Curiosity about a family resemblance started Malik Al Nasir on 15 years of research that revealed a complex web of wealth and connections across British society. Mark Bridge reports for The Times of London.
A black poet who discovered white ancestors at the “epicentre” of the slave trade has shared his story to highlight slavery’s complex connections across British society.
Malik Al Nasir was born in Toxteth, Liverpool, in 1966 to a Welsh mother and a black Guyanese father who served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War. He experienced racist abuse growing up on a council estate and in the care system when he was called the n-word and told to “go back to where you came from”.
It was in his 30s, while researching a tie to a pioneering black footballer, that he found out that their relatives in common included both slaves and the owners of the Sandbach Tinne slaveholding corporation, as well as prime minister William Ewart Gladstone.
He said: “I never expected to find prime ministers and mayors and high sheriffs but that’s what I found, so I focus on them, their plantations and their business interests. As a consequence what I’ve been able to do, which no one else seems to have been able to do, is make all the interconnectedness of these characters, to show a picture of their entire mercantile operation in a manner which has never been seen before. They are at the epicentre of the slave trade.”
Over 15 years of research, he has documented how his white relatives in British Guiana, Liverpool and Glasgow accrued billions of pounds in today’s terms through the shipping of slaves and their output, such as sugar, rum, molasses, coffee and cotton, while operating in a close-knit cousinhood of plantation-owners, bankers and politicians. Their wealth not only built major institutions of the city he grew up in but also contributed to the success of companies today such as Barclays.
He said it was difficult for him to “come to terms with the brutality” some of his forebears inflicted on others, including his own slave ancestors.
However, he believes that history should not be “manicured” and his genealogy illustrates the reach and legacy of slaving interests from the 18th century onwards in an unprecedented manner.
On the strength of his findings, he has won a place at Cambridge University’s St Catherine’s College to investigate further for a PhD.
Mr Al Nasir, who changed his name from Mark Watson after converting to Islam, uncovered the connections after watching a documentary about the first black international footballer. He said photographs of himself and the British Guiana-born player Andrew Watson at the same ages revealed they were the “spitting image” of one another.
Curious to discover whether he was related to the footballer, whose achievements included captaining Scotland in a 6-1 victory against England in 1881, he travelled to Rosignol in Guyana and tracked down family members.
He found that he was descended from a brother of Watson’s father, a white slave owner. He also found that cousins were still living on land that had formed part of a plantation, “Woodlands”, which their mutual ancestor once managed for their family firm.
He said that such connections were not unusual, although they have rarely been studied in depth. “As there were virtually no white women in Guiana, among the Scots, the predominant planters, it was customary for rich mercantile gentlemen to take on a black woman who would be a wife in all respects except she would not sit at the table at formal dinners . . . The reason was that there was so much venereal disease. You had a lot of poor white overseers who would do whatever they wanted with the slaves.”
He added that children born of these relationships before the abolition of slavery in 1834 were “free people of colour” and sometimes inherited plantations and slaves of their own. Andrew Watson, who was born over 20 years after abolition, benefited from a privileged upbringing, studying at King’s College School, Wimbledon, and Glasgow University.
Significantly for Mr Al Nasir’s research, the footballer’s grandfather, James Watson, who is also Mr Al Nasir’s ancestor, married into the family of George Robertson, a founder of the firm that would become Sandbach Tinne. His wife Christian, known as one of the “three fair maids of Kiltearn” after their father’s manse, was not only George’s niece but sister-in-law of the firm’s 19th-century leader Samuel Sandbach, mayor of Liverpool in 1831-2.
It was this connection that brought the Watson brothers to the colony. As well as linking Mr Al Nasir to the families of many of the company’s partners and business connections, it is through the Robertsons that Mr Al Nasir is distantly related to the wife of another British Guiana slave owner, Sir John Gladstone and their son, the Liberal prime minister.
As part of his research, Mr Al Nasir has acquired about 150 original documents relating to Sandbach Tinne, including a complete set of accounts.
His archive also includes dozens of letters between the partners, purchased from stamp dealers.
His research indicates that the company’s operations included owning and managing plantations, shipping their products such as sugar and cotton, and transporting and dealing in the slaves whose labour underpinned the system.
It also supplied slaveholders with provisions including arms, household goods and building materials. And it branched into financial services, offering insurance and loans and mortgages against plantations and slaves. In 1825 it had assets of over half a million pounds on its balance sheet, not including the huge assets of its linked businesses.
UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership database indicates that the company and its partners received £150,452 (equivalent to £19.2 million) from the state compensation scheme after abolition, excluding payments for plantations held by partners as private individuals.
The correspondence in Mr Al Nasir’s archive is more revealing of the human cost of slavery, setting out how his white relatives sought to wring maximum output from his other, enslaved ancestors.
In one letter of December 18, 1819 Charles Stewart Parker, a partner in the firm and nephew by marriage of George Robertson, describes the combining of two plantations and intended sale of one work gang. This consolidation had the joint aims of maximising the output of the remaining slaves and reducing the risk of insurrection. It was part of a broader rationalising drive that backfired badly.
