UK economic history: slavery | Financial Times

Protests are toppling statues of slave traders in the UK. Britain is finally facing up to its historic role in the enslavement, abuse and murder of millions of Africans.

Until recently, the UK marginalised its disreputable past as a financier, trader and owner of slaves. Some pundits downplayed the economic significance of slavery following a national apology for the trade in 2007.

A growing body of evidence proves them wrong. The proceeds of this iniquitous business were huge. They taint the national balance sheet to this day.

Chart shows share of Britain’s GDP (%) showing economic activity related to slavery

Slave trading between Africa and the British Caribbean was so lucrative that it covered steep costs and high risks until abolished in 1807.

Human trafficking was only one part of a sprawling economic complex. Sugar was the most important product, accounting for about 15 per cent of the value of all goods imported into the UK in 1772-74, according to Bank of England data.

Klas Ronnback of Gothenburg University has estimated the scale of slave-related businesses during the 18th century. The gruesome “Triangular Trade” between England, Africa and the Caribbean peaked at 6 per cent of GDP, he found. Total output dependent on slavery was double that. Professional and support services account for about the same proportion of GDP in modern Britain.

It is clear slavery was integral to the UK economy for more than a century, with proceeds enjoyed at home and misery parked offshore.

Britons received £20m in compensation after slave ownership was abolished in 1833, £2.6bn in today’s money. Recipients put a chunk of the cash in the Industrial Revolution, says Nick Draper, ex-director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave Ownership at UCL. If half the money bought corporate debt with proceeds reinvested, it would now be worth £150bn.

The amount of modern UK capital sullied by such origins cannot be quantified precisely. But we can be sure it is large. It surrounds us today, alongside the UK-quoted banks and businesses whose forerunners profited from slavery. 

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