Grenada: Confronting my family’s slave owning past
High up in the hills of the Caribbean island of Grenada, in the grounds of a former slave plantation, a cast iron bell hangs from a tree.
The ringing of the bell signified the start of another working day for West African slaves, harvesting sugar cane. Today, the Belmont estate is a popular destination for tourists. It’s a place to enjoy the local cuisine and visit the gift shop, where you can buy artisanal chocolate bars embossed with the image of the slave bell.
It was here that I came face to face with the brutality of the past – and the role played by families like mine.
“This is the sound of slavery,” said DC Campbell, a Grenadian novelist and descendent of slaves. He picked up a pair of shackles made for a child, turning them over in his hands.
The artefact, usually housed in the island’s national museum, would have been used on a slave ship on the infamous middle passage from West Africa to the Caribbean.
We looked in silence at the shackles for adults and children, the neck brace which could be tightened until a slave could no longer breathe, and the leather whip which was even used on pregnant women. So sinister in the bright sunlight.
“These were instruments of control and torture,” said Nicole Phillip-Dowe of the University of the West Indies, matter-of-factly. “There was an entire system of control to ensure that you get the labour you want, to get the profits that you want.”
For BBC producer Koralie Barrau, an American who’s a descendant of slaves on Haiti, staring at these artefacts produced a visceral response.
“It’s sickening. I look at these neckbraces, these handcuffs for children, these whips. And it could have been me. Five or six generations back. This is what my ancestors had to endure and it’s very chilling.”
Ms Phillip-Dowe explained that “disobedient” slaves were punished in public, to terrify the other slaves into submission.
We are in Grenada because several years ago, I learned about my connection to this island.
When my five-times great-grandmother Louisa Simon married Sir John Trevelyan in 1757, she brought to the marriage her merchant father’s partnership in sugar cane plantations on Grenada, which included the ownership of about 1,000 slaves.
I discovered all this at some point after 2013, when the records of Britain’s Slave Compensation Commission were put online and relatives searched the database. The records revealed the names of the 46,000 slave owners who received compensation when Britain abolished African slavery in 1833.
Paying off the slave owners did not come cheap – it cost the British government £20m, a staggering amount that represented 40% of government expenditure in 1834.
In a family email chain, I learned that the Trevelyans received about £34,000 for the loss of their “property” on Grenada – the equivalent of about £3m in today’s money.
Reading the varied reactions of family members in Britain from my home in New York, I felt removed from the debate – and stored it away in the mental category of things that were too difficult to contemplate.
Until I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
The racial reckoning in the US following the death of George Floyd forced me to ask what it really meant, that my ancestors had sat sipping tea in England, profiting from an inhumane system of slavery more than 4,000 miles away. In the summer of 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests dominated the streets of my hometown New York City, I realised the past was informing the present in ways that had to be confronted.
If anyone had “white privilege”, it was surely me, a descendant of Caribbean slave owners. My own social and professional standing nearly 200 years after the abolition of slavery had to be related to my slave-owning ancestors, who used the profits from sugar sales to accumulate wealth and climb up the social ladder.
The father of Victorian Prime Minister William Gladstone was a slave owner, as was a distant relative of David Cameron’s. It’s no coincidence that prominent British families were slave-owners.
If one of the legacies of slavery in America was police brutality towards black men, what was the legacy of slavery on Grenada, I wondered? I had to find out. Even if it was going to open me up to accusations of being a white saviour trying to salvage her conscience. And I wanted to try to find a descendant of slaves owned by my family, to see if the past could be linked to the present.
In 2021, following the BLM protests after George Floyd’s murder, Grenada’s government became the last in the Caribbean to set up a National Commission on Reparations for Slavery.
That commission is chaired by Arley Gill, Grenada’s Ambassador to Caricom, the Caribbean community of 20 countries.
We met at the historic Fort Frederick, built by slaves to defend the lucrative trading routes of the colonial powers of Britain and France. As we talked overlooking the sparkling Caribbean sea, Ambassador Gill told me how George Floyd’s murder was “a profound stimulant, to not just Grenada, but the Caribbean as well. People saw these images of a white police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck, he’s crying out for breath. And that in itself really brought home the injustices of racism.”
In addition to a formal apology for slavery from the British government, Mr Gill would like to see an apology from the Queen.
“The royal family played a critical part in sanctioning and participating in the slave trade and slavery. They must not be exempted from accepting their responsibility,” he said.
He is not alone.
