15 Major Corporations You Never Knew Profited from Slavery: how safe are we today?

18 Jan

…most of the major corporations that were founded by Western European and American merchants prior to roughly 100 years ago, benefited directly from slavery.

Lehman Brothers, whose business empire started in the slave trade, recently admitted their part in the business of slavery.

According to the Sun Times, the financial services firm acknowledged recently that its founding partners owned not one, but several enslaved Africans during the Civil War era and that, “in all likelihood,” it “profited significantly” from slavery.

“This is a sad part of our heritage …We’re deeply apologetic … It was a terrible thing … There’s no one sitting in the United States in the year 2005, hopefully, who would ever, in a million years, defend the practice,” said Joe Polizzotto, general counsel of Lehman Brothers.

aetna insurance

Aetna, Inc., the United States’ largest health insurer, apologized for selling policies in the 1850s that reimbursed slave owners for financial losses when the enslaved Africans they owned died.

“Aetna has long acknowledged that for several years shortly after its founding in 1853 that the company may have insured the lives of slaves,” said Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge in 2002. “We express our deep regret over any participation at all in this deplorable practice.”

JPMorgan Chase recently admitted their company’s links to slavery.

“Today, we are reporting that this research found that, between 1831 and 1865, two of our predecessor banks—Citizens Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana—accepted approximately 13,000 enslaved individuals as collateral on loans and took ownership of approximately 1,250 of them when the plantation owners defaulted on the loans,” the company wrote in a statement.

new york life insurance

New York Life Insurance Company is the largest mutual life insurance company in the United States. They also took part in slavery by selling insurance policies on enslaved Africans.

According to USA Today, evidence of 10 more New York Life slave policies comes from an 1847 account book kept by the company’s Natchez, Miss. agent, W.A. Britton. The book, part of a collection at Louisiana State University, contains Britton’s notes on slave policies he wrote for amounts ranging from $375 to $600. A 1906 history of New York Life says 339 of the company’s first 1,000 policies were written on the lives of slaves.


USA Today reported that Wachovia Corporation (now owned by Wells Fargo) has apologized for its ties to slavery after disclosing that two of its historical predecessors owned enslaved Africans and accepted them as payment.

“On behalf of Wachovia Corporation, I apologize to all Americans, and especially to African-Americans and people of African descent,” said Ken Thompson, Wachovia chairman and chief executive officer, in the statement released late Wednesday. “We are deeply saddened by these findings.”

Rothschild group

N M Rothschild & Sons Bank in London was linked to slavery. The company that was one of the biggest names in the City of London had previously undisclosed links to slavery in the British colonies. Documents seen by the Financial Times have revealed that Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the banking family’s 19th-century patriarch, made his first personal gains by using enslaved Africans as collateral in dealings with a slave owner.

norfolk southern

Norfolk Southern also has a history in the slave trade. The Mobile & Girard company, which is now part of Norfolk Southern, offered slaveholders $180 ($3,379 today) apiece for enslaved Africans they would rent to the railroad for one year, according to the records. The Central of Georgia, another company aligned with Norfolk Southern Line today, valued its slaves at $31,303 ($663,033 today) on record.

E.W. Scripps Gannett parent company of usa today

USA Today has found that their own parent company, E.W. Scripps and Gannett, has had links to the slave trade.

According to reports, FleetBoston evolved from an earlier financial institution, Providence Bank, founded by John Brown who was a slave trader and owned ships used to transport enslaved Africans.

The bank financed Brown’s slave voyages and profited from them. Brown even reportedly helped charter what became Brown University.

CSX Corp

CSX used slave labor to construct portions of some U.S. rail lines under the political and legal system that was in place more than a century ago.

Two enslaved Africans who the company rented were identified as John Henry and Reuben. The record states, “they were to be returned clothed when they arrived to work for the company.”

Individual enslaved Africans cost up to $200 –  the equivalent of $3,800 today –  to rent for a season and CSX took full advantage.

The Canadian National Railway Company is a Canadian Class I railway headquartered in Montreal, Quebec that serves Canada and the midwestern and southern United States. The company also has a history in which it benefited from slavery. The Mobile & Ohio, now part of Canadian National, valued their slaves lost to the war and emancipation at $199,691 on record. That amount is currently worth $2.2 million.


