Public apologies are becoming very popular amongst heirs of slavery in Britain, whose relatives profited from the transatlantic slave trade.
The latest apology comes from Charlie Gladstone, grandson of William Ewart Gladstone, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. John Gladstone, William’s father, owned or held mortgages over 2,508 enslaved Africans in Guyana and Jamaica. His apology is preceded by several others, including former BBC presenter Laura Trevelyan, who travelled to the Caribbean in February this year to formally apologise for her relatives’ involvement in slavery.
This month is the 200th anniversary of the ‘Demerara Rebellion’, a rebellion led by Jack Gladstone, a man enslaved on John Gladstone’s ‘Success’ plantation. Several members of the Gladstone family will travel to Guyana next week to make a formal apology for their great-grandfather’s slave ownership.
Public apologies as a form of late transitional justice
The transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity, and an appalling tragedy in the history of humanity which inflicted suffering on millions of men, women and children. Victims of the transatlantic slave trade were denied justice at the time, as have their descendants and communities who experience the ongoing consequences of it.
The first demand on the Caribbean Community’s (‘Caricom’) Reparations Commission’s ‘Ten Point Plan for Reparatory Justice’ is for a full formal apology from European governments. Apologies may be a valuable and meaningful first step in a transitional justice process. To date, most forms of transitional justice for the transatlantic slave trade have either been unavailable, unsupported, or flatly denied. Yet, the fact that justice for victims was absent when the slave trade was abolished does not mean that descendants on both sides, and societies collectively, are prevented from seeking transitional justice now - 200 years later.
However, is it the responsibility of these family members to apologise for what their ancestors did? To what extent can such an apology constitute ‘justice’? Do public apologies appease victims by recognising the harms caused?
Whilst they do not bear direct responsibility for the wrongdoings of their ancestors, descendants of British slave owners will inevitably have benefitted financially from their family’s wealth generated through slavery.
Monetary reparations have been paid by some families already, including the Trevelyans, who made a payment of £100,000 earlier this year. The Gladstones are also donating funds to fund research both in the UK and Guyana; £60,000 to University College London and £100,000 to the University of Guyana. The decision to pay reparations by private individuals is a historic milestone; disproving arguments against reparations for slavery, including that they would be logistically impossible.
Under the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, the British Government paid compensation to slave owners in the UK for the loss of their slaves. These payments came from a government fund of £20 million (estimated to be around £16 billion today). The amount of money borrowed by the British Government to fund these compensation payments was so large that it was still being repaid until 2015.
Are private settlements the right way to approach reparations? Arguably, as the original profit and subsequent compensation for slave owners went directly to private individuals, perhaps it is right that monetary reparation is paid by private individuals who inherited those funds.
Although a donation of £160,000 may seem generous, it is a small sum when compared to the amount of money each family received in compensation payments, with the Gladstones having received the modern equivalent of around £10 million pounds.
Others have been less forthcoming. The Conservative MP for South Dorset, Richard Drax MP, retains his family’s plantation in Barbados, named the ‘Drax Hall’ plantation, despite calls for him to consider reparations. Mr Drax has previously said his family’s slave-trading past was “deeply, deeply regrettable”, but that “no one can be held responsible today for what happened many hundreds of years ago.” The Chair of Caricom estimates that 30,000 enslaved people died in Barbados and Jamaica due to the Drax family slave trade. He said, ‘When I drive through Drax Hall land I feel a sense of being in a massive killing field with unmarked cemeteries.”
The Drax family received the equivalent of around £3 million in compensation from the British government for the emancipation of 189 slaves from the Drax Hall plantation. The MP is the largest individual landowner in Dorset, with 13,870 acres, and is worth an estimated £150 million.
Disappointingly, the UK government also continues to resist both apologies and reparations. This approach is unlikely to be sustainable. Calls for justice from communities and descendants have gained momentous traction and show no signs of slowing down. The Dutch government has recently apologised for the Netherlands’ historic role in slavery, and has established a reparations fund. At the same time, the British Royal Family, the Church of England, the Bank of England and many other institutions have created initiatives to analyse their role in transatlantic slavery and their responsibility towards descendants of the enslaved.
We are in an era of progress. The appetite to explore avenues for justice is ever-increasing. The willingness of key individuals to use their influence to address the ongoing consequences of transatlantic slavery is momentous. Where justice has previously been denied, late transitional measures may go far in providing redress for colonial harms.
Isabella Kirwan is a Barrister specialising in public international law, including criminal law, international human rights law and transitional justice. She is currently researching and advising on restorative justice for colonialism, including the trans-Atlantic slave trade. To contact her, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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