As Mr Al Nasir explains: “This overworking, maltreatment and wanton disregard for humanity by Scottish slavers led to a slave uprising of 1823.” The rising was brutally crushed with the bodies of executed rebels hung up in chains.
In another company letter, the author complains that an epidemic that has been “chiefly fatal amongst the Negroes” had led to “almost an entire suspension of production and sugar making last few weeks”.
The papers illustrate how the proceeds of slavery weren’t only reinvested in the core business but also in industries such as banking and railways.
Samuel Sandbach had fingers in both these pies and was an early shareholder and chairman of the Bank of Liverpool, which was founded as a joint-stock bank in 1831. His close relatives and business associates repeatedly held top posts in the bank for decades.
The Bank of Liverpool, later renamed Martins Bank after its acquisition of the London clearing bank, was bought by Barclays in 1969, bringing it a network of over 600 branches. Barclays says it could not possibly have had any sway over the actions the Bank of Liverpool before its acquisition of Martins Bank. Mr Al Nasir said his point is that Barclays would not be as large or profitable today had it not acquired Bank of Liverpool’s infrastructure, which was built on slave wealth.
Barclays is among a number of high-profile institutions that recently acknowledged other historic ties to slavery through former directors who were slaveholders. Most have resisted calls to make reparations that Mr Al Nasir believes are long overdue.
Striking in his research is how a portion of slave proceeds were earmarked for church-building, philanthropy and the acquisition of landed estates — purchasing respectability and public offices.
Thus The Illustrated London News of Saturday, May 3, 1851, informed readers that the “venerable gentleman” Samuel Sandbach Esq., of Woodlands, Lancashire, had died, aged 81, having served as bailiff, coroner and mayor of Liverpool, JP for Lancashire and High Sheriff of Denbighshire.
The notice is illustrated with the coat of arms acquired by Sandbach and the Latin motto “Virtutis gloria merces” (Glory is the reward of valour).
Among the friends and relations calling on Sandbach and his wife in the 1820s was the teenage William Ewart Gladstone, who noted the visits in his diary. Although some of Gladstone’s political interventions on behalf of the financial interests of slaveowners such as his own father and Mr Sandbach, have been highlighted by campaigners, Mr Al Nasir believes there is more to be told.
He draws attention to a speech of Gladstone’s in 1838, four years after abolition, in which the MP argued for additional compensation for former slaveholders to make up for the early closure of the “apprenticeship” scheme. This was a system that was supposed to ease the transition from slavery to freedom but was criticised for keeping former slaves in bondage.
Gladstone told the House about the alleged financial harm suffered by an unnamed planter whose circumstances lay “entirely within my own knowledge”.
Mr Al Nasir said: “The details cited indicate that the planter concerned was Gladstone’s own father, who had already been the largest individual recipient of compensation, to the tune of over £100,000.”
David Olusoga, professor of public history at the University of Manchester and an expert in the history of slavery, said: “What Malik has achieved with his research is astonishing. He reveals how one dynasty reinvested the profits of slavery and how that wealth, built on the suffering of the enslaved, flowed into the financial financial back stories of modern British companies. The fact that it’s also a personal family history makes it all the more powerful.”
Describing his own feelings about his discoveries, Mr Al Nasir said: “I’ve always been told you don’t belong here, get back to where you belong. To those people, I say, ‘You took my ancestors, you enslaved my ancestors, you worked my ancestors for free, you profiteered off my ancestors, you built your economy on my ancestors, you then used my father to fight your war, and then you tell me to go back to where I came from?’”
On the other hand, speaking of slaveholders, he said: “I’ve got that blood in me as well. It would have been a lot easier for me to say I’ve got the blood of a slave, but to have the blood of the slave owner too, I have to deal with that side. And especially to find out that these slave owners had their black kids and that a lot of their black kids actually were treated like Victorian gentlemen in their own right.”
“But you cannot manicure history to make it be something that fits the narrative that you want to believe in. What you have to do is you have to uncover the historical evidence, the historical facts, and call it like it is, warts and all, even if it’s against your own self.”
After completing his PhD, he hopes to find a funding partner to put his findings online in a database that would complement UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership site as a major resource for scholars and the general public. He is still seeking financing for his studies as his undergraduate and masters’ grades do not meet the grades required by most funding bodies. He said: “This is itself a legacy of slavery and colonialism, as black academics are more likely to have faced obstacles in their education for socio-economic reasons. I missed two years of primary education and only had less than two years of secondary education due to being in the care system.”
Barclays said in a statement: “The history of Barclays, like other institutions, is being examined following recent events. We can’t change what’s gone before us, only how we go forward. We are committed as a bank to do more to further foster our culture of inclusiveness, equality and diversity, for our colleagues, and the customers and clients we serve.”
The bank says it contributes tens of millions of pounds a year to projects benefiting black communities.