words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

sure banker

On the international scene, there is perhaps no literary genre more closely associated with Nigerians than the scam letter. This indigenous art of ours, this national embarrassment, was recently elevated to new heights by a group of Nigerian entrepreneurs.

I say “heights” because, given the details of the case, it is not possible to avoid being a little impressed. Don’t get me wrong: these men, led by one Paul Gabriel Amos, are crooks. But the elegance of their scam and the sheer quantity of money involved, lend the whole sorry story an undeniably magical air.

Amos and his boys sent a package to Citibank in New York last September. In the package were instructions to Citibank to accept faxed transactions concerning certain funds belonging to the Ethiopian National Bank. The signatures checked out as genuine; phone calls were made and they, too, sounded legitimate. Over the next few months, faxes came in from the “Ethiopian officials,” and funds were withdrawn to the tune of twenty-seven million dollars. The money went to bank accounts in South Korea, Australia, Japan, Cyprus and the United States.

In all likelihood, Amos’ eventual arrest in Los Angeles in January would have seemed to an American audience a simple matter of cops and robbers. The simplicity of the tale was underscored by the starkness of the protagonists: the Nigerian scam artists versus Citibank. Agents of chaos, in other words, were set against the representatives of order. The winner was the multi-national financial institutions; the loser, Nigeria’s image.

What interests me more, though, is Citibank’s less public face. The official histories of the institution present a placid and scrupulously legal rise, from the foundations of the City Bank of New York in 1812, to what is now a worldwide financial behemoth, with dozens of international subsidiaries. It is a history of mergers and renamings, of foreign branches and capital infusions. The name is now solid gold, and there are many who would rather bank with Citi than any other firm. But there has been some recent trouble: the staggering losses entailed as a result of exposure to subprime mortgages threaten the very existence of the bank.

Billions of government dollars have already been infused into the corporation, and as I write these words, there is serious talk of the bank, the largest in the country, being nationalised. Citibank could well become a branch of the U.S. government within a few weeks or months. Now, especially, there is another aspect of Citibank’s history that deserves to be highlighted: that the bank grew rich by aiding and abetting an illegal slave trade. Trading in slaves had become a capital offence in the U.S. in 1820, but had continued informally for long after that.

Seventy-four cases were tried between 1837 and 1860; few resulted in convictions, and punishment was minimal. For years, New York remained the most important port for the building, outfitting, insuring and launching of slavers’ ships. Much of the grim human cargo of those vessels in the middle of the century was going to Cuba, and supporting the sugar plantations there. In profiting from slavery, the City Bank of New York was not unlike the other companies founded by merchants and bankers in the same time period. The companies that later became AT&T and ConEdison emerged from the same questionable milieu.

The eminent banker, Moses Taylor, who at his death was one of the world’s wealthiest men, joined the board of the City Bank in 1837, after a long and successful career as a sugar merchant. He became the president of the bank in 1855, and served in that capacity until his death in 1882. Taylor helped fund the war effort on the Union side. But he also made massive profits from brokering the sale of Cuban sugar in the port of New York, investing the profits of the sugar planters, facilitating the processing of the cargo at the New York City Customs House, and, not least, helping finance the acquisition of a “labour force”-in other words, paying for the purchase of slaves.

This last he did in part by operating his own ships, six of them, on the high seas. Taylor and other bankers like him knew exactly what they were doing. The profit margins were irresistible: a fully outfitted ship cost around $13, 000, and could be expected to deliver a human cargo worth more than $200, 000. A New York Times editorial in 1852, as the City Bank was raking in the profits, noted the following: “If the authorities plead that they cannot stop this, they simply confess their own imbecility. If they will not do it, the moral guilt they incur is scarcely less than that of the slave-traders themselves.”

I recently walked around Manhattan, from the old Customs House to South Street Seaport, and on to Wall Street, all within a mile of each other. The air there, on the southern tip of the island, is laced thick with the past. I saw the traces of slavery, theft and murder, and how they have been repackaged for modern times. Glittering headquarters of glass and steel are seductive, as is the ubiquity of a strong brand name. Citibank’s tag line is live richly. It is good advice, but one might well ask whether this wasn’t exactly what Paul Gabriel Amos and company, in their tricky way, were attempting to do.

Nevertheless, the matter of reparations is no simple one Even in clear-cut cases like those of the companies who assisted Hitler in his mass-murders, it is difficult to gain a fitting financial recompense; the dissolution of IG Farben, makers of Zyklon B gas, is a notable exception. Still the matter should at least be on the table.

This might be why I feel little sympathy for Citibank these days, as its capitalist model crumbles, as its profits shrink, as even “yahoo boys” feel emboldened to take a slice of the action. Perhaps when it is reborn, the bank can move beyond live richly to live and let live. Until then, I give awon boys a free pass.


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