It was a seemingly innocuous selfie photo yet it marked an extraordinary moment in a House of Commons corridor, as two people whose ancestors’ lives were entwined in tragic ways came together this month in the cause of instituting reparations for the foul transatlantic trade in people that paid for Britain’s industrial might.
One was the Labour MP Clive Lewis, whose father is from the Caribbean island of Grenada; the other was Laura Trevelyan, a former BBC journalist whose ancestors owned 1,000 people working on sugar-cane plantations there. When slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1833, her family received the equivalent of £3.5m in compensation for the loss of their ‘property’. The British government has never formally apologised for its leading role in the trade or offered to pay reparations to the descendants of those it enslaved.
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‘It’s entirely possible that his ancestors were owned by my ancestors,’ said Trevelyan, who went with a cousin to Grenada to apologise in person in February. ‘We represent both the pain of Britain’s colonial past but also the promise, as we’re now working together,’ she told the BBC. This delicate relationship is mirrored in the often tense, sometimes affectionate, ties between Britain and its former colonies, embodied by the Commonwealth. It was compared to an unhappy marriage by Lewis, when he spoke in a UK parliamentary debate last month on inequality in the Caribbean, likening the island nations there to a ‘partner who has endured 400 years of the most hideous abuse, [who seeks] not charity but restitution’.
Lewis warned that without resetting this unequal relationship there would be ‘divorce, in the form of growing republican sentiment across the Caribbean’, which could see the unravelling of the Commonwealth. He noted that while slavery had been abolished a century before, ‘Even in the 1930s, people in Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, St Lucia, St Vincent and St Kitts witnessed violent suppression and death at the hands of British colonial police forces for seeking basic labour rights in the colonial sugar factories, mines and fields that they still toiled in, for poverty wages – and all the time, the profits rolled out of the Caribbean, not into it.’
Removing King Charles
Following the Trevelyan family’s apology, Grenada’s prime minister, Dickon Mitchell, urged his UK counterpart, Rishi Sunak, to hold talks with Caribbean leaders to discuss their reparations plan (a request to which Sunak does not appear to have responded). At the same meeting, the Grenada National Reparations Commission urged its own government to begin consultations about removing King Charles III as its head of state. ‘A conversation on Grenada becoming a republic and moving away graciously from the [British] monarchy as head of state must commence in earnest,’ it said.
The Trevelyans’ apology for their role in slavery on Grenada, with a £100,000 donation towards educational projects on the island, is not the first example of such honest self-examination on links to slavery, though few families are likely to have done such soul-searching. The National Trust, which looks after many of the UK’s historic buildings, aired its own soiled legacy in a 2020 report on links between colonialism and the palatial mansions it looks after. The Guardian newspaper, a bastion of the British liberal tradition, has just released a report it commissioned on how its founders made their money from cotton and sugar grown by slaves in the Americas. Its owner, the Scott Trust, has issued an apology for the founders’ role in transatlantic slavery and pledged to invest more than £10m in a decade-long programme of restorative justice, including funds earmarked for descendant communities linked to the Guardian’s founders.
Apologies were once anathema for governments fearing they might pave the way for reparations, but last year the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, issued an apology for the Netherlands’ role in slavery. In the Labour Party’s 2019 election manifesto, Jeremy Corbyn, the former UK opposition leader, promised an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonialism and to address the legacy of slavery. The heir to the British throne, Prince William, gave a speech in Jamaica last year that made a nod in that direction, expressing ‘profound sorrow’ over the ‘appalling atrocity of slavery’, though it was criticised for falling short of an apology.
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‘Symbol of colonisation’
Other historical wrongs are being confronted: an Indigenous Australian newsreader called on Britain to apologise for its colonisation following the Queen’s death last year. Narelda Jacobs said Aboriginal people should not be criticised for refusing to mourn the Queen’s death as the monarchy was a ‘symbol of colonisation’ and had done nothing to ‘make up for that’. In Canada, the shocking discovery of more than 1,300 Indigenous children’s unmarked graves at former residential schools in 2021 prompted calls for full acknowledgment of that country’s dark history of cultural genocide, described by one of its architects as a ‘Final Solution of our Indian Problem’.
Public apologies, with a sincere admission of responsibility, are important, as the UN’s most senior human rights body emphasises. But as Prof Sir Hilary Beckles, Caricom Reparations Commission (CRC) chairman, said last year: ‘Apologies are not enough. Apologies are precursors for reparations.’
He is right to focus on the money – words are cheap, after all, while the economics of slavery live on. In 2019, the Dutch Research Council’s report Slaves, Commodities and Logistics concluded that in 1770, 5.2% of Dutch gross domestic product was based on the transatlantic slave trade – a contribution almost equivalent to that of Rotterdam’s huge port today. In the US, the median white family has 10 times the wealth of its black equivalent. The UK government was still paying off compensation to slave owners in 2015, the Bristol Post discovered.
‘Pandemic of chronic diseases’
The issue of reparations in the Caribbean has moved steadily from a fringe issue to the forefront of regional politics, with the CRC established in 2013. It is an idea whose time has come. The legacy of the Caribbean’s structural impoverishment to enrich the UK can be quantified by, among other things, poor health. Beckles said Britain had left behind ‘a pandemic of chronic diseases’, such as diabetes and hypertension. Black Caribbeans were ‘the world’s sickest’, with more amputations carried out in the region per capita than anywhere else in the world. An appropriate vehicle for British reparations might be to address this legacy of chronic ill health by improving primary healthcare (though the poor state of the UK’s own National Health System probably makes this a pipedream).
Amid the justifiable anger that still burns fiercely centuries later, there is also some cause for hope: that, as Lewis put it to fellow MPs, ‘a descendant of former slaves, a part of that injustice, can find themselves centuries later in the British parliament making the case for reparations’. The time has come for Britain to face up to its past. In the words of James Baldwin: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.
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