The full title of this article by Paul Lashmar and Jonathan Smith (The Guardian) is “‘My forefathers did something horribly wrong’: British slave owners’ family to apologise and pay reparations.” Lashmar and Smith write, “The Trevelyans were shocked to see their name in a slavery database and a journey to Grenada confirmed the continuing impact of their grim history.”
An aristocratic British family is to make history by travelling to the Caribbean and publicly apologising for its ownership of more than 1,000 enslaved Africans. The Trevelyan family, which has many notable ancestors, is also paying reparations to the people of Grenada, where it owned six sugar plantations.
Last weekend, the family met online and agreed to sign a letter of apology for its enslavement of captive Africans. Forty-two members of the family have so far signed and more signatures are expected.
In 1835, the Trevelyan family received £26,898, a huge sum at the time, in compensation from the British government for the abolition of slavery a year earlier. The enslaved men, women and children received nothing and were forced to work a further eight years unpaid as “apprentices”.
A £100,000 fund, donated by the New York-based BBC correspondent Laura Trevelyan, will be formally launched in Grenada on 27 February by Sir Hilary Beckles, chair of the Caricom Reparations Commission, and Trevelyan family members. Caricom, or Caribbean Community, is a group of 15 countries in the region.
Nicole Phillip-Dowe, vice-chair of the Grenada National Reparations Commission, said: “It’s absolutely fascinating that I am seeing history being made. It takes a leap of faith for a family to say, ‘my forefathers did something horribly wrong and I think we should take some responsibility for it’. It is commendable that the Trevelyan family has taken this step and I hope it will be followed by others.”
The Trevelyan ancestors’ involvement in slavery “amounts to crimes against humanity” according to John Dower, another family member who has been central to the decision to go public. “We want to lead by example, in the hope that others will follow,” he said.
In 2016 Dower was working on the family history, alongside his relative Humphrey Trevelyan. They looked up the Trevelyan name in the University College London slavery database. “What I read shocked me as it listed the ownership of 1,004 slaves over six estates shared by six of my ancestors,” said Dower. “I had no idea. It became apparent that no one living in the family knew about it. It had been expunged from the family history.” Dower added: “I was more than shocked, I was badly shaken. I was under the impression that I came from a benevolent, public service facing family.”
Dower informed his wider family, including his cousin Laura Trevelyan. She discovered that when her ancestor Louisa Simond had married Sir John Trevelyan, 4th Baronet, in 1757, she brought to the marriage her merchant father’s partnership in sugar cane plantations on Grenada. Another owner was a vicar, the Rev Walter Trevelyan. Like Dower she was very troubled by this legacy.
“If anyone had ‘white privilege’, it was surely me, a descendant of Caribbean slave owners,” she said. “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.” Last year she went to Grenada and explored her family’s grim past in a BBC documentary and realised that the years of slavery are still affecting the wellbeing of the people there.
She has since been working on behalf of her family with Beckles to make a significant gesture in recognition of the Trevelyan’s part in slavery. The family had sold most of the plantations by about 1860. Dower says that a sincere, full, formal apology is the first step in the Caricom 10-point reparation action plan. The family apology states: “We, the undersigned, write to apologise for the actions of our ancestors in holding your ancestors in slavery.
“Slavery was and is unacceptable and repugnant. Its damaging effects continue to the present day. We repudiate our ancestors’ involvement in it.”
The family is also asking the UK to apologise. “We urge the British government to enter into meaningful negotiations with the governments of the Caribbean in order to make appropriate reparations through Caricom and bodies such as the Grenada National Reparations Commission.”
According to the letter, the donation contributes to the setting up of the Reparations Research Fund at the University of the West Indies, to look into the economic impacts of enslavement with a focus on development in Grenada and the eastern Caribbean. “We are working to identify other projects that can support communities in Grenada with the help of the Grenada National Reparations Commission among others,” the letter says.
Dower would also like to see King Charles III apologise for the royal family’s involvement in the slave trade. Another element of reparation is for our family to use our skills to help the people of Grenada to improve their lives,” he added.
In 1834, to achieve the abolition of slavery, the government needed to compensate 46,000 enslavers for the loss of their “chattels”, or slaves. The Trevelyans were paid £26,898 – the equivalent of about £20m in today’s money – for the “loss” of 1,004 slaves. This compares with the £4,293 12s 6d paid to the ancestors of the MP Richard Drax for the freedom of 189 slaves on their Barbados plantation.
The Trevelyan family owned Wallington Hall, a stately home near Morpeth, but Dower’s great-grandfather, Sir George Philips Trevelyan, a Labour MP, handed it over to the National Trust in 1943. Laura Trevelyan says it was built with money from the slave plantations.
Other families have apologised for their role in Caribbean slavery, including Alex Renton, author of Blood Legacy, a history of his family’s ownership of enslaved Africans, and they have contributed to social causes in the Caribbean.
The Lascelles family of Harewood House were one of the biggest owners of plantations and enslaved people. They have also apologised and made reparatory payments to communities in the UK.
The historian David Olusoga says this decision by the Trevelyan family has to be viewed as part of a wider trend. “While governments stubbornly refuse to engage with growing calls for reparations, restorative justice and the return of looted artefacts across the world there are families, companies, universities, charities and other organisations who are acknowledging their historic links to slavery and empire.” [. . .]
For full article, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/feb/04/british-slave-owners-family-apologise-reparations-trevelyans
[Photograph above by Poelzer Wolfgang/Alamy: St George’s in Grenada; the family are hoping they can help the people of the island to improve their lives. Second image: A wood engraving from 1856 depicting a cocoa plantation on Grenada. Photograph: The Granger Collection/Alamy.]
2 thoughts on “British slave owners’ family to apologize and pay reparations”
Very admirable to take responsibility for the ancestors’ action and work to make amends.