The American writer and civil rights crusader, James Baldwin, said “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history”.
I thought of those words when I saw reported in newspapers and on the BBC that our MP, Richard Drax, recently had a private meeting with the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley. The Barbados Government is considering plans to seek reparations from Mr Drax for the part played by his ancestors in creating – and profiting from – a trade in sugar which meant the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans. The BBC reports Jamaica is considering similar plans. Mr Drax still owns the plantation, Drax Hall, where sugar is still grown.
In February 2022, the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Sir Hilary Beckles, spoke at meeting organised by Dorset Stand Up to Racism. There were over 200 attendees from the United Kingdom, the Caribbean and the United States.
Sir Hilary said that Drax Hall was a place haunted by death. Thousands of slaves had died as a result of illnesses, sheer over-work in the fields, or after horrific accidents in sugar refineries.
“When we drive past the sugar fields”, Sir Hilary said, “beneath the flowing green is nothing but the blood of Africans fertilizing the soil”. He called upon Richard Drax “to do the right thing” – to hand over Drax Hall to the people of the island. Drax Hall would advance the cause of education and the young: it would no longer be “the symbol of the evil of slavery”.
Richard Drax could in no way say all this history of suffering had nothing to do with him: “you Richard Drax are accountable – you have inherited your wealth through slavery”.
In March 2022, Trevor Prescod, MP for St Michael East, Barbados, a JP and Barbadian Cabinet Minister, spoke to South Dorset Labour Party Members about the efforts being then made urging Mr Drax to make reparations for what he described as crimes against humanity.
The island of Barbados, and indeed, the Caribbean nations, were still exhibiting the wounds of slavery. Drax Hall was still there, Trevor Prescod said, a reminder of the Drax family’s past enrichment from the practice of slavery. Along with the Codrington plantation, it had been at the heart of slavery on Barbados.
Emeritus Professor Phil Marfleet of Dorset Stand up to Racism reports that now, as Trevor Prescod had warned over a year ago, the Government of Barbados is formally seeking reparations from our MP.
Proposals are being considered for activists from Barbados to visit the United Kingdom in the New Year, to meet with Parliamentarians to brief them on the history of the Drax family in Barbados. They want to share with them what slavery meant to those who were considered property, not human beings, and how the Drax family benefited financially as a result.
As James Baldwin said: “We carry our history with us”.
Chair, Swanage & Rural Purbeck Labour Party