'What Sort of Example is the World Setting Us?'
Ben Jacob on how apologies and efforts at reparations by the descendants of slave owners are really being viewed by the people in Guyana.
Cedric Castello was at his home in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, on Saturday 26 August 2023, when a friend called to ask if he was part of the day’s events at the University of Guyana. It was not an unreasonable assumption – as a respected educator and community figure, Castello had taken part in countless events at the university in the past. This time, however, he was completely in the dark.
Two days earlier, six descendants of the celebrated nineteenth-century Prime Minister William Gladstone had arrived in the Caribbean nation on the north-eastern coast of South America. The family’s ties to Guyana date back over two centuries to John Gladstone, William’s father and one of the most notorious figures in the country’s history.
A prolific slaveowner in what was then British Guiana, Gladstone enslaved over 2500 Africans across eight sugar plantations in the colony’s Demerara region, alongside a further three in Jamaica. One of the most powerful figures in the pro-slavery West India lobby, he used his influence and that of his son, William, then a rising political star, first to delay abolition, and then to ensure that emancipation was skewed in favour of metropolitan slaveowners.
The Gladstones had come to say sorry. Four months earlier, the family had formed a campaigning group, Heirs of Slavery, along with a number of other wealthy British descendants of slaveowners, announcing their intention to “lend our voices and our influence” to “tackle the ongoing consequences of transatlantic slavery”, while formally apologising for their ancestor’s actions.
Their visit to Guyana, timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Demerara Uprising, was their first step after the announcement, and they were intent on making the most of the brief trip. Already, they had participated in an official libations ceremony with the Bishop of Guyana to ask the ancestors to accept their apology, met with the President, Mohammed Irfaan Ali, and sent two young Gladstones to a local TV network to speak about reparations.
A Solemn Apology
As Castello’s friend told him, the main event of their visit was to take place at the University of Guyana that day: a solemn apology delivered by the family patriarch, Charles Gladstone, to announce their first reparation for their ancestor’s actions, a £100,000 grant towards a new International Institute for Migration and Diaspora Studies at the university’s campus in Georgetown. Castello was dismayed. A few phone calls later and he was on the way to the university with a group of women from his community network, armed with placards denouncing the Gladstones’ reparation and asking, ‘is this all our ancestors are worth to you?”
When Castello and his group arrived at the university, they were taken aback by the scale of the event: the organisers had booked the largest auditorium, foreign reporters – a rare sight in Guyana – were milling around outside, and the doors were guarded by heavy security. As they approached the organisers outside the auditorium, Castello’s group were told that admission was by invitation only. Castello went round to another door and tried to explain his case to the security guard. The guard asked him who he was there to represent. “I hear this is something to do with reparation to the people, to the descendants of slaves,” he replied. “I am the descendant of a slave, and it is my business, so I’m here representing the people, to get information.”
He was refused entrance.
Castello was not alone in his reaction to the Gladstone family’s visit. While Eric Phillips, Chair of the Guyana Reparations Committee, praised the “soul searching” of the Gladstones, the Guyanese public was less enchanted. The family were met at the airport by a crowd holding signs calling them “murderers” and demanding “reparations now!”. During the 26 August ceremony, as Castello led the protest outside, audience members interrupted Charles Gladstone’s speech with shouts of “we do not accept your apology”. For the remainder of the visit, the scheduled events took place behind closed doors and with minimal public fanfare.
Speaking in September in the wake of the Gladstones’ departure, Castello is clear: “The big apology and all the journalistic coverage has come and gone,” he says, “and now, nothing. Not a difference has been made.”
Castello, 61, makes for a distinctive, distinguished figure, his thin grey dreadlocks giving way to a white beard that dances over his chest in two strands as he speaks. When we walk, his left hand sweeps across the surroundings, taking in the tumbledown wooden houses, dusty roads, and streetside bars of Lodge, an Afro-Guyanese ghetto in the south of Georgetown. His right hand he raises in salute at every group we pass. Children are quizzed on their school homework, as their parents look on approvingly. Elderly men call out in greeting from the bars. Neighbours stop for a quick conversation as the sun begins to set.
Few people know the pulse of Georgetown like Castello. He has lived in Lodge his entire life, a period of intense political and economic turmoil during which all too many brilliant Guyanese have emigrated. Castello’s list of guises is extensive: educator, poet, proud Rastafarian, musician, professional boxer, stand-up comedian, former street hustler and committed community activist. He has taught classes of thirty local children from his small wooden home on everything from English literature to music theory. He has lectured on African cultural history at Georgetown’s Museum of African Heritage. Amongst it all, he has attuned himself to the full spectrum of Georgetown life, bridging the gap between the scholars at the university in the east of the city and the hustlers near the banks of the Demerara in the west.
