Those connections continued even after America declared its independence from Britain in 1776. British banks backed large parts of the U.S. slavery economy, and British factories were the world’s largest customers for the cotton produced by plantations in southern U.S. states. American slaveholders also adopted some of the mechanisms of repression used by British enslavers in the Caribbean.
“The technology of slavery, the legal framework, and indeed the supply of people – the American colonies under British rule are no different from the British Caribbean. They’re part and parcel, obviously, of the same imperial system,” said Nick Draper, co-founder of a groundbreaking project at University College London that includes an online repository identifying slaveholders at the time Britain abolished the practice.
The story of George Smith, the ancestor of both King Charles and Hunt, illustrates many aspects of Britain’s role in a global slavery empire, and how that influenced what slavery became in America.
“Without Britain, the growth of slavery in America, the particular manifestation of it in cotton, just wouldn’t have happened,” said Trevor Burnard, a history professor and director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull.
“To understand American slavery,” Burnard said, “you have to understand its connections with Britain.”
Investing in slavery
Smith was born in 1765, the son of a banker. The family was prominent. Its red brick Georgian mansion still stands outside the central English city of Nottingham, and the Smith crest can be seen in the stained glass windows of a medieval church at the city center.
After completing his education, George Smith lived in London during his early 20s, and then bought into a West India merchant partnership called Edward and René Payne & Co in 1789. Such companies were at the heart of the British role in the global slavery economy, facilitating the flow of sugar, rum and coffee from the Caribbean to Britain’s big ports in London, Bristol and Liverpool.
Reuters examined more than 2,000 pages of letters, ledgers and invoices related to the Smith banking business. That included records of Payne & Co’s trade with Caribbean plantations and merchants. The records show that Payne & Co worked closely with slaveholders and traders, including some in the United States.
One 1802 invoice, for example, names a South Carolina merchant, John Tunno, as a client. Tunno’s firm placed advertisements in a Charleston newspaper offering for sale “Windward Coast Negroes” – enslaved African “men, women and boys,” the ad says, from the continent’s western coast.
A 1772 Letter to
John de Ponthieu
“…with 375 slaves after a miserable passage wherein they were reduced to great straits for water and provisions and buryed (sic) 115 slaves …”
Edward Payne, founder of the firm, had also done business with slaveholder John de Ponthieu. A 1772 letter to de Ponthieu, written from Barbados by a man involved in the slavery trade, describes a “miserable passage” of a ship carrying 375 enslaved Africans. Water and provisions ran critically low and the crew “buryed (sic) 115 slaves” during the journey. It was standard practice at the time to throw the dead, and sometimes the sick, overboard.
The money to finance that trade came in part from British merchants taking fractional ownership of ships used to transport the enslaved. Capital also poured in from large firms such as the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa. In 1663, it was granted a monopoly by King Charles II for the British slavery trade. The grant enabled the company, later known as the Royal African Company, to buy people captured in Africa and ship them to Britain’s colonies.
John Montagu, a current-day earl and member of the House of Lords, is a direct descendant of Edward Montagu, an earl who was a founding investor of the Royal African Company, according to the firm’s charter. Edward Montagu also was president of a royal committee responsible for, among other things, expanding slavery in North American colonies and facilitating the flow of enslaved Africans.
Asked about that lineage, Montagu said in a statement to Reuters that “any feelings of pride in our ancestors should be, and will be, tempered by any knowledge of connections with slavery.”
11th Earl of Sandwich, member of the House of Lords
DIRECT ANCESTOR Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich
RELATIONSHIP Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Edward Montagu
ROLE IN SLAVERY ECONOMY Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich, was a founding investor in the The Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa, a company established to trade in enslaved Africans. He was also president of a royal committee responsible for, among other things, expanding slavery in North American colonies and facilitating the flow of enslaved Africans.
Many investors were aware of the details of what their money was financing, said Nicholas Radburn, a historian at Lancaster University and author of Traders in Men, a recent book that traces the evolution of the Transatlantic slavery trade.
