverty of Philosophy, Progress Publishers 1978 p 104

(3) Marx, K. Capital Volume 1, Lawrence and Wishart 1974 p 284

Slaves in cotton fields

Workers in textile mill