My family owned 1,000 slaves and profited from the trade: this is how I am trying to make amends
In 1833, when Britain finally abolished slavery, my ancestors were absentee owners of more than 1,000 enslaved people on the Caribbean island of Grenada. To the best of my knowledge, the Trevelyans never set foot on the island. They enjoyed the profits that came rolling in from sugar harvested by exploited and brutalised enslaved people thousands of miles away across the Atlantic Ocean.
Like much of Britain, my ancestors never had to confront the face of slavery – or its sordid legacy. Generations later, my extended family spent a year debating how we could respond to the horrors of the past. The deafening silence from the descendants of slave owners, from other families like ours, causes unimaginable pain, Sir Hilary Beckles of the Caribbean Community’s Reparations Commission told us. He convinced us of the power of an apology and encouraged us to lead by example.
So we wrote a letter of apology to the people of Grenada and decided to donate more than £100,000 to education projects on the island. After emancipation, most former enslaved people were illiterate. Helping Grenadian students build a brighter future through education seemed like the obvious way to try to repair the damage of the past.
In February, I travelled with six members of the Trevelyan family to Grenada to apologise in person. As we sat in the trade centre of Grenada’s picturesque capital, St George’s, preparing to deliver our apology, I grew anxious. Would we receive a hostile reception? What if this backfired horribly, and put back the very cause we were trying to advance? I could hear the drumming coming from a protest outside by a Rastafarian tribe, whose members felt the amount of money we were donating was wholly inadequate.
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You could feel the raw emotion in the room. The Grenadian poet Nigel De Gale spoke before me of wanting to live like the slave master did, to see white people slave for him. I tried to keep my poker face intact, confronted with this powerful articulation of the anger so many must feel. It was against this backdrop that my cousin John Dower and I read out our apology to the people of Grenada. We hoped we could at least acknowledge the suffering our ancestors had inflicted on Grenadians, and perhaps encourage other families in similar positions to do the same. The country’s young prime minister, Dickon Mitchell, graciously thanked us, and said he forgave us. It was an incredible relief.
Afterwards, I found the reaction in Grenada to be mixed. Some people were understandably upset to be confronted with the face of slave ownership, and wanted to know why we were giving such a small amount of money compared with the wealth our ancestors had accumulated. Once slavery was abolished, compensation was paid by the British government to the slave owners to make up for their loss of “property”. In 1834, the Trevelyans received the equivalent of about £3m in today’s money. “I know it seems inadequate,” I said, “but it’s a first step.” At the same time, I was heartened to hear of the healing power of our apology. “A burden that I didn’t even know I was carrying has been lifted,” one woman told me. “Thank you for coming forward.”
Of course, it’s not just my family that has benefited from this system of wealth extraction. Britain’s Industrial Revolution was fuelled by money from the slave trade, making us a rich nation. After abolition, the Caribbean islands were left with an impoverished, mostly illiterate workforce – while Britain leapt forward into a golden age of prosperity.
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When the UK needed a workforce after the second world war, the Windrush ship was sent to the economically distressed Caribbean colonies. Descendants of the enslaved came in their thousands to help build postwar Britain. Beckles has called this sordid legacy Britain’s black debt. Now is the time to repay that debt.
This reckoning did not start with my family. Powerful questions in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement are forcing governments, institutions and families to examine their history. As the past recedes, it also comes into focus more clearly. The Dutch government has apologised for the Netherlands’ role in the slave trade, and established a fund to help tackle the legacy of slavery. The Church Commissioners have apologised for their links to the slave trade and established a £100m fund to try to address past wrongs.
Now, Trinity College, Cambridge – of which my great-grandfather the historian George Macaulay Trevelyan was master – is examining if it benefited from slavery. GM Trevelyan glossed over the slave trade in his bestselling histories of England. But today a new momentum is building; one that accepts that the wealth of European countries was built from transatlantic slavery, and tries to make amends.
The Labour MP Clive Lewis, who is of Grenadian descent, recently asked parliament why the British government can’t apologise for slavery and pay reparations, as our family has done. Since my trip to Grenada, I have been inundated with messages from families in similar positions to ours who want to know how to make things right. Last week I left the BBC, after a 30-year career, which was a joy and a privilege, to campaign for reparative justice full-time and encourage Britain to face up to its colonial debt.The coronation of King Charles in May is an opportunity to talk about the royal family’s links to slavery. Commonwealth leaders from the formerly enslaved nations will be there in Westminster Abbey. As the king himself has said about the enduring impact of slavery: “This is a conversation whose time has come.”
Laura Trevelyan is a former BBC journalist who campaigns for reparatory justice