Brown Brothers Harriman is the oldest and largest private investment bank and securities firm in the United States, founded in 1818. USA Today found that the New York merchant bank of James and William Brown, currently known as Brown Bros. Harriman owned hundreds of enslaved Africans and financed the cotton economy by lending millions to southern planters, merchants and cotton brokers.

Brooks Brothers, the high-end suit retailer got their start selling slave clothing to various slave traders back in the 1800s. What a way to get rich in the immoral slave industry!


Barclays, the British multinational banking and financial services company headquartered in London, United Kingdom has now conceded that companies it bought over the years may have been involved in the slave trade.

USA Today reported that New York-based AIG completed the purchase of American General Financial Group, a Houston-based insurer that owns U.S. Life Insurance Company. A U.S. Life policy on an enslaved African living in Kentucky was reprinted in a 1935 article about slave insurance in The American Conservationist magazine.

AIG says it has “found documentation indicating” U.S. Life insured enslaved Africans.



Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners review: ‘a vivid picture of the spread of slavery profits’ | Television & radio | The Guardian

David Olusoga’s two-part documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners(BBC2) concluded last night by following the money. The money in question was that paid to the slave owners to compensate them for the loss of their human property when slavery was finally officially abolished in 1834. A 10-man committee divvied up nearly £17bn in today’s money among 46,000 claimants stretching across the entire British empire, from £800 or so to a country vicar for his single servant to £80m for John Gladstone’s (father of prime minister William) loss of thousands of unpaid workers on his plantations in Guyana. Not a penny, of course, was paid to the slaves themselves.

The compensation money was drawn largely from consumption taxes, as income tax didn’t exist at the time, which effectively meant the poor paid for it. The disproportionate extra whack they paid for basic goods set those who had already grown fat on the profits of slave labour nicely ever after. They were able to diversify, investing in industry, insurance and institutions whose income streams would balance each others’ fluctuations out and keep flowing nicely down the generations. This useful injection of taxpayer cash enabled its recipients to avoid any hardship once their indefensibly exploitative bubble burst and freed them to concentrate on other things, like building country piles, grooming their sons for government and ensuring that no more than seven families actually matter in Britain at any one time. It’s a good thing history never repeats itself.

Olusoga was able to provide us with a detailed and vivid picture of the spread of slavery profits through the British economy largely thanks to research done by a team of historians at University College London. They have been combing through the 46,000 entries in the Slavery Compensation Commissions accounts books and following the paper trails thereafter. The collated results are free to all at ucl.ac.uk/lbs.

More pernicious still, and as instrumental in shaping our cultural and imaginative landscapes as the money was in our physical and institutional landscapes, were the ideas unleashed and promulgated during the propaganda war between the abolitionists and their opponents. Black people, the latter argued desperately but influentially, were childlike savages who needed the firm, white, paternal hand of discipline to save them from themselves and their innate inferiority. Slavery was abolished (officially – the end of it in practice would take years) but the underlying ideas, theories and attitudes endure. Programmes like this, and thoughtful, thorough, unswerving guides like Olusoga bring them into the light. Because it would be a good thing if history stopped repeating itself.

Slavery in a minor key was the focus of last night’s Storyville: Circus Elephant Rampage (BBC4), about a baby elephant captured in Mozambique in 1974 and gunned down 20 years later in the streets of Honolulu after escaping from her life of performance and captivity with the circus.

It was an oddly weighted programme, giving a lot of time to the people who saw themselves as Tyke’s friends – exceptions to the rule of brutality under which she seems largely to have lived, as the property of the Hawthorn Corporation – rather than as people complicit in a wider system of cruelty. Only in the final few minutes was this wider system and complicity acknowledged. “When I look back,” said one of Tyke’s handlers, “I’m sure there’s a special place in hell for me for what I did to those elephants because I was told to.” There, it seemed, was the story, but then the credits rolled.


Each slave owner received almost $40,000 in today’s money for each slave he/she owned in 1834 Britain:

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans who were then the legal property of Britain’s slave owners. What is less well known is that the same act contained a provision for the financial compensation of the owners of those slaves, by the British taxpayer, for the loss of their “property”. The compensation commission was the government body established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners and administer the distribution of the £20m the government had set aside to pay them off. That sum represented 40% of the total government expenditure for 1834. It is the modern equivalent of between £16bn and £17bn.

The compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009. Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation. In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission.

