Centuries after Africans were beaten, chained and transported in their millions across the Atlantic, Britain's role in the slave trade is set to resurface in sensational fashion in a New York courtroom.
Descendants of black American slaves are preparing a multi-billion dollar action against Lloyd's of London, the best-known name in world insurance, for allegedly financing the trading fleets that uprooted them from their homelands and condemned them to generations of slavery in the New World.
The dramatic claim, to be filed tomorrow, is the latest in which 'UK plc' is being forced to confront allegations of a murky past. In recent years a host of British companies have been sued for allegedly collaborating with South Africa's racist apartheid regime.
The claim against Lloyd's could prove far more damaging. Black leaders are using DNA technology to link themselves with recorded slave ships and have enlisted Edward Fagan, the feared New York lawyer who extracted huge Nazi gold settlements from German and Swiss companies, to lead the case.
Lloyd's is expected to deny it is liable for slavery, but news of the case will cause consternation within its gleaming steel-and-glass headquarters in the City of London, where the insurance giant is tipped to make profits of £1 billion this year.
The sharp-suited brokers and cutting-edge technology that now characterise Lloyd's are only the latest incarnation in a long and controversial history. It was founded by Edward Lloyd in a London coffee shop in 1688 to provide cover for merchants whose ships were regularly lost at sea. Just like today, it was the centre of the insurance and shipping world in the 1700s and early 1800s, when many shipowners were making vast fortunes by shipping slaves from Africa to America and Britain's colonies in the Caribbean.
Before slavery was abolished in the British Empire in the 1830s, and three decades later in the United States, more than 10 million people are thought to have been sold to slave traffickers at west African ports before being herded on to boats for the long voyage to America. The ships often stopped for supplies at Bristol, London or Liverpool. The slaves suffered severe mistreatment, malnutrition and overcrowding on the way, with around 20 percent dying at sea; on arrival in America, those who had survived the journey were permanently separated from their families and friends and sold.
Deadria Farmer-Paellman, one of the plaintiffs in the case, has traced her ancestors to the Mende people of Sierra Leone. She told The Observer: 'African Americans today are also the victims of genocide: our ethnic and national groups were destroyed by slavery. This is illegal under US and international law. We still do not know anything about who we are.
'We were referred to as cargo on shipping records, not by our names, nationality or ethnic groups, as other immigrants into America were. This, as well as all the murder and mistreatment our ancestors suffered, is the definition of genocide and Lloyd's of London aided and abetted it.'
Antoinette Harrell-Miller, another of the claimants, said: 'Like any other ethnic group living in America, I have the right to know who I am. Lloyd's of London and others must repair the damage they caused.'
Historical records identify around 30,000 'slaving' expeditions sailing between Africa and the Americas over 300 years, although it is not clear how many of these would have been insured at Lloyd's. But the plaintiffs, 10 black Americans who have traced their ancestors to specific slave-trading episodes, claim that many of these armadas could not have crossed the Atlantic without the financial safety net that Lloyd's provided.
They want the insurer to contribute to a billion-dollar educational fund that would help black Americans to trace their ancestry. They are also demanding up to $1 million each in personal compensation. If their test case is successful, it could open the floodgates for similar lawsuits from any of the estimated 30 million Americans whose forefathers were slaves.
The lawsuit is not aimed exclusively at Lloyd's: among the other defendants is the US Government, a one-time champion of slavery.
Proving that Lloyd's is accountable for the evils of slavery, especially so long after those tragic events, will be extraordinarily difficult.
It will be necessary to establish in court that descendants of slaves are also 'victims'; that the commercial entities which profited from slavery should be punished even though they were not acting illegally at the time; and whether, anyway, they still exist in any meaningful form.
Even if Lloyd's as an institution was judged to be liable, many of its 'members' - the firms and private investors whose money provides insurance cover - would probably argue that they had no involvement in the insurance market three centuries ago.
Lloyd's itself is expected to deny any legal responsibility for slavery and fight the case fiercely, arguing that the claim itself is outlandish even by the standards of America's 'compensation culture'.
A Lloyd's spokeswoman declined to comment yesterday, but pointed out that the insurer had faced slavery lawsuits before, which the courts had rejected. But the plaintiffs believe that this time it will be different because they are alleging the crime of genocide, which is specifically provided for under American law.
Some earlier claims were also rejected on the grounds that the claimants could not provide incontrovertible proof as to when and by whom their ancestors had been enslaved. But the plaintiffs in tomorrow's case against Lloyd's will claim that new DNA testing techniques allow them to trace their ancestry to specific African tribes and, by extension, to identifiable slave-trafficking episodes.
In Fagan, they have enlisted a lawyer who is already unpopular in a number of City boardrooms. As well as famously acting for Holocaust victims, he represents thousands of South Africans who are suing British, European and American firms for allegedly exploiting black workers under the apartheid regime. Among the British blue-chip companies being sued are Barclays Bank and BP. All deny the claims.
'Companies usually resort to the argument that terrible things happened a long time ago, but now it's all in the past,' Fagan said yesterday. 'For the descendants of slaves, however, it is not all in the past. Our case is that Lloyd's of London was heavily involved, and we believe the US court will support us.'
For Lloyd's sake, Fagan had better be wrong. Earthquakes, terror attacks and environmental accidents have forced it to cough up billions in the past. But slavery compensation might be a financial disaster to eclipse any of those.
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