When Prince William and his wife Kate arrived in Jamaica this March, they were met by protesters demanding Britain apologise for the slave trade and pay reparations to its former colony for slavery. Prince Edward and his wife Sophie cancelled a planned April visit to Grenada at the last minute, apparently over fears that they too might be greeted by demonstrations against slavery.
Yet there’s no avoiding the evidence of Britain’s role in the suffering that slavery brought to Grenada. The island has some of the best-preserved slave registers in the Caribbean.
In Nicole Phillip-Dowe’s office at the University of the West Indies, in Grenada’s capital St George’s, we pored over record books, where officials with copperplate handwriting recorded the annual births and deaths of the enslaved.
Records for the Beausejour estate, where the Trevelyans owned slaves, made for disturbing reading. Alexander is only one year old when he dies of an obstruction to the bowel. Harry aged 11 dies from measles. Leprosy and dysentery are common causes of death.
Ms Phillip-Dowe explained how dysentery and measles spread quickly because of cramped quarters on slave ships.
“Often the cause of death is put as itch. My thought is that was probably measles and the child would have been scratching uncontrollably,” she said.
The horror of life and death on the Beausejour plantation seemed at odds with our spectacular location.
Grenada’s capital St George’s is known as one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean. The town sits on a horseshoe shaped harbour, below the hillside of an old volcanic crater. The Carenage is the heart of St George’s, the bustling promenade winding round the harbour.
This is where the slave ships docked from West Africa, and the enslaved emerged from their arduous journey to be sold and begin life on the plantations. I had to go and see the Beausejour plantation for myself. The place where these children, Harry and Alexander, owned by my ancestors, had died.
As we drove up the steep hillside above the Carenage, I noticed how the skyline of St George’s is punctuated by the spires of Anglican and Catholic churches. It’s yet another legacy of a past where Britain and France fought for control of an island so valuable to both nations.
North of St George’s, high up in the lush hillside, is the Beausejour estate, where I met Mr Campbell. His novel Winds of Fedon describes the horrifying conditions in which slaves were kept on Grenada, and the oppressive system of plantation life.
We stood on the veranda of the plantation house, overlooking the slopes where the sugar cane once grew, and where enslaved people owned by my family toiled away, harvesting the crop and turning it into sugar for export.
There are a few ruined outhouses on the property, but that and the faded grandeur of the plantation house are the only clues to the past.
Mr Campbell pointed out a spot where the metal rollers would have stood, into which slaves fed the sugar cane so it could be crushed. If a slave’s finger got caught in the roller, he explained, a plantation official with a machete would cut off the slave’s hand – rather than risk the slave’s body being pulled into the roller, disrupting the production of sugar.
“They would rather the slave lose an arm, then a life. Because that human being with one arm can still get back to work,” said Mr Campbell, explaining the amoral economics.
Hearing this harrowing description of life on the Beausejour plantation was shocking to me. Did the Trevelyan family back in England have any idea about what their slaves endured? And if they knew, did they care?
What Grenadians call the monumental landscape of their island is dotted with references to the colonial past. Streets are named for slave owning English officials. Grenada’s National Reparations Commission has recommended that by the 50th anniversary of Grenada’s independence from Britain in 2024, streets be renamed for prominent Grenadians.
Educating the island’s youth about the history of slavery is another aim of the Reparations Commission, so the Commission’s vice-chair Nicole Phillip-Dowe took me to meet the students of St Joseph’s Convent school in St George’s.
As Ms Phillip-Dowe introduced me to a packed classroom as a descendant of slave owners on Grenada, the girls looked on with intense interest. I asked who in the room was descended from slaves. Every hand shot up. Should my family pay reparations to the people of Grenada because we had owned slaves here? The answer was a resounding yes.
The question of what reparations for slavery should look like is one that Mr Gill is mapping out. He’s adamant that former colonial powers should invest in the infrastructure of Grenada, which he argues is only fair given how much slavery contributed to the economies of Great Britain and France.
“Slaves were kidnapped. They were kept in horrific conditions. And all of that, in many respects, established the Industrial Revolution and triggered the development of Western European societies,” he said.
Mr Gill points to the prevalence of hypertension and diabetes in Grenada and across the Caribbean as another legacy of slavery. I tasted Grenada’s delicious national dish called Oildown. It’s a one pot dish, which was all slaves were able to cook, made of pigs tails and salted fish and breadfruit high in carbohydrates. Centuries of poor diet have led to high rates of chronic disease, argues Arley Gill, and investments in education and health by the former colonial powers would go a long way to undoing some of this damage.
Having found these traces of my family’s legacy as slave owners on this island, was it possible that I could find someone descended from slaves owned by the Trevelyans? Since freed slaves were often named for their former masters, at first, our BBC team looked for anyone with the last name of Trevelyan. No luck.
