By: Tony Best
The Caribbean’s call for reparations for slavery has received an unexpected boost in London.
Less than a month after Sir Hillary Beckles, Principal of the University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus in Barbados used the first of a series of lectures in Guyana to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Berbice Slave revolt in then British Guiana in 1763 to call for an “informed and sensible conversation” on what was perhaps “the worst crime against humanity,” slavery, the noted historian and university administrator has received support for his from a treasure trove of previously unseen documents which were released a few days ago in London. The detailed records indicated that the descendants of thousands of prominent British families might owe some of their present wealth to the compensation their ancestors received when slavery was abolished in Jamaica, British Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, and Antigua. Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean in 1833.
On the list of recipients of large sums of money for slavery in the 19th century was the Earl of Harewood, a relative of Queen Elizabeth who once owned plantations in the West Indies. In all, more than 3,000 families received the modern day equivalent of at least $25 billion. Actually, the U.K. treasury paid out 20 million English pounds) in the 1830s, about 40 per cent of the country’s annual spending budget, the documents and a database showed.
Dr. Nick Draper, a scholar at the University College of London and head of a team of academics who spent three years studying 46,000 records of compensation given to the British owners of 700,000 slaves in the West Indies, said that the findings could have implications for the “reparations debate” in the West Indies which was being spearheaded by Sir Hillary.
“Barbados is currently leading the way in calling for reparations from former colonial powers for the injustices suffered by slaves and their families,” stated the “Independent” newspaper in London. Just as important, the revelations can turn out to be a huge embarrassment for Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron; Henry Lascelles, the second Earl Of Harewood and a cousin of Queen Elizabeth; former British cabinet minister Douglas Hogg; the scions of one of Britain’s leading banking families, the Barrings; and the authors Graham Greene and George Orwell, some of whom used the compensation to invest in railways and other ventures that fueled the industrial revolution. Others used the money to acquire and maintain lavished mansions in the U.K. and across the Caribbean, Jamaica included. It is believed some of the funds went into many of the stately homes throughout the region and in England.
Dr. Draper contends the compensation program accounts for the wealth of some of England’s richest families who still directly enjoy the proceeds of slavery. Interestingly, some of descendants of the slave-owners who developed strong link to various islands up until the 1970s and were often present at independence functions in the 1960s, ‘70s and 80s.
“There was a feeding frenzy around the compensation,” was the way Dr. Draper put it about the money handed out to the slave owners in the West Indies.
The scheme was structured in such a way that it rewarded slave owners according to the levels of productivity in the colonies. For example, the amount paid in compensation for slaves in British Guiana was higher than the “value” placed on slaves in Jamaica because of a decline in productivity at the time of emancipation. In effect, the price paid for human beings was determined by colonial officials in the West Indies and London and worked out in government offices but not by the slave market.
The documents indicate that:
• Half of the overall amount of compensation went to slave-owning Brits in the West Indies and Africa.
• The largest single payout to slave owners in the West Indies was the equivalent of (English pounds) 83 million in today’s money and it went to James Blair who owned 1,598 slaves in British Guiana.
• David Cameron, the current British Prime Minister, had a great great-grand uncle, the Second Earl of Fife who received a sum equal to more than $6 million today for the 202 slaves he forfeited on a sugar estate in Jamaica. The British Prime Minister declined to comment on the disclosure that his ancestors owned West Indian slaves.
• The Hogg family who gave Britain and its empire two Lord
Chancellors in the 20th century got some its wealth from the
labor of slaves on plantations in British Guiana.
• Some of the slave-owners channeled much of the compensation into philanthropy.
• John Gladstone, father of Britain’s 19th century Prime Minister, William Gladstone, owned nine plantations and 2,508 slaves in the West Indies and his son who served four times as England’s leader was very much involved in his father’s claim for compensation for the slaves.
“Seeing the names of the slave owners repeated in 20th century family naming practices is a very stark reminder about where those families saw their origins being from,” said Dr. Draper.
In his lecture entitled “Britain’s Black debt reparations owed the Caribbean for slavery an indigenous Genocide,” Sir Hillary insisted that the reparation he had in mind wasn’t about people getting handouts, but about repairing historical damage and how to find a way forward.
He said that the issue of slavery had in recent times been viewed as a crime against humanity and those types of crimes had attracted calls for reparations for victims in various forms.
Sir Hillary urged Caricom states to come together to address the issue of slavery and the question of reparations which he argued would lead to peace, justice, reconciliation and future harmony.