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By Peter Kilfoyle
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'Powerful witness to a grievous wrong': Lord Boateng reviews 'Slavery & The Bank'

'Powerful witness to a grievous wrong': Lord Boateng reviews 'Slavery & The Bank'

Bank of England Museum

3 min read

Appropriately forensic in its approach, the Bank of England Museum’s excellent exhibition, exposing its appalling historic complicity in the transatlantic slave trade, requires a strong stomach

The excellent Slavery & the Bank exhibition housed in the central rotunda of the Bank of England Museum doesn’t display the hideous paraphernalia of slavery. It does however require a strong stomach. The warning that greets you at the entrance, that its subject matter may disturb and offend, is certainly justified.

The degree of complicity of the Bank, its governors and shareholders in the transportation of millions of Africans against their will across the Atlantic to be worked to death in the plantations of the Caribbean and the Americas is truly appalling. The extent to which Britain’s prosperity and its industrial revolution was reliant on the wealth arising from this infamous trade is still rarely acknowledged. This exhibition takes an appropriately forensic approach to correcting that. The Bank’s ledgers and share certificates, well displayed and explained, tell the story graphically. 

The depopulation of Africa, the subjugation of its coastal tribes, and the deliberate fostering of conflict was seen as entirely justified. A policy to ensure a ready supply of slave labour to feed Europe’s ravenous appetite for sugar and nicotine was simply a matter of business.

The most egregious profiteers are now named in this exhibition

The curators usefully name some of the hitherto unsung heroes and indeed heroines of the fight for abolition – amongst them the albino Jamaican Amelia Lewsham. 

Most of the persons connected to the Bank that we are told about however were vocal in their support for slavery. They were quite content to profit from the trade and the substantial compensation that was the price paid for abolition. No such compensation was paid to the victims. The most egregious profiteers are now named in this exhibition and their portraits and marble likenesses relegated to history’s naughty corner. No recompense, but at least some regard for their victims, who still have no national memorial in this country.

The exhibition, which the Black and Ethnic Minority Staff Network of the Bank of England initiated and has been involved in curating, came about as a result of the global revulsion at the murder of George Floyd. It’s a sad irony that it took yet another racially motivated killing, of a descendent of slaves centuries after abolition, to get even this modest acknowledgement of culpability.

This exhibition is the beginning of a process by the Bank of England to explore the extent of its own, and our nation’s, involvement in the financing of slavery. And then what? Reparations or some other form of redress? Central to the exhibit is a display of visitors’ written reactions, and that is certainly the preferred option for many. Silence and wilful inaction, as the Hon Mia Mottley,  the prime minister of Barbados – an island much referred to in this exhibition – has so effectively made clear, is no longer a viable policy.

This exhibition bears powerful witness to a grievous wrong. It’s well worth visiting either in person or virtually, where key exhibits are well presented online by members of the Bank’s staff:

Lord Boateng is a Labour peer and former chief secretary to the Treasury

Slavery & the Bank
Location: Bank of England Museum, London, until 28 April 2023

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