Grenada: Confronting my family’s slave-owning past

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Here are excerpts from an article by Laura Trevelyan for BBC News (11 May 2022).

High up in the hills of the Caribbean island of Grenada, in the grounds of a former slave plantation, a cast iron bell hangs from a tree. The ringing of the bell signified the start of another working day for West African slaves, harvesting sugar cane. [. . .]

It was here that I came face to face with the brutality of the past – and the role played by families like mine. “This is the sound of slavery,” said DC Campbell, a Grenadian novelist and descendent of slaves. He picked up a pair of shackles made for a child, turning them over in his hands. The artefact, usually housed in the island’s national museum, would have been used on a slave ship on the infamous middle passage from West Africa to the Caribbean.

We looked in silence at the shackles for adults and children, the neck brace which could be tightened until a slave could no longer breathe, and the leather whip which was even used on pregnant women. So sinister in the bright sunlight. “These were instruments of control and torture,” said Nicole Phillip-Dowe of the University of the West Indies, matter-of-factly. “There was an entire system of control to ensure that you get the labour you want, to get the profits that you want.”

For BBC producer Koralie Barrau, an American who’s a descendant of slaves on Haiti, staring at these artefacts produced a visceral response. “It’s sickening. I look at these neckbraces, these handcuffs for children, these whips. And it could have been me. Five or six generations back. This is what my ancestors had to endure and it’s very chilling.” Ms Phillip-Dowe explained that “disobedient” slaves were punished in public, to terrify the other slaves into submission.

We are in Grenada because several years ago, I learned about my connection to this island. When my five-times great-grandmother Louisa Simon married Sir John Trevelyan in 1757, she brought to the marriage her merchant father’s partnership in sugar cane plantations on Grenada, which included the ownership of about 1,000 slaves. I discovered all this at some point after 2013, when the records of Britain’s Slave Compensation Commission were put online and relatives searched the database. The records revealed the names of the 46,000 slave owners who received compensation when Britain abolished African slavery in 1833.

Paying off the slave owners did not come cheap – it cost the British government £20m, a staggering amount that represented 40% of government expenditure in 1834. In a family email chain, I learned that the Trevelyans received about £34,000 for the loss of their “property” on Grenada – the equivalent of about £3m in today’s money. Reading the varied reactions of family members in Britain from my home in New York, I felt removed from the debate – and stored it away in the mental category of things that were too difficult to contemplate.

Until I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

The racial reckoning in the US following the death of George Floyd forced me to ask what it really meant, that my ancestors had sat sipping tea in England, profiting from an inhumane system of slavery more than 4,000 miles away. In the summer of 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests dominated the streets of my hometown New York City, I realised the past was informing the present in ways that had to be confronted.

If anyone had “white privilege”, it was surely me, a descendant of Caribbean slave owners. My own social and professional standing nearly 200 years after the abolition of slavery had to be related to my slave-owning ancestors, who used the profits from sugar sales to accumulate wealth and climb up the social ladder. [. . .]

If one of the legacies of slavery in America was police brutality towards black men, what was the legacy of slavery on Grenada, I wondered? I had to find out. [. . .]

Yet there’s no avoiding the evidence of Britain’s role in the suffering that slavery brought to Grenada. The island has some of the best-preserved slave registers in the Caribbean. In Nicole Phillip-Dowe’s office at the University of the West Indies, in Grenada’s capital St George’s, we pored over record books, where officials with copperplate handwriting recorded the annual births and deaths of the enslaved.

Grenada’s capital St George’s is known as one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean. The town sits on a horseshoe shaped harbour, below the hillside of an old volcanic crater. The Carenage is the heart of St George’s, the bustling promenade winding round the harbour. This is where the slave ships docked from West Africa, and the enslaved emerged from their arduous journey to be sold and begin life on the plantations. I had to go and see the Beausejour plantation for myself. The place where these children, Harry and Alexander, owned by my ancestors, had died. [. . .]

North of St George’s, high up in the lush hillside, is the Beausejour estate, where I met Mr Campbell. His novel Winds of Fedon describes the horrifying conditions in which slaves were kept on Grenada, and the oppressive system of plantation life. We stood on the veranda of the plantation house, overlooking the slopes where the sugar cane once grew, and where enslaved people owned by my family toiled away, harvesting the crop and turning it into sugar for export. [. . .]

As I grappled with the philosophical question of whether personally I owed anything, I sought the advice of Sir Hilary Beckles, the historian and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies who is the chair of the Caricom Reparations Commission.

“Slavery is not in the past,” said Sir Hilary. “Our grandparents remember their great-grandparents who were slaves. Slavery is part of our domestic present. Slavery denies you access to your ancestry. It leaves you in this empty void.”

On the vexed question of whether there is something families like mine should do, Sir Hilary said: “What you are trying to reconcile is privilege on one side of the ledger and poverty on the other. We inherited poverty, illiteracy, hypertension, diabetes, racial degradation – all the negative dimensions. You inherited wealth, property and prestige.”

If I give money to help Grenadian students with higher education – couldn’t that be dismissed as an empty gesture, I asked. “There is great symbolic significance,” Sir Hilary said. “Think of the impact if every one of the slave-owning families did the same thing.” [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-61315877

[Listen to Laura Trevelyan’s story at BBC’s The Documentary – also available on BBC Sounds or wherever you get your podcasts. Image above: Portrait of Sir John Trevelyan with wife Louisa Simon, who brought to the marriage ownership of about 1,000 slaves on Grenada.]

Also see: “What is it like to report on a slave-owning past?”
Rajan Datar, Over to You, May 21, 2022
https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3ct35s5

“La periodista de la BBC que enfrentó el pasado esclavista de su familia en el Caribe, del cual se benefició personalmente”
Laura Trevelyan, BBC, May 22, 2022
https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-61412263

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