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Descendants of UK slave owners call on government to apologise

Heirs of Slavery body wants restorative justice to tackle ‘ongoing consequences of this crime against humanity’

A sugar plantation in Jamaica. Members of the group acknowledge their families’ wealth was derived in part from profits made on plantations worked on by enslaved Africans. [Source Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library]

The descendants of some of Britain’s wealthiest slave owners have launched an activist movement, calling on the government both to apologise for slavery and begin a programme of reparative justice in recognition of the “ongoing consequences of this crime against humanity”.

A second cousin of King Charles and a direct descendant of the Victorian prime minister William Gladstone have joined journalists, a publisher, a schoolteacher and a retired social worker, to create the Heirs of Slavery campaigning body, which will lobby the UK government to acknowledge and atone for its role in the transportation of 3.1 million enslaved African people across the Atlantic.

“British slavery was legal, industrialised and based entirely on race,” Alex Renton, one of the group’s founders, said. “Britain has never apologised for it, and its after-effects still harm people’s lives in Britain as well as in the Caribbean countries where our ancestors made money.”

The group includes the Earl of Harewood, David Lascelles, the retired social worker Rosemary Harrison, businessman Charles Gladstone, the former BBC correspondent Laura Trevelyan, her film director cousin, John Dower, the author and publisher Richard Atkinson, retired schoolteacher Robin Wedderburn, and the journalist Alex Renton. They hope descendants of other slave-owning dynasties will come forward to join them.

Members of the group acknowledge that their families’ wealth was derived in part from the profits made on plantations worked on by enslaved Africans. Their slave-owning ancestors all received compensation from the British government after slavery was abolished in Britain in 1833.

The group supports the plans for reparative justice devised by Caricom – the political union of 20 Caribbean countries. The Caricom Reparations Commission states that European governments instructed genocidal actions on indigenous communities and failed to acknowledge their crimes or to compensate victims and their descendants. Its 10-point plan for reparatory justice asks for a full formal apology, debt cancellation, and calls for former colonial powers to invest in their health and education systems.

Asked if the descendants of families who received compensation from the British government in 1833 should be encouraged to pay some of that money back, Lascelles, whose ancestors received about £26,000, said: “That certainly should be part of the discussion.”

In a written statement, Charles Gladstone said: “I joined this group in an attempt to begin to address the appalling ills visited on so many people by my ancestor John Gladstone.” John Gladstone, father of the prime minister William Gladstone, was paid £106,000 compensation after abolition (worth at least £17m today).

Laura Trevelyan said last month she was leaving the BBC to become a full-time slavery reparations campaigner. [Source Credit: David Levenson/Getty Images]

Last month, Trevelyan said she was leaving the BBC to become a full-time slavery reparations campaigner and announced that she and relatives had donated £100,000 to education projects in Grenada.

Renton, the son of a Conservative cabinet minister, said the group wanted to use their inherited privilege to put pressure on the government for change. “As descendants of wealthy families, we inherited disproportionate influence and power in modern Britain. We’re encouraging everybody who finds themselves in this position to look at what they can do to help,” he said.

Renton’s 2021 book, Blood Legacy, investigating his family’s slave-owning past, prompted other descendants of slave-owning families to contact him asking for advice on what they should do. As well as directing people to charities, he hopes that the new group will work to support existing campaigns, seeking apologies and reparative justice.

“We’re keen not to do what people like me are educated to do, which is to take centre stage and try to take charge of things, but instead to offer our skills to support the hard work others are doing,” Renton said.

Richard Atkinson: ‘It’s too big a subject to be just down to individuals.’ [Source Credit: Steven May/Alamy Live News/Alamy Live News.]

Richard Atkinson, a publisher with Penguin, has also researched his family’s slave-owning past. “There must be tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of families in this country who have a version of that history. Individuals should give money, according to their means and their conscience, but it’s too big a subject to be just down to individuals,” he said. Political parties should be writing commitments to reparative justice into their manifestoes, he said.

Olivette Otele, distinguished research professor of the memory of slavery at SOAS, University of London, was cautiously welcoming. She said: “It is an important initiative and potentially transformative but it needs to be more than half a dozen people. There are many, many other people who ought to be on that list.”

She stressed it was important to make sure the group collaborated with already existing movements, to avoid being labelled white saviours, “trying to tackle racism on their own … But I want to applaud it. It reminds me of the movement to abolish the slave trade, where you had enslaved people in the Caribbean fighting for their own freedom but also you also had abolitionists in European capitals, and it was this collaboration that brought slavery to an end,” she said.

Olivette Otele called it ‘an important initiative and potentially transformative’ but said it needed to be ‘more than half a dozen people’. [Source Credit: Phil Lewis/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock]

The announcement follows a recent surge in support for the reparations movement. Last December, the Netherlands became the first major national government to apologise for its role in enslaving African people; Mark Rutte, the prime minister, made a formal apology and pledged to commit £200m of government funds towards restoration work in the former Dutch colonies.

The Guardian has this month published research into its founders’ links to slavery and King Charles has recently signalled his support for research into the British monarchy’s historical links with transatlantic slavery. The all party parliamentary group on Afrikan reparations is hosting a meeting on Monday to debate “why now is the time for official apologies for African enslavement”.

• This article was amended on 24 April 2023. The APPG on Afrikan reparations is hosting a meeting on Monday 24 April, not Tuesday 25 April as stated in an earlier version.


(c) 2023, The Guardian


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