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by Esther Phillips
In my most recent poetry collection, Witness In Stone, I wrote two poems relating directly to Drax Hall Plantation. One poem, “Stairs,” has to do with the Great House itself, and the other, “Stonemaster,” refers to an area known as Waterman- Straws.
This area, abutting and abounding Drax Hall lands, was itself a small plantation said to have been bought by Adam Straw-Waterman, one of the first freed African slaves in Barbados. Only ruins remain there now.
I do not think it is coincidence that I should be writing this article, particularly now that the controversy surrounding Richard Drax, MP for Dorset South, UK, and the question of reparations is very much in the spotlight.
Greens, where I grew up, is bordered East, South and West by the 621 acres reportedly owned by the Drax family. My grandfather worked “drawing canes” at Drax Hall plantation.
He also kept cows which he milked early on mornings in the plantation yard. I remember walking as a child to the yard in order to collect the milk.
Sometimes on the way home from school. we passed through the Yard, as we called it, but always with trepidation since we could be chased by dogs or by the stern-looking, white overseer.
We played in the ruins of Waterman Straws, exploring the old mill or throwing stones into the tank which I later learnt was a watering area for horses. We wanted to see how long it would take to hear the stones hit the bottom of the tank.
I find it almost surreal to think that we hadn’t an inkling then of what we know now. How many bones of the enslaved were buried under the ground that we walked on? How much of the blood of our own ancestors soaked the soil from which sugar cane and other crops still flourished? If it is true that every sound ever made is stored somewhere in the universe, where are the cries of the brutalized slaves, including women and children; still rebounding, still echoing somewhere? Does blood unjustly shed ever stop crying out from the ground?
History tells us that James and William Drax were among the cruellest of slave-owners.
I wonder also about the silence. Not only the silence of the slave-owners and those who upheld the plantation system, but from the blacks themselves.
Of all the stories we as children heard from the old folks, I am hard-pressed to find someone who can tell me that their grandparents or great grandparents ever told them about stories or incidents passed on to them from their enslaved fore parents.
I asked two leading historians their opinion on this silence.They were of the view that fear and shame were key causes. Fear that complaints or criticisms could arouse the anger of white folk since the plantation system was still very much alive; shame because of the debased treatment they were forced to endure under the system of slavery.
Worse yet, the enslaved were made to believe by their oppressors in myriad ways that they themselves were to blame for their plight by dint of their race. Since Providence and Nature made them inferior, they should accept their lot and not complain.
But there is a kind of silence that can only be a temporary contrivance. What is unspoken is no less true or real, and may in fact gather greater force from being made to simmer under cover for centuries. The unacknowledged sufferings of thousands of souls will eventually find some form of expression. The truth will out.
So where does that leave us now? There is the attitude by some that the past should be left where it is. As far as they are concerned, we should just move on.
This certainly would appear, not surprisingly, to be the feeling of Mr. Richard Drax referred to above. An article appearing in the Guardian newspaper 18 July, 2021 gives the account of a rally held outside Mr. Drax’s home in Dorset, U.K.
The protestors were demanding reparations based on the wealth Mr. Drax’s family has amassed from slave-trading.
According to the article, Mr. Drax claims the circumstances surrounding his wealth to be “deeply, deeply regrettable,” but apparently sees no need to make reparations for the outright injustices committed by his forbears.
The language as reported in the article is not only interesting but may be deliberate: as individuals, we may find some actions or situations “regrettable,” but feel no need to apologize since we take no personal responsibility for them.
If we accept no responsibility, then we need take no action, reparative or any such.
Mr. Drax, you are living off the profits of slave-trading and slave-owning. You appear to be doing so knowingly. You are therefore, in my opinion, as culpable as your slave-trading and slave-owning forbears.
Yours is the opportunity and privilege now of addressing this blight on humanity and more specifically, Barbados, at least economically. This is a matter of social justice. My grandfather, like many of his time, worked hard at Drax Hall plantation for a shilling a week. When the wages were increased, they were still a pittance. Whatever he managed to acquire in his lifetime was at the cost of tremendous and continuous sacrifice.
Life and labour were largely circumscribed by the plantation. The sight of women working in the fields may still remind us of the thousands, generations before them, who suffered whatever form of violence, sexual and otherwise, that the massa chose to mete out.
Finally, Mr. Richard Drax, maybe you do visit your Jacobean manor at Drax Hall from time to time. And perhaps you have been on the island long enough to be aware of two of our Bajan sayings which may be applied universally: “Day does run till night catch it”, and “Unfairness don’t prosper”… forever. Or, maybe you are more familiar with the work of poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy, a Dorset man himself.
Perhaps you will heed the words attributed to Gabriel Oak in Hardy’s novel, Far From the Madding Crowd: “It’s time for you to fight your own battles [of conscience] and win them too.” The cynical will warn that such an appeal is useless.
One lives in hope.
Esther Phillips is a published writer and poet laureate of Barbados