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William Gladstone’s descendants to apologise for family’s part in slave trade

20 Aug 2023 4 minute read
John Jabez Edwin Mayal, Photo marked Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The family of Victorian-era prime minister William Gladstone are due to travel to the Caribbean to apologise for the historical part an ancestor played in the slave trade.

William, who was Liberal prime minister on four occasions in the 19th century, was son of John Gladstone – one of the largest slave owners in the British West Indies.

Charlie Gladstone, the great-great-great grandson of John, said he “felt absolutely sick” when he found out about his family’s slave-owning past.

He and five other family members are due to travel to Guyana in South America to make an apology for John’s ownership of Africans, according to The Observer.

They also reportedly intend to pay reparations to fund further research into the impact of slavery.

John Gladstone was a Scottish merchant who made a fortune as a Demerara sugar-planter and had hundreds of enslaved people working in plantations in the decade before emancipation.

The 1823 rebellion in Demerara, a British colony that later became part of Guyana, started on one of Gladstone’s plantations, with some historians arguing its violent suppression had a role in bringing an end to slavery.

After slavery was abolished in 1833, John received the largest compensation payment made by the Slave Compensation Commission – around £93,000, the modern equivalent of about £10 million.

In 1831, William Gladstone used his first Commons speech to argue in favour of compensation for slave owners.

But by 1850, his family said he was a “changed man”, with the former leader describing slavery as “by far the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind”.

Hawarden Castle

Charlie, who lives in Hawarden Castle, the north Wales home of his great-great grandfather William and is president of Gladstone’s Library in the village, told The Observer: “John Gladstone committed crimes against humanity.

“That is absolutely clear.

“The best that we can do is try to make the world a better place and one of the first things is to make that apology for him.

“He was a vile man. He was greedy and domineering. We have no excuses for him.”

The Gladstone family plan to make their official apology at the opening of the University of Guyana’s International Institute for Migration and Diaspora Studies, which it is reportedly helping to fund with a grant of £100,000.

Rob Gladstone, Charlie’s brother, called on the UK Government to begin “reparative justice” by apologising for slavery within the British Empire.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has refused to apologise for the UK’s role in slavery.

Asked at Prime Minister’s Questions in April by Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy whether he would offer a “full and meaningful apology”, the Conservative Party leader said: “No.”

He added: “What I think our focus should now be on doing, while of course understanding our history in all its parts and not running away from it, is making sure that we have a society that is inclusive and tolerant of people from all backgrounds.

“That is something that we on the Government benches are committed to doing and will continue to deliver.

“But trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward and is not something we will focus our energies on.”

The Gladstones’ planned apology comes after a former BBC reporter apologised to the people of Grenada for her ancestors owning slaves in the 1800s.

The Trevelyan family had more than 1,000 slaves on the Caribbean island and owned six sugar plantations, broadcaster Laura Trevelyan has said.

The family intends to donate £100,000 to establish a community fund for economic development on the island, according to BBC reports in February.

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
11 months ago

I thought that Eric Phillips, the chair of the Guyana reparations committee made a telling comment on the prime minister’s refusal to apologise when he said “To be that indifferent is frightening. It shows that he is not fit to lead a multi-ethnic society like the UK”…

11 months ago

Remember reparations went to the abusers not the abused. People freed were in effect still in slavery.
Perhaps if all the beneficiaries of the reparations started to pay back and admit the history, would be a step in the right direction. We only recently finished that reparation bill as tax payers in 2015?

Eva Arnott
Eva Arnott
11 months ago

When my late husband was a student at Bangor University in 1948, he knew a Black student from British Guyana called Percy Forbes. He must have been among the very few who were being prepared to run the country after independence. Does anyone know what happened to him?

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