Sep 26, 2023 Letters
President Irfaan Ali stood his ground during last week’s appearance on the British TV programme Good Morning Britain during the “interrogation” from one of the hosts Richard Madeley when asked about reparations from the descendants of British and Scottish slave owners in Guyana.
When Mr. Madeley thought he posed a “got you” question banging his hand on the desk (like an elementary school boy) demanding from President Ali if he wants one of the Palaces from the Royal family; the President reminded him that the exotic materials and all the hardwoods used in the construction of the said Palaces were plundered from Guyana and other countries they colonized, using the blood, sweat and tears of the enslaved blacks, thousands of whom were whipped to death even whilst doing their labour intensive tasks.
While it is a good first step to see the descendants of the four times former British Prime Minister William Gladstone apologizing for their family’s past as enslavers in Guyana, they went as far as urging the UK government to discuss reparations to their former British colonies in the Caribbean. William Gladstone’s father, John Gladstone was of Scottish descent and an absentee landlord; he never visited his estates in the Caribbean but became extremely rich from the proceeds of slavery, and later indentureship. John Gladstone was also one of the largest enslavers in parts of the Caribbean; he owned several ships, including the first two ships (The Hesperus and the Whitby) that transported hundreds of Indians to Guyana in 1838.
On Friday, 25th August 2023, during a launch of the International Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies (announcing a grant to the tune of £100,000) at the University of Guyana, Charles Gladstone, who is the great great-great-grandson of UK Prime Minister William Gladstone, said “Slavery was a crime against humanity and its damaging impact continues to be felt across the world today. It is with deep shame and regret that we acknowledge our ancestor’s involvement in this crime and with heartfelt sincerity that we apologise to the descendants of the enslaved in Guyana. We also urge other descendants of those who benefited from slavery to open conversations about their ancestors’ crimes and what they might be able to do to build a better future.” The Gladstones also apologised for their role in indentureship.
While, £100,000 is a paltry sum, it nevertheless sets the foundation for Guyanese of African ancestry to see more like-minded gestures from the other descendants of British, Scottish and Dutch slave owners to step up to the plate and acknowledge the gruesome past of their ancestors and try to engage in dialogues with regards to reparations. Afterall, they are all beneficiaries of the financial gains from 400 years of slavery.
In July 2013, the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) was launched. This has energized the global movement for reparatory justice and which has inspired the formation of the National African American Reparations Commission, the European Reparations Commission and similar formations in Canada and the United Kingdom. In April 2015, hundreds of reparations advocates from more than 22 countries, including representatives from the CRC, assembled in New York City for an International Reparations Conference organized by the US-based Institute of the Black World 21st Century.
It is for this, as well as other related reasons that the Caribbean has emerged as the epicenter of the global reparatory justice movement. Its campaign for reparations for the crimes of slavery and colonialism has served as a template for the Global South to seek a level playing field for development within the international economic order. In addition, it serves as a model to address new forms of equity, including climate change. Presenting evidence of past wrongdoings so as to facilitate the call for a new global order that includes fairness in access to economic and social development issues and equality in participation, should be applauded.
The 1833 Emancipation Act passed by the British government freed around 650,000 black slaves in the British Caribbean. However, the freedom for the slaves came at a cost for the slave owners when slavery was finally abolished in 1834. According to Nicolas Draper, the British government paid approximately £20 million to the absentee slave-owners as compensation for the loss of their slave property on their plantations across the British Empire. This amounted to the equivalent of approximately 40% of the total annual government expenditure in the 1830s. The compensation was worth approximately £16-£17 billion at the time Mr. Draper did the computations sometime between 2005 and 2010, this amount is most likely well over £20 billion today. The former plantation owners of British Guiana received a total of £4,297,117 10s. 6½ d, as compensation for the “loss of approximately 84,915 slave property”.
The enslaved people themselves received nothing. Ultimately about 50% of the funds the Plantation owners in the UK received proved to be one of several significant sources of “funding for new industrial and infrastructure development, above all the railway boom” in the country. It took British taxpayers 182 years to pay off this debt, the loan the Government took out to compensate slave owners for the abolition of slavery in 1833 was only repaid in full in 2015. Some of the descendants of those owned by British people later became residents in the UK (including many Guyanese), and through taxation contributed to paying off the debt created by the huge windfall paid to the slave-owners who once owned their ancestors as property.
Among the British descendants who benefited from slavery are ancestors of the former Prime Minister – David Cameron; former Member of Parliament Douglas Hogg; authors Graham Greene and George Orwell; poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and the Chairman of the Arts Council, Peter Bazalgette. Other prominent names which feature in Nicolas Draper records include scions of one of the nation’s oldest banking families, the Barings, and the second Earl of Harewood, Henry Lascelles, an ancestor of the Queen’s cousin. Some families used the money to invest in the railways and other aspects of the industrial revolution; others bought or maintained their country houses, and some used the money for philanthropy. George Orwell’s great-grandfather, Charles Blair, received £4,442, equal to more than £3 million today, for the 218 slaves he owned.
While the Dutch tried to erase Guyana from their slave history, they occupied Guyana longer than any of our occupiers. We should not let them off the hook in ensuring that the Dutch ancestry are also held liable to compensate descendants of their slave property they once held in Guyana. From the 17th century through the 19th century, the Dutch brought about 16,000 Africans to Essequibo; 15,000 to Berbice; and 11,000 to Demerara, making it a total of approximately 42,000 give or take a few thousand at the time ownership was transferred to the British in 1814.
The Dutch had a significant role in the global slave trade – the stately mansions lining the canals in Amsterdam is a testament to the fortunes amassed during the Dutch Golden Age, from the use of slave labor in their colonies, Guyana was their number one export earnings during the period. Also, the construction of the canals in the city of Amsterdam were financed through the proceeds from slavery. There is even a mansion in Voorschoten called the Berbice country estate, which is in close proximity to The Hague, and which dates back to 1669. In 1827 the then owner Jon Kheer Goldberg named the mansion after Berbice when he was in the colony during the time he was stationed in Guyana.
Bibi Halima Khanam
Essequibo is we own, can we say the same about the oil?
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