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Slavery: Lloyd’s is right to review the past but it must address the present too

February 25, 2021

The decision by Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, to scrutinise its 300 year old archives to gain a fuller understanding of how insurance supported the slave trade is very welcome. It should help historians gain a clearer picture of the extent of the trade and how it operated. No-one should hesitate to applaud such a positive step.

Lloyd’s has already acknowledged as “shameful” the role the marine insurance market played in facilitating the slave trade and has pledged to find ways of contributing financially to appropriate causes by way of reparation. This new investigation should give a sharper focus to that desire to make good for the sins of its forebearers. It may also raise more awkward questions.

It is very likely that some of the archived insurance policies record how the slaves that were transported across the Atlantic and to Europe, including the United Kingdom, were acquired and from whom. This will remind people that sometimes one of the key elements of the slave trade was their initial capture by African slave traders, although it was always European money that provided the incentive. It may also expose whether any Lloyd’s underwriters found devious ways of insuring slave ships after Britain outlawed the trade in 1807.

Exposing the crimes of the past is all well and good but it means little if not matched by actions in the present.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that almost 25m people worldwide are caught in modern slavery as forced or coerced labour, with a further 15.4m girls and women trapped in forced marriages. These are shocking figures.

If Lloyd’s wants to make a positive contribution to addressing its past, it should also investigate the extent to which its syndicates insure businesses that benefit from modern slavery. This will cause great discomfort in some quarters. One of the largest groups of modern slaves are the million plus Uyghurs imprisoned in Xinjiang, many forced to work on production lines for Chinese manufacturing companies. There is a lot of Chinese money in the London insurance market and it is very likely that somewhere an underwriter is insuring a business that benefits from the brutal exploitation of the Uyghurs. Lloyd’s should ferret out these connections – and many more linked to modern slavery – if it wants to hold its head high on this issue.

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