Earlier this year, research by the economic consulting firm Brattle indicated that Guyana could be owed as much as $572 billion in reparations for chattel slavery from the United Kingdom alone. Reparations, as defined by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, are a “process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments or corporations.” While the movement for reparations has a long history reaching back to the early years of emancipation, it has grown in prominence over the last few years, in the context of resurgent activism within the Caribbean and the global insurrection following the killing of George Floyd in 2020. The result is an increasing convergence of diplomatic pressure from Caribbean leaders, grassroots protests across the wider Caribbean region, and political actions in the former colonial metropoles highlighting the accumulated wealth inherited by companies and individuals from transatlantic slavery.
Perhaps understandably, given its lack of dedicated reporters in the region, the international media devotes far more attention to the words of political leaders, prominent scholars, and even of individuals such as Charles Gladstone than it does to those protesting in the streets of Georgetown, Kingston or Nassau. Pushed for column space, most coverage of the Gladstones’ visit relegated the protests to a few sentences, without additional analysis or comment. Yet the events surrounding the Gladstone family’s visit to Guyana reveal a different side to the reparations movement to that which is commonly reported, one rooted in a regional public increasingly unwilling to follow the script set out by political leaders and official reparations committees.
‘We know evil has been done to us’
Despite his criticism of the Gladstone family, Castello is adamant about the need for reparations. “We deserve,” he says, “an apology and redress which are as obvious, all-encompassing and far reaching as were, and still are, the atrocities and ramifications of slavery and the slave trade.”
“We know evil has been done to us,” he says. “While the Victorians were spoiling themselves to the teeth with sugar, the people producing the sugar were dying in pain and starvation. Even after slavery, the freed slaves were placed at the bottom of the social ladder, in a totally sordid state.”
Today, he continues, “people are still suffering.” Like other countries in the region, Guyana still struggles against the afterlives of centuries of colonial rule: the social devastations left behind by plantation slavery; a landscape made highly vulnerable to flooding and drought by colonial-era environmental transformations; and the continuing impact of Cold War meddling by MI6 and the CIA that fomented a violent political rift between the country’s Afro- and Indo-Guyanese communities. Despite the discovery of oil in 2015, Guyana remains one of the poorest countries in the Americas, with a poverty rate of just under 50%. At 68, life expectancy in Guyana is the second lowest in the Caribbean, and thirteen years less than the average among the former slaving colonies of Europe. “Had we been paid adequately for providing goods and services for the rest of society in the Victorian era,” Castello says, “we would have raised our standard of living and that of our offspring a long time ago.”
Meanwhile, as Castello points out, the British Government was until 2015 servicing debts owed due to compensation paid to the heirs and descendants of slave owners. As recent research by historians has shown, compensated emancipation allowed metropolitan capitalists such as Gladstone to secure the profits they had made from slavery via a massive payoff, converting the captive lives of their enslaved workforce into a new pool of capital which they were able to pass down to future generations. “And yet,” as Castello says, “the persons who were victims of the slavery, who lost life, who lost so many hours of labour and their descendants, are not being recompensed in any way.”
At the heart of Castello’s critique, and that of the wider protests during the Gladstones’ visit, is the sheer scale of John Gladstone’s crimes and the profits he extracted from them. When slavery was formally abolished in 1833, Gladstone was awarded over £100,000 (equivalent to roughly £10 million today) as compensation for his loss of property, the second most of any individual in the British Empire. With this money, he pioneered a brutal system of indentured Indian labour in British Guiana, which saw a further 238,909 people shipped across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans to work on the colony’s plantations. The son of a shopkeeper and minor corn merchant, Gladstone succeeded in inserting himself and his family at the heart of the British establishment, cemented in 1868 by his son’s election as Prime Minister for the first time. Today, his descendants live in a lavish castle in north Wales, where they host lifestyle retreats and rent out holiday homes.
Castello is all too aware of these facts. “For the volume of slaves that [Gladstone] had,” he says, “the monetary value that they gave him in terms of labour, and the compensation that he got from the government, we think they [the Gladstone family] could give much more.”
