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A family’s apology for slavery

A family’s apology for slavery


The descendants of former British prime minister William Gladstone have travelled to Guyana to apologise for their family’s role in the slave trade.

The descendants of a former British prime minister have travelled to Guyana to apologise for their family’s role in the slave trade. Their ancestor, John Gladstone, was a plantation owner and father of William Gladstone, who became Britain’s prime minister in 1868. 

John Gladstone owned land in Jamaica and Guyana. That land was farmed by 2,500 enslaved Africans. In 1823, enslaved people on his estates in Guyana rose up against harsh conditions on the plantation and demanded their freedom. The revolt spread and eventually involved 11,000 enslaved people across 55 plantations, becoming known as the Demerara rebellion. 

The uprising was brutally crushed by British soldiers. More than 250 people died and dozens more were sentenced to death. When news of the revolt – and its cruel repression – reached London, people were horrified. Some historians think the Demerara rebellion was one of the major events that led to the UK’s abolition of the slave trade a decade later, in 1833. 

When the slave trade ended, John Gladstone, who owned the plantation where the revolt began, was given £93,000 in compensation; that would be around £10 million today. His family remained wealthy and influential for many decades to come. 

Now, two centuries after the revolt, the descendents of John Gladstone have returned to Guyana to apologise for their ancestors role in the slave trade. 

“Slavery was a crime against humanity and its damaging impact continues to be felt across the world today,” Charles Gladstone, the former prime minister’s great-great-grandson, said at a launch for the University of Guyana’s International Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies.

A lot of the current questions about how to reckon with Britain’s role in the slave trade were sparked in 2020, when a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was thrown into Bristol harbour by a group of Black Lives Matter protestors.  

That caused some outrage, but also led to a period of reflection. Some felt that, amid the Black Lives Matter movement, it was time for the country to confront its past, especially those of its historic elites. 

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Ella Hill.