Outfitters of slaving ships, for instance, would often go aboard and immerse themselves in the grim details: “How many feet of chain do we need? How many shackles do we need? How much food do we need to put onboard? How many guards do we need? How many weapons? How long will this voyage be? How many people will die on it?” Radburn said. “These are the sort of macabre calculations that are inherent to the business of the slave trade.”
Diagram of the Brookes
The family business
In 1791, at age 25, George Smith gained a seat in parliament. There, he voted for greater rights for two of Britain’s most oppressed minorities at the time – Catholics and Jews – and supported electoral reform to enfranchise more people. A political rival declared in one debate that “a more honourable man did not exist.”
But Smith appears to have stayed silent on the slavery trade at key moments in Parliament. He didn’t take part in an unsuccessful April 1791 vote on abolition of the trade, according to voting records, or in two other failed abolition votes.
Whatever his reasoning, one fact is clear: Ending slavery would have been bad for the family business.
In 1794, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, a machine that would transform the U.S. slavery economy. That year, George Smith was working at his family banking business, which was founded in Nottingham, a center of the British cotton industry. Mill owners including the Arkwrights, one of the richest families in the industry, were Smith family clients.
By the 1820s, George Smith was also providing credit to cotton brokers in Liverpool – the primary destination of U.S. cotton in the pre-Civil War era.
Other British banks such as Barings and Rothschild were more active in funding the shipment of cotton. But the firm that was likely the largest player was founded by ancestors of another member of parliament today, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.
Reuters found that Clifton-Brown’s direct ancestors included brothers William and James Brown, who founded Brown Brothers along with other family members. (William’s son married the daughter of James, and their son was Clifton-Brown’s great-great-grandfather.)
Member of Parliament
DIRECT ANCESTOR William and James Brown
ROLE IN SLAVERY ECONOMY The Brown brothers, with other family members, co-founded the trading and banking empire that would become Brown Brothers Harriman, a bank that provided credit to slaveholders and traded in goods produced by enslaved labor, such as U.S. cotton.
The Brown brothers’ firm was the precursor of banking house Brown Brothers Harriman & Co, now based in New York. At one point, the American firm controlled 15% of all cotton shipments into Liverpool. Brown Brothers Harriman declined to comment. The bank says on its website that its role helped to “perpetuate the Southern plantation economy and its use of slave labor, a source of profound regret today.”
The Brown brothers, one based in Liverpool and the other in New York, supported all stages of the cotton supply chain from plantation to mill, including shipping goods in their own vessels. When some clients defaulted in the 1830s, Clifton-Brown’s great-great-great-great-grandfathers took possession of several plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi. The properties had hundreds of enslaved workers when they were sold by the firm almost 20 years later.
Clifton-Brown declined to comment for this story.
George Smith also owned bonds from banks that lent money to American plantation owners, including the Planters Bank of Tennessee and the Planters Bank of Mississippi. The bonds were valued at more than 10,000 pounds – 12.8 million pounds in today’s money, by one calculation. Leather-bound ledger books from the time illustrate that the purchase of bonds from planters’ banks was widespread in Britain, including among the middle class.
Financial historians say slavery-linked financing, from Baring’s funding of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to retail bond sales and the development of tools for hedging cross-border cotton sales, helped build London into the global fulcrum of finance that it is today.
“The financial system that was built in the course of the 18th century was significantly shaped by the needs of this slave economy – credit, instruments of exchange and trade – so that the acceleration of the financial revolution was, in part, a function of the slave economy,” said Draper, who was a senior investment banker at JP Morgan Chase & Co before becoming a historian.
Here in Jamaica, the Smith family owned three plantations west of Kingston with a total of 237 enslaved people in 1798, records show. The largest of the plantations, Farm Pen, evolved from producing sugar to rearing cattle and growing crops for the local market. It sat on land alongside the Rio Cobre between Kingston and Spanish Town, an early capital of colonial Jamaica.
Two British travel writers visited Farm Pen in 1837, when the land was still in Smith family hands. Slavery had been abolished on paper, but workers were still forced to labor there. The writers, Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey, noted that the plantation was “furnished with that relic of former times, the stocks.”