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  • Colleen Harris

The Portal Trust examines its links to the transatlantic slave trade

Updated: Apr 13

A friend complimented my bangle and as I thanked them, I mentioned that it was a slave band, a reminder of my heritage.


He was hurt and embarrassed and offered comfort by saying it was unlikely my ancestors were slaves! That would be awful. A strange exchange as all the tv programmes exploring people’s ancestry is top billing and yet my ancestry remains something to be hidden and when I ask, I am shouted down by so called historians or shielded from it by well-meaning friends. As Michelle Obama said recently, what may seem shocking to some is workaday for us – and indeed we may even be proud of our ancestors for their resistance and their survival against dreadful hardship.


I worked with a woman who was adopted as a baby and didn’t know her natural parents. I remember the emotional and frightening journey she went on to discover her natural parents, her ancestry, her place. It was both painful and joyful, but something she ‘needed’ to do and despite the anguish she was thrilled to know and meet her natural mother and understand a part of her heritage.


Why such surprise that other people want to embark on a journey to discover their true heritage? As a person of Caribbean heritage my place in Britain is often questioned - aggressively and bitterly. Let us all learn and understand our histories.


The work undertaken by the Portal Trust (formerly known as the Sir John Cass Foundation) to uncover the real truth of their founder’s connection with the slave trade turns the sugar-coated story into true history – an honest account of the past. I am pleased that the Trust has not shied away from this reality but are facing it head on and want this knowledge to give us all a better understanding of all our histories and why people like me are here in Britain.


Early last year the Portal Trust commissioned a report into their founder, Sir John Cass in an effort to uncover the whole truth of his story, and not just the distorted one that has been handed down the centuries. Publication of the report into the Trust’s historical association with the trans-Atlantic slave trade - Sir John Cass the Royal African Company and the Slave Trade 1705–1718, by Professor Miles Ogborn FBA of Queen Mary, University of London, has been able to demonstrate Sir John Cass was a powerful and influential man who did not merely invest in the Royal African Company, the principle slave-trading company for the world at that time, but was active in its management of the slave trade from its London base.


Honestly, when one delves deeper into the practicalities of running a slave trading company at that time, it is hard to comprehend, especially for someone like me. However, it is only by understanding the horrors that lie beneath the wealth accumulated by Cass and others that we begin to understand how fully entrenched the slave trade was as an asset, within the heart of British institutions, the City, Parliament, and the Crown.


The Company ‘shipped more enslaved African women, men, and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade’. The Company chartered ships to take cargoes of goods to its West African employees who traded them for women, children and men who were transported in terrible conditions to the Caribbean and North America. Those who survived the voyage, such as my ancestors, were sold, often on credit, to planters who put them to work growing sugar and other crops on plantations. Mortality rates were very high among the enslaved in the Americas, as planters profited by squeezing as much work as possible out of their labour force and buying more enslaved people when they died or were no longer fit for work.


As an active director of the company, Cass would have instructed his captains to take care of the goods (slaves) so that they would reach their destination able to work. Indeed, captains were given incentives written into their contracts of four slaves per 100 sold. Delving deeper helps me to understand that slave-trading was merely another form of industry. Black slaves were not considered human beings but considered vital for growing the wealth of the colonies and bringing that wealth back to Britain. The City was entrenched in the slave trade and colonialism and flourished financially, becoming home to the financial heart of the UK.


As institutions learn more about their historical connections with the slave trade and seek to share that past and perhaps explain it in a different way, they are accused of being woke and whitewashing away the past. BUT every butcher, baker and candlestick maker had a hand in the slave trade and benefited from colonialism and slavery and so people shouldn’t think that getting rid of a statue or changing a name will by itself end their responsibility for the historical crime.


I think the work that the Portal Trust is doing to help us all understand the trans-Atlantic slave trade - this painful and horrible aspect of our British history – will start to help us understand the roots and injustices of systemic racism.


Why do we need to delve into the past and uncover all these painful and unpleasant topics? Because I and others who claim Britain as our home don’t want our histories ignored and forgotten. Yes, the Sir John Cass Foundation has changed its name and removed the statues of Sir John from public spaces to atone for the pain caused, but the newly named Portal Trust will retain the symbols in new and more relevant settings. Settings where knowledge can be shared openly and honestly so that we don’t break the link with this tragic, but important part of our history.


And I can be proud to acknowledge my personal history and place here in Britain.