22 May 2023

One family's reckoning with their slaver past

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 22 May 2023

Laura Trevelyan knew she came from a prominent British family with generational wealth going back centuries. But when the BBC newsreader recently discovered her family had owned more than a thousand slaves on a sugar plantation in the Caribbean, she knew there had to be a reckoning.

She apologised to the people of Grenada, organised a fund for reparations and quit her job with the BBC.

She is now the co-founder of a group called Heirs of Slavery and works with other families whose ancestors profited from owning other human beings.

Laura Trevelyan

Laura Trevelyan Photo: supplied

The Trevelyan family includes historians, civil servants and politicians – and slavers, she told Jesse Mulligan.

“My great grandfather, George McCaulay Trevelyan was the best-selling historian in Britain in the first half of the 20th century, though in his best-selling histories of England, he didn't write about the fact that his ancestors were slave owners, although he must have known, he glossed over that concentrating, as many British historians of that period did, just on the fact that Britain abolished slavery.”

In 2013 University College London published a database called The Database of British Slave Legacies, which is how she eventually discovered members of her family had been slavers.

“Essentially what that was, was putting online all of the compensation records that were paid to British slave owners in the Caribbean when slavery was abolished in 1833.

“They got a massive pay out in 1834. and families like mine, if you can believe it, actually received compensation for the abolition of what was regarded as the loss of their property, because this was the only way that abolition could get through the House of Commons at the time.”

She was contacted about the list by other family members and later, in 2020, she approached the BBC about making a documentary about her family’s past.  

“It wasn't until the summer of 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement, that summer of the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, so many protests across the United States, that I began to think if the legacy of slavery in America, if one of the legacies, was police brutality towards black men, then what was it in Grenada? What did it mean that my ancestors had been slave owners there?”

In 1834, her family had received compensation to the equivalent of 3 million pounds in today’s money, she says. But growing up in England she was taught the airbrushed slavery story.

“What I was taught was that Britain abolished slavery, not the history of the slave trade, not that we had enslaved Africans in horrible conditions in the Caribbean, that wasn't taught. What was taught was that William Wilberforce was a heroic figure, and that Parliament abolished slavery well before those terrible Americans.

Hilary Beckles

Sir Hilary Beckles Photo: Wikicommons

“When the fact is that the America was actually a British colony. So American slavery was British slavery.”

Through her work on the documentary, she met Nicole Phillip-Dowe of Grenada’s National Reparations Committee. and Sir Hilary Beckles, who chairs the Caribbean-wide reparations commission.

She asked them what this information that her ancestors had been slavers in the 18th and 19th centuries meant to them.

“Hilary Beckles said, and he actually addressed our wider family members by Zoom, 'an apology is so important, it will mean so much in the Caribbean and your family can set an example, because it hasn't been done publicly'.

“[He said] 'in the Caribbean our history is a void. We just know that our ancestors were kidnapped from Africa, were dumped in the Caribbean, but you descendants of slave owners are part of that history, and if you come forward and apologise, it will mean a lot,' and he was very persuasive.”

 The legacy of slavery is still apparent in Grenada, she says.

“Nicole Phillip-Dowe... took us around the island.

“And one of the things that she pointed out is that there's a legacy of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes in Grenada because the national dish in Grenada is something called oil down, it's a one-pot dish, because that's all that the enslaved could cook.

“And it's very high in salted fish, pig's feet, red fruit, coconut milk, so incredibly high in sodium and salt and sugar. I mean, it's so bad for you.”

Conversations with teenage girls on the island were also a revelation, she says.

“School girls that Nicole introduced me to, and they were teenagers, but they were so frank with me about how their parents had been really harshly punished by their parents, because that was the legacy of brutality. Because that was how the enslaved had been treated.

“The girls talked to me about what they felt was still a slave mentality in Grenada. They talked about the legacy of colourism, whereby white plantation officials would have children with black enslaved or formerly enslaved women.

“So, there were hierarchies of colour based on the colour of your skin in Grenada.”

It is 190 years since slavery was abolished yet these legacies live on, she says

“Not to mention the fact that at abolition and emancipation, the Caribbean islands were left with literally nothing, just a legacy of poverty and illiteracy.”

Trevelyan and some members of her family subsequently went to Grenada to offer an apology.

CARICOM, an intergovernmental organisation representing 15 member states throughout the Americas and Atlantic Ocean, is working on actual figures they would like former colonial powers to invest in their health and education systems, she says.

While the Church of England and the Dutch government have already paid some reparations to the Caribbean, at this stage Rishi Sunak the British prime minister has ruled out any payments, she says.

“One of the things that was interesting about going to Grenada, as the President of Grenada senator Dessima Williams said to me, ‘you know, Laura, you're going to go there and be a face of slave ownership. And that's something that hasn't been seen in Grenada, and people will be upset, and you should be prepared for that'.”

The official apology ceremony in Grenada was at times confronting, she says.

“Nigel [de Gale] composed a poem for this public event that Grenada’s National Reparations committee held, when we went to deliver our family apology and Nigel recited his poem just before I spoke. And it was really extraordinary.

“Nigel spoke with great power about how he wanted to live in a slave masters house, and how he wanted to sample white women in the way that black enslaved women were. A reference to the sexual abuse there by the slave owners and plantation officials. So, it was really electric.

“And you could just feel all of the tension and anger about slavery in the room. And he intended it to be provocative, and he intended parts of it to be funny as well.

“But for me, and my relatives, we really were extremely taken aback and we also appreciated, I think, the honesty and the anger, and just how deep-seated all of this is.”