Could Britain finally be ready to seriously discuss reparative justice with the Caribbean?

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On February 4, the UK Guardian ran an article about the Trevelyan family, members of the British aristocracy. One might have expected the story to highlight the family's stately homes, political connections, or philanthropic work; instead, it focused on a family trip to Grenada — but this was no Caribbean getaway. Their journey had a far greater purpose: to make a public apology for their ancestors’ role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Back in 2016, as family member John Dower did some research into the Trevelyan history, he perused University College London's slavery database and discovered several entries denoting the combined ownership of over 1,000 enslaved Africans spread over six sugar plantations on the island. He was shocked, saying, “It had been expunged from the family history.”

Dower told the wider family circle, including his cousin Laura Trevelyan, a BBC reporter, about what he had found. In late January, they agreed to sign a letter of apology. When The Guardian published the story, 42 members of the family had already signed; by now, there are probably more, and they went a step further, by collectively committing to pay reparations to the people of Grenada.

It is a step that very few have had the courage or conviction to do. In August 2019, history was made when a reparations agreement was signed between The University of the West Indies and the University of Glasgow, the first such contract since people enslaved by the British were fully emancipated in 1838.

In 1835, the British government paid the Trevelyan family a lump sum of UK £26,898 (US $33,206), as compensation from for the abolition of slavery one year prior, quite a hefty settlement at the time. In contrast, the enslaved who were “freed” received nothing and were even made to continue labouring with no pay for years under an “apprenticeship” programme after the emancipation declaration.

By February 27, 2023, the Trevelyans had launched a UK £100,000 fund in Grenada. Sir Hilary Beckles, chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission who was instrumental in achieving the reparations agreement with the University of Glasgow, was on hand for the signing of the agreement, while Nicole Phillip-Dowe, vice-chair of the Grenada National Reparations Commission, commended the Trevelyans, noting, “It takes a leap of faith for a family to say, ‘my forefathers did something horribly wrong and I think we should take some responsibility for it’ […] I hope it will be followed by others.”

Many others are now coming out of the woodwork. On March 28, Scott Trust, the owner of The Guardian, revealed that the newspaper's founders had links to the slave trade. He apologised and committed to undertaking a decade-long programme of restorative justice that would invest UK £10 million (US $12.3 million) with the descendant communities of Guardian founder John Edward Taylor and his business partners.

In the wake of this latest development, and buoyed by the Trevelyans’ actions as well as Laura Trevelyan's use of her journalistic skills to bring as much attention as possible to the issue, United Nations (UN) experts are now adding their voices to the call for the British government and royal family to finally move in the direction of restorative justice.

Both the British politicians and the royal family have been reluctant to address the issue of slavery reparations. In October 2015, during then British prime minister David Cameron's visit to Jamaica, he infamously refused to discuss the issue, instead telling his hosts to “get over slavery.” Adding insult to injury was his offer to spend UK £25 million (approximately US $38 million) to build a new prison on the island, ostensibly to accommodate all the law-breaking Jamaican deportees.

More recently, in March 2022, as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge embarked upon a Caribbean tour in honour of Queen Elizabeth II's platinum jubilee, they were met with protests from Jamaica to Belize. However, while Prince William acknowledged that “slavery was abhorrent and should never have happened,” he stopped short of issuing an apology.

Yet, as Trevelyan realised after spending some time in Grenada, the effects of slavery and colonialism still linger, affecting the people of the region in a myriad of ways, including via economics, systemic corruption, violence, public health, education, and issues of identity.

The family has been pressuring the British government and royal family to apologise and make amends for its involvement in and profiteering from the slave trade. Other colonisers, most recently the Dutch, have begun to make moves in this regard.

In mid-March, Laura Trevelyan announced that she had resigned from her post at the BBC to campaign full-time for reparative justice in the Caribbean. She plans to work with sympathetic politicians like Labour MP Clive Lewis, who has called for the UK to negotiate slavery reparations with Caribbean leaders.

From Trinidad and Tobago, writer Ira Mathur tweeted one of the most hopeful takeaways:

According to The Guardian, King Charles's goddaughter Fiona ComptonLondon-based artist and daughter of former St. Lucian prime minister John Compton, said he had spoken to her about ways in which the issue could be “better highlighted and acknowledged.” Compton is the powerhouse behind Know Your Caribbean which strives to educate people about the region. This often involves correcting perceptions about its misrepresented history and facilitating new and more inclusive discussions around various topics.

Could such a combination of factors — enhanced advocacy for reparative justice, a new sovereign on the British throne who appeared quite supportive of Barbados's decision to become a republic and may well be open to new ways of considering reparations, the continued, tireless efforts of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, and now pressure from one of the world's most respected media houses and the UN — finally herald in a new era for formerly colonised states? The Trevelyan family, like millions of Caribbean citizens, can only do what they can, and then wait and see.

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