The records of the Slave Compensation Commission are an unintended byproduct of the scheme. They represent a near complete census of British slavery as it was on 1 August, 1834, the day the system ended. For that one day we have a full list of Britain’s slave owners. All of them. The T71s tell us how many slaves each of them owned, where those slaves lived and toiled, and how much compensation the owners received for them. Although the existence of the T71s was never a secret, it was not until 2010 that a team from University College London began to systematically analyse them. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, which is still continuing, is led by Professor Catherine Hall and Dr Nick Draper, and the picture of slave ownership that has emerged from their work is not what anyone was expecting.

The large slave owners, the men of the “West India interest”, who owned huge estates from which they drew vast fortunes, appear in the files of the commission. The man who received the most money from the state was John Gladstone, the father of Victorian prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. He was paid £106,769 in compensation for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations, the modern equivalent of about £80m. Given such an investment, it is perhaps not surprising that William Gladstone’s maiden speech in parliament was in defence of slavery.

The records show that for the 218 men and women he regarded as his property, Charles Blair, the great-grandfather of George Orwell, was paid the more modest sum of £4,442 – the modern equivalent of about £3m. There are other famous names hidden within the records. Ancestors of the novelist Graham Greene, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott all received compensation for slaves. As did a distant ancestor of David Cameron. But what is most significant is the revelation of the smaller-scale slave owners.

Slave ownership, it appears, was far more common than has previously been presumed. Many of these middle-class slave owners had just a few slaves, possessed no land in the Caribbean and rented their slaves out to landowners, in work gangs.These bit-players were home county vicars, iron manufacturers from the Midlands and lots and lots of widows. About 40% of the slave owners living in the colonies were women. Then, as now, women tended to outlive their husbands and simply inherited human property through their partner’s wills.

The geographic spread of the slave owners who were resident in Britain in 1834 was almost as unexpected as the gender breakdown. Slavery was once thought of as an activity largely limited to the ports from which the ships of the triangular trade set sail; Bristol, London, Liverpool and Glasgow. Yet there were slave owners across the country, from Cornwall to the Orkneys. In proportion to population, the highest rates of slave ownership are found in Scotland.

The T71 files have been converted into an online database; a free, publicly available resource.

he past has a disconcerting habit of bursting, uninvited and unwelcome, into the present. This year history gate-crashed modern America in the form of a 150-year-old document: a few sheets of paper that compelled Hollywood actor Ben Affleck to issue a public apology and forced the highly regarded US public service broadcaster PBS to launch an internal investigation.

The document, which emerged during the production of Finding Your Roots, a celebrity genealogy show, is neither unique nor unusual. It is one of thousands that record the primal wound of the American republic – slavery. It lists the names of 24 slaves, men and women, who in 1858 were owned by Benjamin L Cole, Affleck’s great-great-great-grandfather. When this uncomfortable fact came to light, Affleck asked the show’s producers to conceal his family’s links to slavery. Internal emails discussing the programme were later published by WikiLeaks, forcing Affleck to admit in a Facebook post: “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed.”

It was precisely because slaves were reduced to property that they appear so regularly in historic documents, both in the US and in Britain. As property, slaves were listed in plantation accounts and itemised in inventories. They were recorded for tax reasons and detailed alongside other transferable goods on the pages of thousands of wills. Few historical documents cut to the reality of slavery more than lists of names written alongside monetary values. It is now almost two decades since I had my first encounter with British plantation records, and I still feel a surge of emotion when I come across entries for slave children who, at only a few months old, have been ascribed a value in sterling; the sale of children and the separation of families was among the most bitterly resented aspects of an inhuman system.

Slavery resurfaces in America regularly. The disadvantage and discrimination that disfigures the lives and limits the life chances of so many African-Americans is the bitter legacy of the slave system and the racism that underwrote and outlasted it. Britain, by contrast, has been far more successful at covering up its slave-owning and slave-trading past. Whereas the cotton plantations of the American south were established on the soil of the continental United States, British slavery took place 3,000 miles away in the Caribbean.

That geographic distance made it possible for slavery to be largely airbrushed out of British history, following the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Many of us today have a more vivid image of American slavery than we have of life as it was for British-owned slaves on the plantations of the Caribbean. The word slavery is more likely to conjure up images of Alabama cotton fields and whitewashed plantation houses, of Roots, Gone With The Wind and 12 Years A Slave, than images of Jamaica or Barbados in the 18th century. This is not an accident.