My ancestors never set foot on the island of Grenada, opting to leave the day-to-day operations of the plantations to our relative by marriage with the name of Hankey, with whom we co-owned the properties.
So it’s conceivable that people named Hankey are descended from slaves owned by my family. Maybe if I could find a member of the Hankey family, we might be able to explore our shared past?
The computer store in Grenada’s capital St George’s is called Hankey’s. It’s just steps away from the market place where slaves were once sold.
Meeting the store owner, Mr Garfield Hankey, was not easy. He was unsure about whether he wanted to speak to me. Our driver Edwin Frank, a keen student of Grenada’s history, persuaded Mr Hankey that it was important for us to meet face to face.
Rather nervously, I explained to Mr Hankey that my ancestors could have owned his. “That’s deep,” he responded.
I explained I was wrestling with the knowledge that my family had been compensated in 1834 for the loss of their property, the enslaved, while slaves got nothing.
I asked Mr Hankey if that was fair.
“Not at all,” replied Mr Hankey, animatedly. “It wasn’t fair. I believe that the slaves were the hard workers, they are the ones that should really get some form of compensation.”
It’s a question I struggled with myself during my visit to Grenada.
The British government has never formally apologised for slavery or offered to pay reparations.
In a statement to the BBC, the Foreign Office said: “Slavery was and still is abhorrent.
“The UK Government has expressed deep regret that the transatlantic slave trade could ever have happened, and we recognise the strong sense of injustice felt in countries affected by it around the world.”
The arguments for and against reparations are controversial and complex – the moral imperative of making amends, versus questions about whether this is the most effective way to tackle racial inequality. And is it right to expect those who weren’t responsible to pay the price for decisions made hundreds of years ago?
One thing I’m exploring personally is how I can contribute to an educational fund that students in Grenada could benefit from. The girls at St Joseph’s convent told me this would show I cared about their future, and wanted to make amends for the past.
As I grappled with the philosophical question of whether personally I owed anything, I sought the advice of Sir Hilary Beckles, the historian and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies who is the chair of the Caricom Reparations Commission.
“Slavery is not in the past,” said Sir Hilary. “Our grandparents remember their great-grandparents who were slaves. Slavery is part of our domestic present. Slavery denies you access to your ancestry. It leaves you in this empty void.”
On the vexed question of whether there is something families like mine should do, Sir Hilary said: “What you are trying to reconcile is privilege on one side of the ledger and poverty on the other. We inherited poverty, illiteracy, hypertension, diabetes, racial degradation – all the negative dimensions. You inherited wealth, property and prestige.”
If I give money to help Grenadian students with higher education – couldn’t that be dismissed as an empty gesture, I asked. “There is great symbolic significance,” Sir Hilary said. “Think of the impact if every one of the slave-owning families did the same thing.”
On our last day in Grenada, producer Ms Barrau and I sat on the never-ending sands of Grand Anse beach with our hosts Ms Phillip-Dowe and Mr Campbell.
Grand Anse is where it all began after all, Mr Campbell reminded me – it’s where the British first tried to land and take possession of Grenada in 1609.
Ms Barrau told me she now has a concrete idea of what the concept of reparations means.
“As a Haitian American living in the US, you hear a lot about reparations within the black community. And for me, it felt really intangible. Are we all going to get money? How does that play out? But in an island like Grenada, with 110,000 people, it seems a bit more tangible, a bit more real.”
“It’s important to acknowledge that a crime was committed,” says Ms Phillip-Dowe. “And after the apology, it’s only fair that the colonial powers that built their industrial revolutions from enslavements should give back to the Caribbean.”
But it doesn’t undo the past, does it, I said to her.
“No, it doesn’t,” she replied. “And we understand that you can’t go back and take a paintbrush and say that never happened. We can’t do that. But we can recognise that it happened. And we can find ways to repair it as much as possible.”
So when you think about slavery and what it means for Grenada’s future, what’s your conclusion? I asked DC.
“This is an ongoing effort to bring closure,” he replied. “Into the future, the history ought to be kept alive, so we can learn from it. And there’s a significant lesson that we can learn from what the slaves endured, in terms of their strength, their faith, their resiliency.”
As Ms Barrau and I said our farewells, I felt overwhelmed by what we’d seen and learned in Grenada.
Ms Phillip-Dowe’s words after we’d handled the shackles and the neck brace on the plantation were ringing in my ears. “The touching and the feeling brings strangely enough a sense of recognition,” she said. “This is what was, and now we are trying to learn from it, and heal and move forwards.”