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Slavery reparations

Slavery reparations

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A wealthy Conservative MP whose family made its fortune from the slave trade is facing claims for reparations. The government of Barbados wants him to hand over his plantation on the island.

Sir Richard Drax is the Conservative Member of Parliament for South Dorset and he lives in a Grade-I-listed, 17th century manor house near Poole.

The 700-acre property is surrounded by miles and miles of towering brick wall. Its impressive, ornate gateways are topped by stone statues of lions, peacocks and stags. It has several beautiful gardens as well as a deer park, and is regularly used for shooting parties and as a location for films. 

This estate is just part of the Drax family’s property portfolio: they are the largest individual landowners in Dorset and Richard Drax is thought to be the wealthiest landowner in the House of Commons. 

And the Drax family don’t just own property in the UK, they also have one in Barbados, which earnt the family it’s fortune during the slave trade.

400 years ago, the Drax’s were among the earliest English colonialists to arrive in Barbados and set up sugar plantations. They were pioneers of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the Carribean. 

Sir Hilary Beckles is Chair of the Reparations Commission that represents 15 Caribbean nations…

“Drax was one of the leading architects of slavery he was one of the he was one of the leading designers of slavery you know Drax was an architect of the idea that black people were not human beings… it came out of the imagination of people like Peter Drax.”

Sir Hilary Beckles

Sugar is still grown on the plantation and at its heart is Drax Hall: a five-bedroom manor house nestled in the lush green mountains of a fertile valley. Historians estimate that as many as 30,000 slaves lived and died on the Drax estate in the 200 years between the plantation’s establishment in the 1620s and the abolition of slavery.

Sir Hilary Beckles again…

“The model was you buy them from Africa, and you work them to death in seven to eight years, and you replace them. When they die, throw them in a well, throw them in an unmarked grave.”

Hilary Beckles

The Drax family fought tooth and nail against the emancipation of enslaved people and received £4,300 in compensation when it eventually ended. That’s worth roughly £3 million today. 

Crucially, they also got to keep the plantation, which has been passed down the family for generations, and is now in the hands of the MP, Richard Drax. 

It’s this property which is at the centre of the controversy today. For years, campaigners have been calling for Richard Drax to donate the property to the people of Barbados. This would be part of a process known as reparation: making amends for historical wrongs, through payments or other assistance, to those affected. 

Mr Drax doesn’t wish to comment on the reparations claims. However, he has previously said that his ancestor’s involvement in slavery was “deeply, deeply regrettable.” 

But so far he hasn’t agreed to hand over any of his family’s land. Something Barbados wants to change. 

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The demand for compensation for profits made from enslaving people is not new. Caribbean countries have come together to ask for reparations before, but this is unique because it’s the first time that a family has been singled out. In this case the wealth gained through slavery has remained in the family’s hands for hundreds of years; they still have the original plantation. 

David Comissiong, deputy chairman of Barbados’ National Taskforce on Reparations said that what happened was “a crime against humanity” and that “you can’t simply walk away from the scene of the crime”. 

Recently, Richard Drax flew to Barbados to speak to Mia Mottley. Since becoming prime minister of Barbados in 2018, she’s focused on this issue.

It’s thought the meeting was held to hash out how Mr Drax might pay back the money his family earned by enslaving people. The Barbadian government wants the sprawling Drax Estate – one of the oldest plantations in the world – to be handed over to the Barbados Heritage Trust.

We don’t know how the meeting went, but Mia Mottley has said her government will take legal action if there isn’t an agreement on reparations. Now Jamaica is also considering whether to pursue its own compensation case against the Drax’s. The family also owned a plantation there before they sold it in the 19th century.

If Barbados and Jamaica are successful, it could lead to a wave of new demands for reparations.

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When he was still Prince of Wales, King Charles spoke at the ceremony to mark Barbados becoming a republic.

“From the darkest days of our past, and the appalling atrocity of slavery that forever stains our history; the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude.”

King Charles

However, the British Royal family is facing its own calls for reparation from Barbados because it played a large part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

Here’s David Comissiong from the country’s National Taskforce on Reparations talking to the BBC’s World at One programme…

“It is only a matter of time before royal family is targeted as a family”

David Comissiong

If Barbados succeeds in the Drax case, then it’s likely that other Caribbean nations, including Jamaica, Grenada and Saint Lucia – where King Charles is still head of state – might also pursue the Royal family.

There is a precedent for successful reparations claims. Already, the Lloyd’s of London insurance market has apologised for what it called its “shameful” role in the slave trade and pledged to fund opportunities for black and ethnic minority people. The Bank of England, the Bank of Scotland and Glasgow University have pledged millions of pounds too.

The reparation movement is gaining momentum. The case of the Drax estate in Barbados could be just the beginning.

This episode was written and mixed by Rebecca Moore.