The history of British slavery has been buried. The thousands of British families who grew rich on the slave trade, or from the sale of slave-produced sugar, in the 17th and 18th centuries, brushed those uncomfortable chapters of their dynastic stories under the carpet. Today, across the country, heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses describe former slave traders as “West India merchants”, while slave owners are hidden behind the equally euphemistic term “West India planter”. Thousands of biographies written in celebration of notable 17th and 18th-century Britons have reduced their ownership of human beings to the footnotes, or else expunged such unpleasant details altogether. The Dictionary of National Biography has been especially culpable in this respect. Few acts of collective forgetting have been as thorough and as successful as the erasing of slavery from the Britain’s “island story”. If it was geography that made this great forgetting possible, what completed the disappearing act was our collective fixation with the one redemptive chapter in the whole story. William Wilberforce and the abolitionist crusade, first against the slave trade and then slavery itself, has become a figleaf behind which the larger, longer and darker history of slavery has been concealed.

Plan of a slave ship showinmg how slaves were stowed, manacled, into the hold.
Plan of a slave ship showinmg how slaves were stowed, manacled, into the hold. Photograph: Christopher Jones/Bristol Museum

It is still the case that Wilberforce remains the only household name of a history that begins during the reign of Elizabeth I and ends in the 1830s. There is no slave trader or slave owner, and certainly no enslaved person, who can compete with Wilberforce when it comes to name recognition. Little surprise then that when, in 2007, we marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, the only feature film to emerge from the commemoration was Amazing Grace, a Wilberforce biopic.

George Orwell once likened Britain to a wealthy family that maintains a guilty silence about the sources of its wealth. Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, had seen that conspiracy of silence at close quarters. His father, Richard W Blair, was a civil servant who oversaw the production of opium on plantations near the Indian-Nepalese border and supervised the export of that lethal crop to China. The department for which the elder Blair worked was called, unashamedly, the opium department. However, the Blair family fortune – which had been largely squandered by the time Eric was born – stemmed from their investments in plantations far from India.

The Blair name is one of thousands that appear in a collection of documents held at the National Archives in Kew that have the potential to do to Britain what the hackers of WikiLeaks and the researchers of PBS did to Affleck. The T71 files consist of 1,631 volumes of leather-bound ledgers and neatly tied bundles of letters that have lain in the archives for 180 years, for the most part unexamined. They are the records and the correspondence of the Slave Compensation Commission.

There are, however, millions of people, in the Caribbean and the UK, who do not need a database to tell them that they are linked to Britain’s hidden slave-owning past. The descendants of the enslaved carry the same English surnames that appear in the ledgers of the Slave Compensation Commission – Gladstone, Beckford, Hibbert, Blair, etc – names that were imposed on their ancestors, initials that were sometimes branded on their skin, in order to mark them as items of property.

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, the first of two episodes, presented by David Olusoga, will be broadcast on Wednesday on BBC2. Click here for the Legacies of British Slave Ownership Database


■ In 1807, parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, effective throughout the British empire.

■ It wasn’t until 1838 that slavery was abolished in British colonies through the Slavery Abolition Act, giving all slaves in the British empire their freedom

■ It is estimated about 12.5 million people were transported as slaves from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean between the 16th century and 1807.

■ When the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, there were 46,000 slave owners in Britain, according to the Slave Compensation Commission, the government body established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners

■ British slave owners received a total of £20m (£16bn in today’s money) in compensation when slavery was abolished. Among those who received payouts were the ancestors of novelists George Orwell and Graham Greene.

Mixed-race Britons

Perhaps most surprisingly, the records detail a number of children born to plantation owners and enslaved women who inherited their father’s slaves. A striking example is politician John Stewart, the son of a slave-owner and one of the first ethnic minority MPs. He inherited his father’s sugar plantations in the West Indies and received considerable compensation for the enslaved people there. He spoke in parliament on several occasions in defence of slavery.



Apprenticeship came to an early end in 1838, thanks to campaigning by abolitionists in Britain and the growing threat of resistance from apprentices angered by what they believed was an unfair system. To this day, in the West Indies, emancipation is officially celebrated from the end of apprenticeship in 1838, not from the end of slavery in 1834.

Morant Bay rebellion

Many of the black population of the Caribbean felt unjustly treated in the years following Apprenticeship. In Jamaica, those who continued to work on plantations were often paid irregularly and their wages were low. They felt unfairly treated by the island’s judicial system and were deprived of free access to the land they had cultivated as slaves.

