The Black Lives Matter protests this summer widened our historical lens in a number of ways. Perhaps least recognised is how those protests dragged the names of some of Britain’s profit-making colonial corporations out from under the stones and plinths on which the statues of figures like Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes stood. Rarely mentioned in public discussion of our colonial past until June, the dubious role of Rhodes’ British South Africa Company and Colston’s Royal Africa Company, which established the foundations of the British slave trade, were being debated, among other places, in the pages of the Daily Mail. Those brands join the well known East India Company as part of Britain’s colonial folklore (think movie series Pirates of the Caribbean and the BBC’s Taboo). But though Colston’s statue may be gone, the prototype model of the corporation that made him a fortune is alive and kicking. The problem is, it is kicking us to death.
The colonial model of the “joint-stock” company is the prototype on which the modern-day corporation is based. Today the same basic model is threatening our ability to sustain the ecology and life of the planet. Most of the world’s key commodities are owned and controlled by corporations. Almost all of the plastic that is choking our oceans is produced by corporations. Most of the industrial processes causing atmospheric pollution are controlled by corporations. Our food, our transport, our energy… it is estimated that since 1965, 20 corporations have collectively produced 35 per cent of all fossil fuel emissions; since 1988, just 100 have collectively produced 71 per cent of all fossil fuel emissions. If we do not change things radically the corporate person – the artificial invention that has its roots in the slave trade – will continue in perpetuity as everything around us dies.
Indeed, many of the companies that profited from colonialism and slavery in the early days are thriving. All of the major banks in the UK can trace their direct lineage to the slave business. Barclays, Lloyds, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of England all have slave trading companies in their family tree. University College London’s extensive database of slave traders reveals both the names of individuals and the corporate names they traded under. The profits made by slave trading was simply passed through the corporate structure.
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