by George Alleyne
While beneficiaries of all aspects of English-administered slavery in the Caribbean appear to be coming around to acknowledging their roles in what might be the first steps towards compensation to descendants of those who suffered, a prime mover in that horrific era has been silent.
Many persons, institutions and companies have been offering apologies for the role of their predecessors in Britain’s 200 years of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade which was used to provide seed capital for industries and family wealth that continues to thrive and grow today.
There is, however, an ingrained British institution that was involved and gained from the earliest of slave ship movement from the West African coast to the Caribbean and the ensuing free labour for the centuries that is yet to utter a word in remorse–the royal family.
This is much to the annoyance of prominent Caribbean historian and academic, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, who fumed recently, “The royal family is deeply steeped historically in the slave trade. They started the slave trade, they organised it, they incorporated it.”
Further, he said, “The first shipment of Africans directly from Africa to Barbados was in 1641 owned by the Royal Africa Company, Royal Adventurers, the Guinea Company. They owned a ship called the Star’. That Star left Africa with 299 Africans from the Gold Coast. It arrived in Barbados with 239 alive, and the record says they were sold within three hours. The plantations couldn’t get enough.”
“So you go all the way through history and we see the connections.”
Beckles showed his irritation Sunday during an Internet livestream interview, conducted by Professor Andy Knight, commemorating International Day for Reparations, designated for Monday, 12 October.
That date is the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first landing in the Americas when he touched down on the Bahamian island later named San Salvador in 1492.
It is known elsewhere as Columbus Day, but regional activism changed that to varying names, ‘Indigenous People Genocide Day’; ‘African Holocaust Day’; and ‘Reparation Day’, placing focus on victims of what followed the navigator’s arrival rather than on the harbinger of evil.
“There are three large corporations in Britain, first the Guinea Company of 1618; then the second company in its modified form, the company of Royal Adventurers trading into Africa to bring Africans into the Caribbean [for slavery].
“When that company made so much money, it had to be incorporated and capitalised at a higher level. The Royal Africa Company capitalised to bring 5 to 6,000 enslaved Africans
per year [in] all their ships.”
In spite of these facts, “never has there been an apology”, Beckles bristled.
But history shows that the royals’ pro-slavery stance continued as its money built up.
“Remember, the greatest opponent of the abolition of the slave trade was King William.
He said that ‘the slave trade is necessary for Britain to maintain its global dominance in the world and I am opposed to anyone who is opposed to it.’”
Beckles added, “He [King William] told [anti-slavery campaigner] William Wilberforce ‘be careful, you are in this parliament speaking about ending the slave trade because this business is British business, good for Britain”.
Though the royals lost out to the inevitable emancipation, wherever possible, they resisted what should have followed as benefits of freedom.
“Queen Victoria, she comes to the throne as a young queen just in the decade of emancipation, and endorses all to neutralise the effect of emancipation,” Beckles said.
“This is what led to the Jamaica massacre at Morant Bay in 1865 when the governor of Jamaica [John Eyre] was given the authority to massacre poor people in a famine for squatting on crown lands, owned by the queen, to grow food.
“This is the history of the royal family and they tried to justify the decision to do so because they said ‘if we allow black people to get land, how would the plantations get labour if the black people become peasants?’”
“They took William Gordon, one of Jamaica’s leading civil rights advocates, and put a rope around his neck for saying that the peasants have a right to live,” he said, adding that other Jamaican leaders such as Paul Bogle suffered a similar fate.
Beckles recalled that mainly in the pre and post-independence days “the queen has made several visits to the Caribbean and as children, many of us would line the streets and wave at our queen as she went by because she was our queen”.
Yet while commercial banks and other corporations, universities, the Church of England and descendants of individual beneficiaries of those who made a fortune on two centuries of free labour and trade in those labourers have apologised, not a word of remorse has been uttered by the British royal family.