Many people even feared re-enslavement, 30 years after emancipation.

In 1865, a small group of protesters attacked the court house at Morant Bay in Jamaica. Armed forces brutally repressed the uprising, executing nearly 500 people and flogging another 600. News of the ruthless reprisals spread to England and the governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre, was dismissed. He returned to England disgraced and was expected to stand trial.

However, high profile members of the establishment, including Charles Dickens and John Ruskin, publicly supported Eyre. With their support he was spared a criminal trial and was instead forced into an early retirement.

But the impact of Morant Bay was keenly felt by the black population of Jamaica and other islands across the West Indies. Local parliaments were disbanded and many islands became Crown Colonies directly ruled by British governors.This made it even more difficult for black people to participate in local politics and gain representation. Race relations between white and black communities became worse and it would be many years before the black people of the West Indies felt able to protest against their circumstances.

Morant Bay Rebellion



One Response to “15 Major Corporations You Never Knew Profited from Slavery: how safe are we today?”

  1. Vale February 3, 2017 at 3:51 am #

    Thanks Rachel,



    On Thursday, January 26, 2017 12:53 PM, LBS wrote:

    Dear Vale,

    Thank you for your email. Your question is difficult to answer. It depends what measure you use to measure wealth. You can search the LBS database to find the claims with the largest amounts of compensation on our main search form: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/search/. On the bottom row of the search box you can see criteria, ‘Amount of compensation from [box] to [box]’. If you add 1000 to the first box and then click ‘Search’ you’ll find 3,980 claims, that is roughly the largest 1%. Over all, the distribution of slave compensation followed a classic 20:80 split – meaning that 80% of the money was distributed in the largest 20% of the claims. But that is complicated by the fact that some claims were shared between more than one person, and some people were awarded compensation in more than one claim. It also doesn’t take account of wealth which was derived from other non-slavery sources.

    The distribution of wealth across the whole of society was different in the early 19th century, compared to the way wealth is distributed today, so the richest 1% or 10% meant different things then. One way of measuring wealth from both slavery and non-slavery sources is to look at probate records – this is the amount declared for probate after an individual has died. This is another search term on the LBS main search form, it’s on the third row: ‘Wealth at death between [box] and [box]’. If you put one hundred thousand pounds in the first box, 100000 (don’t include a comma), you’ll find 205 individuals whose estates were valued for probate at £100,000 or more. For the total population who died between 1809 and 1839, only 0.01% of people had wealth at probate of £100,000 or more. They are clearly hugely over-represented among slave-owners. We don’t have accurate data for enough people who died with less than 100,000 so a search using say 10,000 will only show how incomplete our data is at this level.

    One problem with using a measure of probate wealth is that it only measures moveable property – so excludes land and buildings. Also it only gives wealth at death when many people will have amassed huge fortunes during the boom years between, say, 1780 and 1810, and then lost most of it as the sugar economy in the British Caribbean contracted after 1810. It doesn’t take account of money put into trust funds either – which was a very common way of safeguarding wealth.

    We’ve looked at how to descibe ‘the elite’ people – whether by wealth at probate, or aristocratic titles, or access to political power – and whatever measure we use we generally come up with one general statistic – that between 5 and 10% of ‘the richest’ or ‘elite’ people in the 1830’s were directly involved in the slave compensation process. Another 5 to 10% derived all or part of their wealth from the wider slave-related economy, particularly as the century wore on, from cotton grown by enslaved people in America.

    I hope this answers your question. I’m sorry – I would much prefer to give you a better answer. It’s also limited by the amount of data we have available – we’ve developed biographical details for many people involved in the larger compensation claims but accurately measuring any one person’s wealth, especially a very rich person, is a tricky business; it’s particularly tricky to try to find and add up all of an individual’s debts. Please let me know if you have any more questions.

    Best regards,


    Rachel Lang
    From: Vale Spa
    Sent: 20 January 2017 17:53:52
    To: LBS
    Subject: Dear LBS, How can we view the ownership of the richest .1%, 1%, 10%, and their today’s families?

    Dear LBS,

    How can we view the ownership of the richest .1%, 1%, 10%, and their today’s families?



    You can contact the project team at the following:
    Legacies of British Slave-ownership project
    Department of History
    WC1E 6BT
    E-mail: LBS@ucl.ac.uk

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