President Irfaan: Acknowledgement and apology for Slavery
I welcome the progeny of John Gladstone for their apology. Acknowledgement and apology are the first steps in the process of reparative justice. The apology is implicitly an acknowledgement of the cruel nature of African enslavement and indentureship in Guyana and an act of contrition that paves the way for justice.
The apology offered by the descendants of John Gladstone underscores their willingness to confront their family’s dark past and to acknowledge the immense pain, suffering and indignities inflicted upon innocent persons through their family’s actions.
As I said in my message this year for Emancipation Day, I called on those who were complicit in and who profited from the trade in captive Africans and African enslavement to offer just reparations.
The Gladstone family has admitted that it benefited from African enslavement and indentureship on the Demerara and other plantations owned by its patriarch, John Gladstone. It has agreed to undertake certain actions.
I therefore propose that the intended apology include issues of compensation, reparative justice, and those involved to be posthumously charged for crimes against humanity.
History, as you know, records that John Gladstone was an absentee owner of plantations in Jamaica and Guyana, building on his wealth earned from the mercantile trade in India, the United States and the West Indies. After the British seizure of the colonies that became Guyana in 1803, John Gladstone began to invest in them. His interests and acquisitions included at one time or the other plantations at Belmonte, Covenden, Hampton Court, Industry, Met-en-Meer-Zorg, Success, Vreed-en-Hoop, Vreedenstein and Wales.
John Gladstone was Chairman of the Liverpool West India Association, one of the most important groups defending the interests of West Indian plantation owners. Throughout his life, he was a champion of the institution of slavery. To protect his commercial interests he successfully lobbied Foreign Secretary Canning not to return the colonies of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice to the Netherlands.
When the 1823 Demerara Slave Revolt erupted on his plantation at Success, he was deeply confused, blaming Rev. John Smith and the other missionaries. But this tragedy did not deter him from expanding his investments in Guiana. His official policy was one of amelioration – that slaves’ conditions should be gradually improved and Christianisation prioritised, a position that was in staunch opposition to the abolitionists.
At the time of abolition, he received compensation, which at today’s value is estimated at more than £1oM. The freed Africans received nothing.
Anticipating a collapse in African field labour after the end of the Apprenticeship period, Gladstone along with other planters helped to pioneer the use of Indian indentured labour in British Guiana, introducing a new form of servitude to the colony. On the 23rd March 1837, he wrote to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Grey arguing that: “unless a system of regular and continuous labour is…adopted, the cultivation of the sugar cane cannot… be carried on to a productive level.”
In the same year, an Act was passed which allowed Gladstone to import Indian indentured immigrants. Serious abuses of Indian indentured immigrants on Gladstone’s Vreed-en-Hoop plantation were uncovered soon after by a member of the Anti-Slavery Society.
Despite his outsized influence in British Guiana and the empire as a whole, Gladstone never once visited the West Indies. He was an absentee plantation owner.
In recent years, the demands for reparations for African enslavement and indentureship have intensified.
The call for reparations is not intended to promote or leverage shame or guilt over the slave trade and slavery. It is not extortion. Instead, the demand for reparations is a commitment to righting historical wrongs. The transatlantic slave trade and African enslavement were an affront to humanity itself. The Durban Declaration of 2001 of the, The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance acknowledged that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so.
Millions of Africans endured unspeakable horrors — displacement, captivity, extreme and brutal physical and sexual violence and the severing of family ties. They were treated as chattel, their labour exacted under the harshest conditions. They dehumanised slaves by taking away their culture, religion and even their names.
The heinousness of this crime against humanity demands that we seek to right these wrongs. Yet, we face a push-back when it comes to recompense for this crime – something that does not accord with the fundamental underpinnings of justice.
But there is another important reason why the Caribbean is demanding reparations.
Slavery has bequeathed a legacy that endures to this day. It must be recalled that two out of every 5 slave persons were shipped to the Caribbean. The Region bears witness to the lasting impact of this historical injustice, a burden that has impeded development and hindered progress.
Colonialism, including slavery, has bequeathed economic structures characterised by a high dependency on a few crops and sectors. The focus of the colonial economies was on the production of these cash crops for export to Europe. The labour-intensive nature of plantation agriculture meant that the vast majority of people were engaged in agricultural work. The legacy of a predominantly agrarian economy based on plantation agriculture has had a lasting impact, as lack of sufficient diversification has made the region’s economies more vulnerable to external shocks and highly dependent on external markets.
Sociologists have argued that the high levels of interpersonal, institutional and societal violence which are being experienced in the Caribbean are a legacy of colonialism. During the colonial era, persons were subjected to extreme physical violence and brutality. Violence was also used as a tool of control and perpetuated an environment of fear.
The call for reparations is an essential response to right a historical wrong and mitigate the enduring legacy of slavery. Reparations are aimed at ensuring a reckoning for the greatest crime against humanity and addressing the multifaceted inheritance of slavery.
The Caribbean Reparations Committee’s ten-point plan for reparations offers a roadmap toward dismantling the barriers that persist. It calls inter alia for an unconditional apology and investment in education, healthcare, infrastructure, and cultural revitalisation—an investment not only in the present but also in the future, ensuring future generations are unshackled from the chains of history.
While acknowledging the historical atrocities of slavery and offering an apology is undeniably significant, it constitutes just the initial step on the path towards achieving comprehensive reparative justice for African enslavement. An acknowledgement and apology serve as a moral reckoning, validating the pain and suffering inflicted on generations past. However, the multifaceted legacy of slavery extends far beyond the confines of historical memory.
The descendants of John Gladstone must now also outline their plan of action in line with the Caricom ten points plan for Reparatory Justice for slavery and indentureship.
I thank you.