Ten present day descendants of slaves, transported from Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries, have filed a lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Fleet Boston Financial Corp. (as successor in interest to the Providence Bank of Rhode Island) and Lloyd’s of London seeking some $2 billion in compensation for their ancestors’ enslavement.
The case was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by U.S. lawyer Edward Fagan in the Southern District of New York. According to press reports Reynolds is charged with operating the tobacco fields where the slaves were put to work, Fleet Boston participated by financing the voyages of slave ships, and Lloyd’s has been named as the insurer of the ships and their human cargo.
Fagan called the case one of genocide, (although that term is more closely associated with intentional mass killing) as the transportation resulted in the destruction of local communities in Africa and their culture. Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire in the 1830’s. It was abolished in the U.S. with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, but its legacy persists.
The case differs from previous attempts to obtain compensation for the victims of slavery and their descendants, as the plaintiffs claim they are able to trace their ancestors’ origins through DNA evidence to specific locations and individual ships. According to a BBC report one of the descendants even has insurance documents issued by Lloyd’s on the ship that carried his forebear to the U.S.
This isn’t Fagan’s first foray into a high-profile case. In 1998 he secured settlements totaling $1.25 billion from Swiss banks accused of receiving gold and funds from Holocaust victims. He claims that by underwriting slave ships in the 1700 and 1800’s the U.K.’s oldest insurance firm played a key role in supporting the slave trade.
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