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From the Town Square to the Boardroom: Britain Grapples With Its Racist Past

It is unclear if the firms are prepared to go so far as making compensatory payments for their past actions. But the announcements by Lloyd’s and Greene King nevertheless opened a new chapter in corporate accountability in Britain, laying bare the role of slavery in enriching some of the country’s best-known corporate names.

Nine British firms were found to have benefited either directly or indirectly from compensation after slavery was abolished. Among those, according to a database compiled by University College London, are HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays Bank and Lloyds Banking Group. Pressure will mount on those banks to make amends.

To some skeptics, the announcements by Lloyd’s and Greene King were public-relations stunts that would do little to address the profound injustice caused by slavery.

“A token nod to encouraging diversity and giving away unspecified amounts to charity is frankly insulting,” said Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University. Lloyd’s, he said, could only genuinely atone by “turning the company over to the descendants of the enslaved.”

Britain has been slower to come to terms with its ties to slavery than the United States, scholars say, because its trading and ownership of enslaved people often took place thousands of miles from its shores, in the trade between West Africa and the Caribbean, and in British-owned plantations in the West Indies.

Still, there are ambitious efforts to document that history, including the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, a city that once dominated Britain’s slave trade, as well as at a smaller exhibit in Bristol. The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, plans to display the statue of Colston, which he had fished out of the harbor, there.

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