The blobs in the image above look like something that has escaped from a Damien Hirst painting, but they represent something much more serious. Each marks the location of a house once owned by someone who made a fortune from the slave trade. They cover a very small area of London – just the streets around Portman Square and Welbeck Street – but they are part of a much bigger London map.
Britain’s involvement with the slave trade was, at least until recently, rarely taught about in schools, having been in effect airbrushed from our history and almost totally lost from memory. But we are now becoming more aware of our shameful role in it, not least because of research done at University College London (UCL), which has been listing all the houses – and there are lots of them – in Central London and elsewhere that were owned by slave traders.
This was made possible because when slavery ended in 1833 (26 years after it was officially abolished in 1807), slaveowners – ludicrously – were able to claim compensation. The transatlantic trade led to the deaths of at least 10-12 million Africans and quite likely many millions more over a period of more than 300 years.
UCL researchers have identified 45,000 claims worth an amazing £20 million – over £2 billion at today’s prices – paid out by UK taxpayers, half of which can be linked to London properties. The map shows those occupied at that time by slave owners in Fitzrovia alone. Details of the project, including an interactive version of the map complete with names, can be found here.
James Blair of Portman Square was one of the biggest beneficiaries. He received £83,530 (worth tens of millions today). UCL say that about 40 per cent of the recipients were women and a very small minority were “of colour”, presumably the sons or daughters of slaveowners.
Most of them would have been churchgoers, rarely questioning what God up there might have thought of what they were doing to his fellow creatures down here. The fact is that many of the stately homes in London and elsewhere in the country were financed by the slave trade and subsequent compensation for its ending.
The trade wasn’t, of course, confined to London. Liverpool became the global centre of the slave ship trade and made many people rich, including Sir James Penny – after whom Penny Lane of the Beatles song was inadvertently named – who was one of the most prominent shipowners and defended the slave trade in parliament right until the end.
It is eerie to walk about these parts of London knowing that some of the finest homes in them were built with wealth created by the slave trade. So many people were involved: some directly as plantation owners and many others simply as consumers of sugar and spices which were produced by slave labour. Once you discover this part of their history, walking those streets of London never feels the same again.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.