Indeed, Castello is scathing of the Gladstones’ reparation itself. “One hundred thousand pounds to set up research on migration”, he says pointedly. “Now whom would the result of that study benefit, and to what end?” Castello mentions a number of friends whose surname is Gladstone –as he says, “they didn’t come from Africa with that name”. “How is this [the university institute] going to help them?”, he asks. “It is just a token … it does nothing to the people who have suffered the disadvantages of being born poor, born unknown, born at the bottom of the social ladder.”
When I reached out to Charles Gladstone, he stated that the family’s decision to focus on an apology rather than extensive reparations was at the request of CARICOM, the Caribbean Community intergovernmental organisation that represents fifteen member states, whose ten-point plan for reparations opens with the need for apology and acknowledgement. The £100,000 grant, he said, was just the beginning of the family’s relationship with Guyana. Moreover, he pointed to the work that the family have done in funding the work of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at the University College London, to help educate British people about the horrors faced by enslaved people.
Nonetheless, as a piece of reparatory justice the grant to the University of Guyana is a strange gesture. Academics at the university say that they weren’t informed about the grant until the announcement of the launch ceremony in the days leading up to the Gladstones’ visit. Moreover, publicly available information from the Charity Commission shows that the Gladstone family’s charitable trust itself has made over £100,000 in donations in the last six years alone, to causes ranging from a horse-riding centre (£7,300) to an array of English churches (£25,000). In other words, the ‘reparation’ announced by the Gladstones is no different in scale to a regular charitable donation.
A Lack of Transparency
However, Castello’s criticism is not just levelled at the Gladstone family or the European governments that have refused to discuss reparations. He was also dismayed at those inside the auditorium, who he describes as a “small group of intellectuals who took it upon themselves to decide what is right, and what is sufficient.”
On the one hand, Castello is sharply critical of the reparations committee for “capitulating”, as he says, “simply because there’s something being given”. On the other, he sees the entire process as underscored by elitism and a lack of transparency. In the days after the event at the University of Guyana, Castello tried to gauge public opinion on the Gladstones’ visit but was thwarted by an almost complete lack of awareness about it. “I’ve been walking, riding, catching minibuses,” he says. “Nobody knows about it. It’s a big secret.”
As Castello notes, Georgetown has a well-oiled machine for sharing news on the streets. Whenever political meetings, big concerts or sports events take place, promoters drive through populated areas with public address systems mounted on trucks and spread the news. “Why don’t they use the same methods of announcing it if it’s black people they want to reach?”, Castello asks. “Everybody knows when a Jamaican DJ is going to play at the National Park. Yet something like this [the Gladstones’ visit] and nobody knows?”
In Castello’s view, this was no accident. He accuses both the Gladstones and the reparations committee of failing to trust the population to reflect on the wrong that has been done to them. “It’s been done with so many projects, so many times before,” he says. “This elite always makes decisions for the majority and tells the majority – ‘y’all don’t need to know this part, you don’t need to be involved with this part. At the right time we’ll tell you what you’re supposed to know’.” “It’s ridiculous, it’s painful,” he says. “They expected people not to notice. That is the greatest insult.”
Eric Phillips, Chair of the Reparations Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
Heirs of Slavery
Ten years ago, when CARICOM launched its Reparations Commission, its ten-point plan for reparations felt all too distant from the geopolitical realities of the day. That European governments would deliver a full and formal apology for their role in the transatlantic slave trade, let alone funding for health and education, access to technology, and a programme of debt cancellation, seemed incongruous in an era of slashed aid budgets and global austerity politics. Yet today, reparations are being pursued with a political intensity unmatched since the abolition of slavery itself.
Earlier this year, CARICOM announced its intention to push for £26.5 trillion in reparations from European countries over their role in the transatlantic slave trade. Their demand, based on the Brattle Report, is being led by a new generation of Caribbean politicians, including President Irfaan Ali and the Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who have mastered the language of reparatory justice set out by CARICOM’s Reparation Commission. In Europe and the United States, individuals from Conservative MP Richard Drax to Benedict Cumberbatch are being singled out for their inherited wealth from slave owning ancestors. In the Caribbean, two separate royal visits last year were dominated by vociferous protests and calls for reparations by local communities, catching officials by surprise. Amidst the fervour, Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, predicts that the movement for reparatory justice will become the greatest global movement of the twenty first century (when one factors in the centrality of reparations in climate justice activism, this claim becomes distinctly plausible).
The group co-founded by the Gladstones, Heirs of Slavery, is a response to this historical moment. As European governments continue to drag their feet over the issue of reparations, the campaigning group has stepped into the vacuum, offering to work with CARICOM to pressurise politicians, while setting out its own programme of reparatory justice.
