Barbadian call for reparations targets a fortune built on slavery and murder

Whenever the subject of reparations for slavery and colonialism comes up, the objections are almost always framed to pit the “white working class” against those to whom reparations are owed. This is, of course, a dishonest framing, rooted in the lie of capitalist meritocracy. Those opposing reparations tend to believe (or claim to believe) that the atrocities in question are in the distant past, part of a different system from the one in which we live, and therefor entirely divorced from the fortunes and struggles of our era. The slave owners are all dead, so they say, and so any reparations would be paid for by people who had no role in maintaining or profiting from slavery. It’s an effective bit of propaganda, and like all such misinformation, it’s re-used over and over again, no matter how many times it’s debunked.

The reality is that the era of colonialism and chattel slavery was the foundation of capitalism as we understand it today, and the inequalities and injustices of that era were built into the infrastructure of our current economy. A number of major corporations that exist today profited off of chattel slavery, though some of those fortunes have been laundered by buyouts, mergers, and the like. More than that, since reparations were primarily paid to slave owners for the loss of “their property”, there are a great number of extant individual fortunes that also tie directly to those atrocities.

That can’t be too surprising, right? We live in a world where the Windsor family still holds the British crown, and the billions in resources that come with that, and other “noble” families, still retain vast fortunes, even if they’re not always directly involved in government. These are fortunes built on conquest, genocide, and slavery, but when the question of reparations comes up, suddenly we’re told that those demands are being made of the working class? It’s such obvious bullshit that you’d think it wouldn’t fly, and yet that same social infrastructure of white supremacy serves to lend undue credence to the lies.

Fortunately, some people are fighting back. A little over a year ago, Barbados ended its relationship with the British Monarchy. Now, they are suing to get back some of the wealth that was stolen from them by a powerful family within the former British Empire:

The government of Barbados is considering plans to make a wealthy Conservative MP the first individual to pay reparations for his ancestor’s pivotal role in slavery.

The Observer understands that Richard Drax, MP for South Dorset, recently travelled to the Caribbean island for a private meeting with the country’s prime minister, Mia Mottley. A report is now before Mottley’s cabinet laying out the next steps, which include legal action in the event that no agreement is reached with Drax.

Barbados became a republic a year ago after it removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

The Drax family pioneered the plantation system in the 17th century and played a major role in the development of sugar and slavery across the Caribbean and the US.

Barbados MP Trevor Prescod, chairman of Barbados National Task Force on Reparations, part of the Caricom Reparations Commission, said the UN had declared slavery to be a crime against humanity: “If the issue cannot be resolved we would take legal action in the international courts. The case against the Drax family would be for hundreds of years of slavery, so it’s likely any damages would go well beyond the value of the land.”

Countries in the Caribbean community (Caricom) have been campaigning for the payment of reparations by former colonial powers and institutions which profited from slavery. This is the first time a family has been singled out.

This is wonderful. They’re taking it directly to the people who profited from the unpaid labor of the Barbadian people. I’m sure there will still be some who oppose this, of course (aside from the Drax family, whose opinions should be disregarded), but it’s impossible to argue that Drax has not benefited from his family’s history of theft and murder. I will happily accept the argument that Richard Drax should not be subjected to the kinds of punishment that might be due to his ancestors, but that does not mean that he has a legitimate claim to the wealth they took.

Among the plans being considered are that 17th-century Drax Hall is turned into an Afro-centric museum and that a large portion of the plantation is used for social housing for low-income Bajan families. There is also a recommendation that Richard Drax pays for some of the work.

David Comissiong, the Barbados ambassador to Caricom and deputy chairman of the task force, said that besides Drax, other families whose ancestors benefited from slavery are being considered including the British royal family: “It is now a matter that is before the government of Barbados. It is being dealt with at the highest level.

“Drax is fabulously wealthy today. The Drax family is the central family in the whole story of enslavement in Barbados. They are the architects of slavery-based sugar production. They have a deep historical responsibility. The process has only just begun and we trust that we will be able to negotiate. If that doesn’t work, there are other methods, including litigation.

“Other families are involved, though not as prominently as the Draxes. This reparations journey has begun. The matter is now for the cabinet of Barbados. It is in motion. It is being dealt with.”

Drax came under the spotlight in December 2020, after the Observer revealed he had not declared his inheritance of the 250-hectare (617 acres) Drax Hall plantation. He did so only after official documents surfaced which named him as the owner. He had inherited the plantation, valued at Bds$12.5m (£5.25m), from his father, Walter, in 2017.

Drax, 64, lives at the family’s mansion in Charborough Park, Dorset. He and his family are worth at least £150m and own 23.5 square miles in Dorset, and an estate and grouse moor in Yorkshire. The family also own 125 Dorset properties personally or through family trusts and a £4.5m holiday villa on nearby Sandbanks.

Drax’s ancestor, Sir James Drax, was one of the first Englishmen to colonise Barbados in the early 17th century. He part-owned at least two slave ships, the Samuel and the Hope.

The Drax family also owned a plantation in Jamaica, which they sold in the 19th century. When slavery was abolished across the British empire in 1833, the family received £4,293 12s 6d, a very large sum in 1836, in compensation for freeing 189 enslaved people.

Prescod added: “The Drax family had slave ships. They had agents in the African continent and kidnapped black African people to work on their plantations here in Barbados. I have no doubt that what would have motivated them was that they never perceived us to be equal to them, that we were human beings. They considered us as chattels.”

As we fight for a better world, it’s important that we push back against the all-too-common lie that history is “in the past”, and so not relevant to questions of justice going forward. I hope it’s obvious to you, dear reader, that justice has not been served when the family of slavers is still rich and powerful, while those they enslaved still deal with poverty and over-exploitation. It’s frankly disgusting that Drax still owns anything in Barbados, let alone the plantation where his family enslaved and tortured people.

I don’t know where this goes from here. The history of countries like Barbados trying to get justice is not particularly uplifting, and for all the British Empire is no more, England retains a disproportionate amount of global influence, as a result of its era of conquest. The same is true of all the colonial empires, including the United States. That will continue being an obstacle to justice for as long as those countries are governed by the same people and philosophies that created the problem in the first place.

I’ll try to keep an eye on this story, and I hope to see many more like it in the coming years. More than that, I hope to see success beyond simply seizing back the stolen land. I suppose there’s a chance I may be proven wrong about this, but I think that if these struggles for justice are to be successful, it will require the people living in the countries in question to apply organized political pressure to their own governments. That means organizing, of course, and pushing back against attempts by people like Drax to conflate their fortune with that of their country’s working class. It also means paying close attention to the people to whom reparations are owed. This struggle will probably need the help of white folks, but it does not need our “leadership”. Our role is to make sure that those who wish to keep their ill-gotten gains can’t rely on distance and racism to protect them from justice.

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  1. Allison says

    An idle thought:

    Suppose (by some miracle) an organization representing slaves managed back in 1865 to get a judgement against a corporation that profited off of slavery, but it was never paid. Would such a judgement survive all the corporate mergers and splits and all, so that the modern descendents would still be on the hook for it? I assume that the mere fact that the merger/split/etc. documents didn’t mention the debt wouldn’t extinguish it.

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