10 London Locations Linked To Slavery

By Tony Warner Last edited 9 months ago

Last Updated 17 October 2023

10 London Locations Linked To Slavery

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Bristol and Liverpool are often presented as cities built around slavery, but London itself was once an important location for human trafficking of Africans. Many of those businesses, banks, personal homes, law firms, buildings and locations still exist. Here, we visit a few of the thousands of sites linked to slavery.

1. The Bank of England

A sunny view of the classical architecture of the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England
Many slave owners deposited their money at the Bank of England. Image: iStock/JohnnyGreig

As Peter Fryer's classic 1984 book Staying Power attests, during the 18th century the Bank of England "might justly have been called 'The Bank of the West Indies'". Many slave owners deposited their money here, and several Bank of England governors were human traffickers; one was Sir Humphry Morice MP, who owned at least six slave ships and named four of them after his family members (Anne, Katherine, Sarah and Judith). When Morice died in 1731, it was discovered he was stealing from the Bank and his own daughter.

2. Deptford

A huge ship bearing many flags docked between grand buildings on the Thames
Purpose-built slave ships were put together in Deptford. Image: public domain

One of Morice's purpose-built slave ships, the Whydah Gally, was constructed in Deptford. Built in 1715 to hold 500 hostages. The ship was named after the port of Ouidah in Benin, West Africa. In 1717, it was hijacked by a group of pirates in the Caribbean. Many pirate crews included freed Africans. The Whydah Gally was then used as a pirate flagship by 'Black Sam' Bellamy (who was not Black), before it was shipwrecked — loaded with African gold — off the coast of Massachusetts. In 1984, after decades of searching, deep sea diver Barry Clifford found the wreckage, recovered numerous items — including incredibly fine Akan jewellery — and set up the Whydah Pirate Museum in Cape Cod.

3. Lloyds of London

Looking up at the sci fi metal exterior of the Llloyd's building
Lloyds officially insured slave ships between 1688 and 1807. Image: Londonist

Lloyds is one of the biggest insurance companies in the world. It officially insured slave ships between 1688 and 1807, at which point the British slave trade was 'abolished'. However, slavery overseen by Brits carried on until the 1830s, with many ships sailing under flags of convenience to continue the practice of human trafficking. Lloyds apologised for its role in slavery in 2020, but following this, Black professor Rebecca Hall documented being unceremoniously kicked out of the Lloyds building archive, while researching her graphic book Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. Her 'offence', she said, was to tell the archivists she wanted to research Lloyds' slave history. The book depicts an episode in which Hall is refused access and promptly escorted from the building — and is now a critically acclaimed best-seller. The original site of Lloyds Coffee House, where the company started out, is now a Sainsbury's at 10-15 Lombard Street. There is a Corporation of London blue plaque outside the premises recognising this, but it does not mention slavery.

4. The Guildhall

 J. M. W. Turner's representation of the mass killing of enslaved people, inspired by the Zong killings
The Slave Ship (1840), J. M. W. Turner's representation of the mass killing of enslaved people, inspired by the Zong killings. Image: public domain

The Royal African Company, which traded in enslaved Africans, met in the Guildhall between 1660 and 1690. 15 Lord Mayors of London were in the RAC. The Guildhall was also the site of the 1783 trial of Captain Luke Collingwood of the Zong slave ship. On his way from Ghana to Jamaica with a cargo of enslaved Africans in 1781, Collingwood — rather than sell his prisoners in Kingston and make a profit the usual way — chose to throw at least 130 overboard, and claim the insurance on them. Thomas Gilbert, the insurance underwriter in this case, refused to pay out. Collingwood got in legal trouble — not for mass murder of men, women and children — but for insurance fraud. The outrageous nature of this particular slaughter made it a landmark case in the battle against slavery, although such mass murders were commonplace on British ships.

5. Museum of the Home

A statue of a bewigged man standing in an alcove
Geffrye's statue remains above the entrance of the Museum of the Home. Image: Londonist

In 2019, the Geffrye Museum announced it was rebranding to become the Museum of the Home. Human trafficker Sir Robert Geffrye had given the museum its original name; he was part of the Royal African Company which shipped at least 84,000 Africans into enslavement. Geffrye funded the premises with some of his profits. Following the widespread outcry against monument to slavers, the museum ran a consultation, showing that 77.5% of those consulted saw the statue in a negative light. The museum's own website says "We feel that the statue of Robert Geffrye on the front of the Museum's buildings does not promote the sense of belonging that is so important for our visitors, and fundamental to the Museum's values." At the time of writing, however, the statue is still there.