Castello is not the only one sceptical of the group. For many, Heirs of Slavery constitutes an arbitrary approach that overlooks existing work on reparations and ignores community groups within the Caribbean. Judge Patrick Robinson, a leading judge at the International Courts of Justice, criticised the Gladstone family in August for ignoring the Brattle Report, telling the BBC, “[i]f it’s not to be seen as a tokenistic exercise, if it is to be taken seriously, they must ascertain the reparations that are owed”.
In Jamaica, where John Gladstone enslaved more than 800 people, activists were dismayed to find that they had been ignored. Verene Shepherd, a distinguished historian and vice-chair of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission called on the Gladstones to “come to the scene of the crime and apologise to the people who live in those neighbourhoods”, and “commit to reparations as they’re doing in Guyana”. (In response, Charles Gladstone stated that Jamaica “is a country that I’ve been to and that I like very, very much”, but emphasised “I had to start somewhere. At the moment we are solely focussed on Guyana.”)
For their part, the Heirs of Slavery founders have been at pains to note that they are a campaigning organisation, not a mechanism for administering reparatory justice. On their website, they state that “our financial contributions can only ever be a token… we can do so much more by lending our support and our voices to movements to bring about repair and reconciliation at a national level”. "We are doing our best to turn the evils of the past to some good for the future”, Gladstone says. “We understand and respect the endless different opinions but are operating in entirely uncharted territory.”
When I put this to Castello, he is unimpressed. “It is victors’ justice,” he says. “The world of imperialism is still trying to be the final arbiter of the question of equality of man’s rights, responsibilities and privileges. The very former colonists seem to want to decide whether or not any reparation is necessary, and also the terms on which, if such a reparation were deemed necessary, such a reparation must be administered.”
“Mr Gladstone and his supporters,” he continues, sounding more pained than angry, “still think that the Africans as a whole lack the sensibility to actually recognise the wrong which has been done to them, and hence do not need appropriate reparations. They are taking it upon themselves to decide what we must be satisfied with. That is again dehumanising. It hurts.”
What, then, would Castello demand in reparations?
“If any reparations are to be made,” he begins, “logically they are to be made to the vast majority of Afro-Guyanese, to a wide cross-section of people. The recompense must be something to make black people feel proud or feel human again inside. To be able to feel good about blackness.”
For Castello, this can only come through education. Rather than a specialised research institute, Castello believes that a more wide-reaching programme is needed in order to break the cycle of underdevelopment. Quoting a 1956 speech by Haile Selassie, he says, “‘Each man must be given the right to be educated, to develop, to make use of the natural resources of his country, and raise his standard of living to the level of modern life’.” One proposal he has is for “hundreds of scholarships” related to geology, agriculture and forestry (key sections of the Guyanese economy). “It could be stipulated that they must be doing something that is pertinent to the use of Guyana’s natural resources, or must return to Guyana,” he says. “And we can be the ones to oversee that.”
A Ticking Time Bomb
Forty years ago in October, the Grenada Revolution was defeated, destroying the last programme of radical social and economic justice to emerge in the Caribbean in the long aftermath of formal decolonisation. For decades afterwards, calls for redistributive justice were muffled by a neoliberal consensus among policymakers and the replacement of grassroots movements with NGOs.
Now, those voices can be heard once again. Caribbean governments are speaking back to former colonial powers, emboldened by Western nervousness over an increasingly fragmented geopolitical sphere. And in the streets, protestors are declaring their impatience with the pace of change, pushing out ahead of their leaders with calls for a meaningful reparatory programme of genuine social and economic justice.
Castello, though, is worried about the outlook for the region if the gestures of liberal individuals such as the Gladstones are not translated into meaningful economic and social justice. “What sort of example is the world setting to us,” he asks, “that we will only be given justice when we can take it forcibly? In the black man’s heart, it is a ticking time bomb. Everyone, if you bring up reparations in a conversation, will say, ‘only time you gonna get paid is when you can take pay’.”
The alternative, for Castello, lies in “recreating our history” through reparatory measures capable of “redressing our people’s lack of knowledge, our people’s disillusion, and also the economic position, the deprivation which so many people were born into.” Until that is achieved, he maintains, “it is difficult, if not impossible, to conclude that anything less than a concept of inequality of men and the value of human life still exists amongst those who hold influence in this world.”
Ben Jacob is a writer and historian based in London. His writing focusses on colonialism, labour and environmental history, and has been published in Wisden, Tribune and the Oxford Review of Books.