The Observer view on the legacies of slavery: a reckoning with our past must shape our future

An accurate and shared understanding of an institution’s history is not an academic self-indulgence or a symptom of political correctness. It is critical to understanding how they work in the here and now and their future obligations.

As the historian David Olusoga has powerfully argued, institutions all too often mask the reality of their chequered pasts in order to accentuate the heroic. In doing so, they obscure important insights about how power operates within them and what they owe the world that exists outside their doors.

Guardian News and Media – the company that encompasses the Observer alongside our sister paper the Guardian – is no different, and a reckoning with our history has been overdue. That process began in 2020, when the Scott Trust, which owns GNM, commissioned an expert academic review of the Guardian’s links to the slave trade. This research was undertaken by academics at the University of Nottingham’s Institute for the Study of Slavery and the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation.

Its findings are sobering. John Edward Taylor, the Guardian’s founder, had partnerships with cotton manufacturing and cotton merchant companies that profited from raw cotton produced by enslaved Africans in countries including the West Indies, Brazil and the southern states of the US. Moreover, Taylor raised funds from 11 backers in order to launch the Guardian in 1821. Nine of them had links to the transatlantic slave trade through their connections to Manchester’s cotton industry; one of them, Sir George Philips, owned a plantation in Jamaica and enslaved more than 100 people that he tried to claim “compensation” for after slavery was abolished. The research has also started to trace the impacts this slavery has had on the descendants of those whose enslavement generated the capital that contributed to the founding of the Guardian, including the Gullah Geechee people in the Sea Islands and Jamaica. This is an essential part of confronting this aspect of the Guardian’s legacy, including an editorial position that tempered its support for abolition with minimising the personal responsibility of slaveowners for their horrific crimes against humanity.

Britain’s prosperity is built off the backs of communities with far slimmer economic means

There is much for us to reflect on as an organisation. The Scott Trust has apologised to the surviving descendants of the enslaved for the way in which the Guardian has financially benefited from our links to slavery. But an apology is just the beginning; our history means that we have particular obligations to these communities, but also broader responsibilities in relation to the way in which the legacy of slavery has had long-lasting impacts on structural power between people of different racial backgrounds in the UK, the US and more widely. The Scott Trust has announced a programme of restorative justice that will support community projects in Jamaica and the Gullah Geechee region, continue to fund further research on the Guardian’s connections to the slave trade, including the founders of the Observer, and improve the diversity of our reporting and our newsroom.

Other UK institutions are similarly examining their connections to the slave trade; this should create a moment for a broader national reckoning. As a country, we should never forget that our relative wealth derives not from the exceptional pluckiness of our own ancestors but in large part from our colonial history and our involvement in enslavement.

This has profound contemporary relevance in terms of our international obligations; not just of specific instances of restorative justice, but in recognition that Britain’s prosperity is built off the backs of communities with far slimmer economic means. Our international aid programmes and refugee commitments are not a matter of benevolent charity to be dispensed with when politicians are feeling miserly: they are what we owe the rest of the world.

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