As Guyana commemorates the 200th anniversary of a rebellion by enslaved people that historians say paved the way for abolition, the family of one of Britain’s renowned prime ministers will journey there to apologize for their family’s historical involvement in the slave trade.
Prime minister for four non-consecutive terms in the 19th Century, leading liberal and reformative governments, William Gladstone used his first speech in the House of Commons to argue in favor of compensation for slave owners as abolition loomed closer.
His father, John Gladstone, ended up being the fifth largest recipient of the equivalent of around £16 billion today allocated by the British government following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
Jonathan Smith and Paul Lashmar for the Guardian report,
John Gladstone owned or held mortgages over 2,508 enslaved Africans in Guyana and Jamaica. After emancipation he was paid nearly £106,000, a huge sum at the time.
The Demerara rebellion in August 1823 began on one of his plantations. It was led by Jack Gladstone, an enslaved man forced to take his owner’s name, and his father, Quamina, who had been transported from Africa as a child.
About 13,000 Africans rose up in Demerara, a British colony that later became part of Guyana. Conditions for the enslaved were particularly brutal there.
“John Gladstone committed crimes against humanity.”
Gladstone’s great-great grandson, Charles, thinks the necessary first step for his family is an apology.
“The best that we can do is try to make the world a better place and one of the first things is to make that apology for him.
“He was a vile man. He was greedy and domineering. We have no excuses for him. But it’s fairly clear to me that however you address it, a lot of my family’s privilege has stemmed from John Gladstone.”
The Gladstones intend to offer their apology during the launch of the University of Guyana’s International Institute for Migration and Diaspora Studies, which will benefit from a family grant of £100,000.
Global Reckoning: Calls for reparations intensify
Understanding the history of slavery is important because the injustices and racism that slavery willingly exacerbated were not solved overnight by abolition, and their long-lasting effects continue to impact societies today.
Reparations advocates say the United Kingdom bears a profound moral responsibility to address the enduring consequences of historical slavery in the Caribbean. Ahead of the Day for Remembering the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Abolition, Judge Patrick Robinson, a prominent figure at the international court of justice (ICJ), adds to the chorus pointing fingers at the U.K.
“I believe that the United Kingdom will not be able to resist this movement towards the payment of reparations: it is required by history and it is required by law.”