The slave trade served Barclays Bank well. This is why the story matters

Nii Ntreh November 06, 2019
Barclays Bank is hesitant to acknowledge its role in the slave trade. Photo Credit:

When you visit the website of Barclays Bank, you are told: “Barclays was built over centuries. Our longevity is an extraordinary achievement, especially against the backdrop of multiple financial crises, international conflicts, and the agricultural, industrial and now technological revolutions.”

Further, the bank boasts of the “depth of the Values that have underpinned Barclays from the beginning.”

Where slavery is mentioned, Barclays do well to remind the reader that David Barclay, a relative of the founding fathers, and John Gurney, a major investor, were in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively, campaigners against the institution.

The two men were Quakers, it is oft-repeated, and it was an association which bequeathed them with a sense to call out the commodification of African peoples.

Understandably, Barclays do the needful self-exaltation companies are supposed to do. They started with little or nothing, played by the rules, changed lives and you can fill in the blanks.

What you will not find on the Barclays website is any admission that the bank, at a point in time, crucially benefited from the slave trade.

In 2007, The Guardian reported that the bank conceded it might have reaped some good from the slave trade. The conditionality of this admission rests on the fact that Barclays bought banks that insured and financed slavery.

Barclays bought Martins Bank in 1968. But in 1883, Martins had also bought the successful Heywood’s Bank of Liverpool, founded by slave traders, Arthur and Benjamin Heywood.

Barclays in 2007 played the logic of plausible deniability: They cannot be blamed for the sins of those institutions they acquired. How could they have known?

Fair enough except the sins of these banks paid substantially and exponentially. The sins gave oil for the lantern, coal for the steam and gold for the banks.

Heywood’s was at the end of the 18th century, the biggest bank in Liverpool and one of the biggest in northern England. Fortunes that had never been seen in those parts was realised by a bank that financed the building of slave ships and the purchase of the commodity.

The consequences of the slave trade were such that even when the business was outlawed, investors still got to keep the money they made from it. It was “honest returns”.

Barclays Bank’s argument that it cannot be blamed for the business the acquired banks indulged sounds a bit ludicrous. The profits that made these banks attractive to Barclays came from the trade Barclays swore it had naught to do with.

But even if one thinks guilt by way of acquisition is far fetched, there is evidence that Barclays itself financed part of the slave trade in the West Indies.

The University College of London’s biographical entry on David Barclay notes that “his bank had close links to the West India trade and financed plantation mortgages, a connection that created a moral dilemma for Barclay”.

It would then seem that Barclays’ public relations defence leans against the perceived personal morality of its founders and not necessarily how the bank grew and made its money.

This is a tactic borrowed from religious iconography. By reminding us of the Quakers and all that we know about them, the bank would hope moral symbolism trounces historical substance.

Barclays wrote in February of 2007: “[B]arclays has been in business for over 310 years and, while it is possible that some organisations acquired by Barclays may have had some linkage with the slave trade, our founders, by virtue of their very strong Quaker connections, were members of the abolitionist movement.”

In many ways, Barclays is an easy target because it is a very successful bank. But the Bank of England, Lloyd’s and a host of other centuries-old British business cashed out massively from the slave trade.

There really is no ethical consumption in capitalism, is there? As far as it pays, we are good to go.

These days, calls for moral accountability is purposefully and cynically derided as “cancel culture”. But you do not have to stop banking with Barclays.

Just remind those who say slavery ended a long time ago that those to whom the slave trade gave money yesterday, are most likely today’s controllers of our destiny.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: November 6, 2019


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