6. Guy's Hospital

A tall building in the foreground with the Shard looming behind it
Guy's Hospital takes its name from a man who made his fortune from the slave industry. Image: Londonist

Guy's Hospital is one of the most esteemed medical establishments in the country, yet it takes its name from Thomas Guy, who made his fortune by investing in the South Sea Company — which kidnapped and sold over 60,000 enslaved African people to countries including Colombia, Panama, Jamaica and Barbados. On his death in 1724, Guy left over £200,000 to fund the hospital. Guy's controversial statue was covered up for some time following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, but currently remains on display in front of the hospital. There have been calls from some to rename the hospital, but it doesn't seem that will happen anytime soon.

7./8. Royal National Lifeboat Institute/The West India Docks

A white helmet on the dock next to a boat
Image: Paige Kahn

The RNLI is located just by Waterloo Bridge (soon to be relocated to Tower Bridge), and as Londonist has previously reported, does brave and sterling work round the clock. But did you know that two of the three founders were involved in slavery? Sir William Hillary inherited a share of a plantation with slaves. George Hibbert, though often described as a 'shipping magnate', was one of the biggest slave owners and traders in Jamaica, and this is where his fortune came from. As a 'philanthropist', he was involved in the establishment of the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck in 1824 (now the RNLI). The Legacies of British Slavery database describes him as a leading member of the pro-slavery lobby, who gave speeches and wrote pamphlets supporting the trade.

In 1793, Hibbert became involved in the plan to build closed wet docks for the West India trade. The West India Docks were constructed on the Isle of Dogs and opened for business in 1802. Hibbert invested £2,000 and acted as Chairman of the West India Dock Company eight times between 1799-1815. The West India Docks handled millions of pounds of slave-produced sugar, rum, tobacco, and many other tropical products from the Empire. In fact, the entire Hibbert family were involved and owned approximately 900 enslaved Africans. To give an example of George Hibbert's wealth; in 1809 he owned 305 Rembrandts and 730 Reubens. This history is fully explored at the Museum of London Docklands' London, Sugar & Slavery gallery, housed in two former sugar warehouses, next to the DLR station named West India Quay.

9. The Golden Hinde

The prow of a ship with a golden hinde's head
Francis Drake had an African manservant by the name of Diego. Image: Londonist

Not far from London Bridge is a replica of the ship that circumnavigated the globe over a three-year period, starting in 1577. It was captained by the pirate Francis Drake, who had an African manservant on this voyage by the name of Diego. Drake spent his early years at sea as a slave trader, kidnapping people from West Africa and selling them in the Caribbean. He was joined in this endeavour by his relative John Hawkins.

Hawkins and Drake worked together on three separate slaving voyages, the first in 1562 when they kidnapped about 300 Africans. Elizabeth I sponsored their second and third slaving voyages via a ship called the Jesus of Lubeck. She also granted Hawkins a coat of arms, which depicts an African woman tied up. Drake's inhumanity was witnessed on his global voyage when, according to one of his crew in documents now in the British Library: "Drake tooke… a proper negro wench called Maria, which was afterward gotten with child between the captaine and his men pirates, and sett on a small iland to take her adventure."

Francis Drake's nephew John confirmed that his uncle took this Black woman from a Spanish man named Don Francisco de Zarate, and later abandoned her while she was pregnant on an Indonesian island. Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, which was written in 1611, has a character named Sycorax — an African woman abandoned while pregnant on an island. It's worth going on board the Golden Hinde to experience the cramped, narrow, and dark confines that the crew of free white men would have endured. Conditions on slave ships would have been much, much worse. Roughly 3,000 slave voyages departed from the Thames; a fact rarely mentioned by mainstream London tour guides.

10. The Embassy of the Republic of Haiti

Close up of a young man in an admiral's hat, as featured on a bank note
Lieutenant Sanite Belair, who is featured on Haiti's 10 dollar bill. Image: iStock/ GeorgiosArt

Haiti is the only country in the world that revolted and successfully overthrew slavery. The Haitian revolution started in 1791 and ended in 1804. The enslaved African population of agricultural workers repeatedly beat the French, Spanish and British professional armies' attempts to re-enslave them. Up to a third of the fighters were women, including the national heroine Lieutenant Sanite Belair, who is featured on the local 10 dollar bill.

In 1825, the French returned, blockaded the ports and forced the Haitians to pay them $21 billion for freeing themselves from slavery. It took the Haitians until 1947 to pay the 'debt' off, leaving them one of the poorest nations in the world. The British began to end slavery in 1833 as a direct result of the 1831 Sam Sharpe rebellion in Jamaica. To date Britain, has not paid any reparations to the Caribbean for slavery although British slave-owners were compensated with £20 million pounds for losing their human property.

Tony Warner is the author of Black History Walks Volume 1, the first walking tour book of London’s Black history. He is also the founder of Black History Walks.