And where exactly is our cease and desist?
Several published reports - here's Norman Oder - indicate that Barclay's, the British bank recently in the news for sponsoring the Atlantic Yards arena, is sending out cease and desist letters to publications that have weighed in on the story.
We're still waiting, but here are a few thoughts. All correspondence should be addressed to editors â€“ at â€“ dailygotham â€“ dot â€“ com, by the way, just to be helpful. If we get something, we will publish it.
The bank asserts that it, contrary to published reports, had no connections to the slave trade, and that its founders were in fact abolitionists. There's no reason to doubt the latter assertion â€“ Quakers, such as the founders of Barclay's, were in fact a driving force behind the early British abolitionist movement, which concluded in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The trade in slaves, which is at issue here, was banned by Act of Parliament in 1824; the Slave Trade Act banned the practice within the British Empire and, more importantly, was extra-territorial in its application, giving the Royal Navy the right to intercept slavers on the high seas. In consequence, the large-scale trade in slaves ceased, much to the annoyance, one might add, of the American slave states and their bankers on Wall Street.
The problem is with the earlier statement about profits from the slave trade. This trade â€“ along with other forms of Imperial commerce â€“ was foundational to the political economy of pre-industrial Britain (and the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain). Notably, there isn't any real way that comes readily to mind that would allow distinctions between profits from slaves and, say, profits from textiles or (slave-produced) colonial produce such as sugar, cocoa or spices. Any company that did business in overseas trade from the great mercantile hub of London in the Eighteenth Century would have been, unless it had an express policy to the contrary, involved directly or indirectly with profits from this trade. In much the same way, the great British hongs of the Far East â€“ such as HSBC or Jardine Matheson, the model for James' Clavell's Noble House - can trace themselves to the opium trade. This is historical fact.
The New York Times makes much this case.
Christopher Leslie Brown, a Rutgers history professor and an expert on the early British Empire, said in an interview that the Barclay family were slave owners, but minor ones.
Mr. Brown, who is black and the author of the 2006 book â€œMoral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism,â€ said, â€œThe point I would make about these banks, like Barclays, is that much of the wealth generated in the 18th century came either directly or indirectly out of either the slave trade or plantationsâ€ in Virginia, Jamaica and Barbados.
He added, â€œThis game of â€˜gotcha!â€™ â€” pointing out this particular bank had relationships with slave traders or slaveholders â€” gets a little bit silly because all banks did. Barclays is not unusual in being connected to the history of slavery, nor is it unusually innocent.â€
There's an opportunity in this that shouldn't be missed. Clearly, Barclay's could use this as an occasion to engage the community in a dialogue. I'd wager a guess that the bank finds itself surprised and slightly out of its depth in what must have been an unexpected discussion of its past; one suspects that they perhaps, cough, Ratner, cough, weren't told that the project they want to involve themselves with is in itself controversial.
Thing is, that controversy isn't going to go away with a cease and desist. If Barclay's wants a dialogue, we're willing to have it.