When I look at photos of the powerful statue sculpted by Karl Broodhagen of Bussa of Barbados, leader of the April 1816 rebellion against slave owners, my heart lifts. As a descendant of enslaved people here in the U.S., I feel a deep personal connection to the history of enslavement here and throughout the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas. It is also important to recognize that though Emancipation Day is celebrated across the Anglophone Caribbean—in Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago—emancipation was not the end of exploitation and colonialism.
The fact that the slaveholders were forced to emancipate more than 800,000 enslaved Africans (in both the Caribbean and South Africa) by the British Parliament Slavery Abolition Act, which took effect on Aug. 1, 1834, obfuscates the ugly historical reality that those slave owners were “compensated” for the loss of those people they enslaved. This compensation was to the tune of over £20 million, which the British government borrowed. It was still paying back those loans until 2015. Those newly freed human beings did not get a penny.
The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery currently has an online database of those slave owners and their compensations. Barbados, which has had a reparations task force since 2012, as does CARICOM, has recently announced it is discussing compensation from one of the main living beneficiaries, Richard Drax, who is a British Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for South Dorset. Drax’s ancestors were very involved in the sugar trade that was built on slave labor system they helped create in Barbados and Jamaica over 400 years ago.
RELATED STORY: Caribbean Matters: Enslavement memorial and museum to be built in Barbados
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While calls for reparations for slavery in the Caribbean are not new—it’s a subject I wrote about here for Black Kos back in 2013—quite a few major media outlets are now discussing the issue because of the recent events involving a member of the British Parliament known for his right-wing views.
Paul Lashmar and Jonathan Smith in Barbados have been covering the story for The Guardian:
The Observer understands that Richard Drax, MP for South Dorset, recently travelled to the Caribbean island for a private meeting with the country’s prime minister, Mia Mottley. A report is now before Mottley’s cabinet laying out the next steps, which include legal action in the event that no agreement is reached with Drax. ...
Countries in the Caribbean community (Caricom) have been campaigning for the payment of reparations by former colonial powers and institutions which profited from slavery. This is the first time a family has been singled out. Among the plans being considered are that 17th-century Drax Hall is turned into an Afro-centric museum and that a large portion of the plantation is used for social housing for low-income Bajan families. There is also a recommendation that Richard Drax pays for some of the work. ...
“Drax is fabulously wealthy today. The Drax family is the central family in the whole story of enslavement in Barbados. They are the architects of slavery-based sugar production. They have a deep historical responsibility. The process has only just begun and we trust that we will be able to negotiate. If that doesn’t work, there are other methods, including litigation.”
For more background, Lashmar and Smith wrote an earlier Guardian Observer piece in 2020:
The Drax fortune includes vast expanses of land and property in England but, as our investigation reveals, the family’s role as plantation owners in Barbados appears to remain key to the MP’s wealth. Richard Drax’s 17th-century ancestors James and William sailed to Barbados in the late 1620s, where they cleared lush land in the centre of the island and experimented with growing and processing sugar.
The Draxes devised a commercial sugar plantation model, worked by slaves brought from Africa, that was immensely lucrative and copied across the West Indies and the Americas. Such was Sir James’s wealth that in 1650 he built the plantation house Drax Hall that still stands today and in which he lived, according to an eyewitness, “like a prince”. His brother William took their methods to Jamaica where the former plantation area is also still known as Drax Hall. ...
There has been speculation about whether the Drax family still owned the Barbados estate as absentee landlords, especially after Richard’s father Henry Drax died in 2017. … However, official sources in Barbados confirm that Richard’s father owned the plantation and had passed it on to his oldest son, Richard. Official documentation shows the MP now controls Drax Hall Plantation. He recently paid Bds$59,375 (£22,200) in annual land tax. Until 2008 the plantations covered some 880 acres, but the Draxes have sold more than 200 acres, some for housing development. Barbadian authorities value the plantation and buildings at Bds$12.5m (£4.7m).
Drax Hall history was discussed in this Channel 4 News program last year, which included interviews with Barbadian Poet Laureate Esther Phillips and historian Kevin Farmer, deputy director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society:
James Drax was one of the first plantation owners in Barbados, and a pioneer of slavery in the Caribbean. His ancestor Richard Drax, who's the Conservative MP for South Dorset, is now set to inherit that same plantation. We investigated how that is being received in Barbados.
Barbadian historian Sir Hilary Beckles, who is the current vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies and chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, discussed the Drax legacy in this Zoom discussion with Stand Up to Racism-Dorset last year.
Richard Drax, MP for South Dorset, is owner of the Drax Hall Estate, Barbados. This sugar plantation has been in his family for over 350 years, during which time the owners imposed countless cruelties on enslaved Africans and their descendants.The Drax family amassed huge wealth from slavery, becoming part of the English landed aristocracy: their Charborough House in Dorset is a Grade 1 listed stately home. Now people of the Caribbean are calling for reparatory justice, including the restoration of Drax Hall Estate to the communities of Barbados. Professor Sir Hilary Beckles ... says: “The Drax family has done more harm and violence to the black people of Barbados than any other family. The Draxes built and designed and structured slavery.”
Another noted historian and filmmaker, David Olusoga, gave a 15-minute talk on Britain’s slave owners and the history of compensation, which is well worth watching.
Olusuga produced an award-winning series on this subject for the BBC:
Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners is a two-part documentary which reveals the forgotten price of the abolition of slavery in Britain – enacted by parliament in 1834. Over two hour-long episodes the programme brings to light startling new historical evidence which shows that while slave owners received generous compensation from the government during abolition, slaves got nothing.
I am passionate (and angry) about this issue because the slaveholders of some of my ancestors here in the U.S. who were freed by the 1863 District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act were paid compensation, which infuriates me. Join me in the comments section below for more discussion, and for the weekly Caribbean news roundup.