The shadow of slavery hangs over the gilded life of Richard Drax

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Paul Lashmar and Jonathan Smith write, “He’s the MP with the Downton Abbey lifestyle. But the shadow of slavery hangs over the gilded life of Richard Drax,” adding that “The hardline Tory Brexiter’s family made a fortune from their Caribbean plantations where thousands died.” Now, Drax faces urgent calls for reparations.

[. . .] This is home to Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, the Conservative MP for South Dorset, who lives in the palatial Grade I-listed Charborough House, hidden from public view within the 700-acre private grounds. The Park, with its outstanding garden and ancient deer park, is just a part of the 14,000 acres of Charborough estate that makes Drax and his family the largest individual landowners in Dorset. The mainly 17th-century mansion with its 120ft folly tower is the model for Welland House in the Thomas Hardy novel Two on a Tower.

As well as being extremely wealthy, Drax is also an outspoken politician. After 10 years as a backbencher he has become increasingly prominent among Tory rightwing Brexiters driving the government’s hardline position on Europe. And he has been vocal in the debate about Covid within the party, joining the Tory MPs who have rebelled against the government over its lockdown measures.

In June he said of the Black Lives Matter protests: “The desecration of the Cenotaph by rioters two weeks ago, on the actual D-Day anniversary, was beyond ironic.” He is vociferous on immigration, too. Voting to increase curbs in 2013, he said: “I believe, as do many of my constituents, that this country is full.”

But for all his wealth and power, there is a dark shadow hanging over Richard Drax – his family’s historical links with slavery in the plantations of the West Indies, which are now prompting mounting calls from former Caribbean colonies for reparations.

The Drax fortune includes vast expanses of land and property in England but, as our investigation reveals, the family’s role as plantation owners in Barbados appears to remain key to the MP’s wealth. Richard Drax’s 17th-century ancestors James and William sailed to Barbados in the late 1620s, where they cleared lush land in the centre of the island and experimented with growing and processing sugar.

The Draxes devised a commercial sugar plantation model, worked by slaves brought from Africa, that was immensely lucrative and copied across the West Indies and the Americas. Such was Sir James’s wealth that in 1650 he built the plantation house Drax Hall that still stands today and in which he lived, according to an eyewitness, “like a prince”. His brother William took their methods to Jamaica where the former plantation area is also still known as Drax Hall.

Later, the Draxes married into the Erle family that owned Charborough Park and the sugar profits helped to greatly extend the mansion and lands back in England. As a reminder of the links between Dorset and Barbados a road that bisects the Charborough estate is called Sugar Hill. The TV presenter and historian David Olusoga says: “The Drax family are one of the few who were pioneers in the early stages of the British slave economy back in the 17th century and, generations later, still owned plantations and enslaved people at the end of British slavery in the 1830s.

“From the very early stages of the family’s involvement in slavery and the sugar trade, through the career of Sir James Drax in Barbados during the 17th century, the Drax dynasty were able to generate extraordinary wealth through the cultivation of sugar by enslaved Africans.”

The Barbados plantation was worked by up to 327 slaves at a time, with the death rate for both adults and children high. Sir Hilary Beckles, chairman of the 20-state Caribbean Community’s (Caricom) Reparations Commission and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, estimates that as many 30,000 slaves died on the Drax plantations in Barbados and Jamaica over 200 years.

Britain outlawed slave trading in 1807, and ownership of slaves was banned in 1833. About £20m – a huge sum – was then paid out to compensate slave owners. A database created by University College London showed that Richard Drax’s ancestor John Sawbridge Erle-Drax MP, who also lived at Charborough Park, received £4,293 12s 6d – a very large sum in 1836 – in compensation for freeing 189 slaves.

There has been speculation about whether the Drax family still owned the Barbados estate as absentee landlords, especially after Richard’s father Henry Drax died in 2017. The Drax Hall plantation is not referred to in Richard Drax’s Register of Members’ Interests declaration, and we could not find any family document referring directly to the plantations in the public domain since his great-grandmother’s will in 1916, when the Baroness Dunsany bequeathed her “estates and plantations in Barbados” to her son, Richard’s grandfather.

However, official sources in Barbados confirm that Richard’s father owned the plantation and had passed it on to his oldest son, Richard. Official documentation shows the MP now controls Drax Hall Plantation. He recently paid Bds$59,375 (£22,200) in annual land tax. Until 2008 the plantations covered some 880 acres, but the Draxes have sold more than 200 acres, some for housing development. Barbadian authorities value the plantation and buildings at Bds$12.5m (£4.7m). Harvested sugar cane is no longer processed at the plantations but taken to a central processing plant and then refined for export. The Barbados taxpayer subsidises the price and set it last year at about Bds$150 per tonne.

Asked about its absence on the Parliamentary Register of Members’ Interests, Drax said on Friday that he is still acting as executor of his father’s will and does not yet legally own the Barbados holdings “as these are still going through the probate process and have not yet transferred to my name. Once that process is completed, I will of course register it in proper accordance with the rules. I am keenly aware of the slave trade in the West Indies and the role my very distant ancestor played in it is deeply, deeply regrettable, but no one can be held responsible today for what happened many hundreds of years ago. This is a part of the nation’s history, from which we must all learn.’’

Beckles told us that historically “the Drax family has done more harm and violence to the black people of Barbados than any other family. The Draxes built and designed and structured slavery”. Beckles says Richard Drax should: “One: apologise to African people and the people of the Caribbean. Two: show remorse and participate in reparatory justice. Three: we would like to talk to you about how [you should repay these debts]”.

David Comissiong, Barbados’s ambassador to Caricom, says of the Drax family: “You can’t simply walk away from the scene of the crime. They have a responsibility now to make some effort to help repair the damage. We are establishing a fund into which families, corporations and establishments like universities that were implicated in some way in the crime of enslavement can pay.

“It’s always intrigued me that Drax Plantation is still functioning. You drive in and it looks like a plantation might look back in the 17th century. A plantation like this could be used to help teach us about our history – it’s a must that we do this if we are not to put it out of our minds.” [. . .]

The Drax wealth may be hidden by a great wall of secrecy and unanswered questions away from prying eyes. But it is Richard Drax MP’s inheritance in Barbados, amassed over centuries by his ancestors’ ownership and appalling treatment of African people which drags him into the spotlight.

Their descendants now press for a redistribution of what they see as the proceeds of a terrible crime, committed centuries ago by long-dead Draxes, leaving the family with the longest continuous link to the exploitation of the plantation system in Britain’s colonies.
 
For full article, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/12/hes-the-mp-with-the-downton-abbey-lifestyle-but-the-shadow-of-slavery-hangs-over-the-gilded-life-of-richard-drax

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