Edinburgh News, May 15, 2008
DESCENDANTS of black American slaves have accused the Lloyd’s of London insurance market and two United States companies of profiting from the slave trade in a lawsuit seeking billions of pounds in damages.
The suit, filed in Manhattan’s federal court, seeks just over £1 billion in punitive damages from Lloyd’s, tobacco firm RJ Reynolds and banking group FleetBoston. The suit also seeks unspecified actual damages.
Filed on behalf of six adults and two children, the suit alleges the companies intentionally sought to destroy the plaintiffs’ “people, culture, religion and heritage”.
Lawyers for the eight plaintiffs said the complaint—unlike past lawsuits seeking reparations for slavery—was the first to use DNA to link the plaintiffs to Africans who suffered atrocities during the slave trade.
The plaintiffs said their ancestors were transported from Africa as part of the slave trade from 1619 to 1865. They allege that Lloyd’s insured slave ships, while FleetBoston, then called Rhode Island’s Providence Bank, financed the ships in the slave trade. RJ Reynolds, the suit claims, profited from plantations.
RJ Reynolds spokeswoman Ellen Matthews said the firm had not yet seen the complaint but added: “Currently we are not aware of any legal precedent or even a legal theory that would allow these cases to proceed to trial.”
A Lloyd’s spokeswoman said it had not seen the claim and was not in a position to comment, but she added that previous claims regarding slavery had been dismissed.
FleetBoston was not available for comment.
The plaintiffs’ attorney is Edward Fagan, who is well known for taking on controversial cases. In 1998 he forced Swiss banks into a £685 million settlement on behalf of victims of the Holocaust.
He said: “For the last eight years every victim group in the world but one has been given its day in court. The only group that remains is Africans or African-Americans.”
There have been other lawsuits to condemn US slavery, but Mr Fagan said his case is different because his clients can trace their roots back to their African ancestry.
Plaintiffs in the past “couldn’t say what their connection was to these companies—that’s all changed, there’s DNA now,” he said.
“Each one of these individuals can tell you specifically where they came from in Africa,” Mr Fagan added.