By Jon Swaine
Sugar cane cutters, Jamaica, 1891 (Photo: ALAMY)
Caribbean slave descendants, some of whose ancestors worked for David Cameron’s distant family, are calling for an apology and billions of pounds in reparations.
From his bungalow on the side of a hill in western Jamaica, Willie Thompson surveys the same lush valley that one of his great-great-grandmothers was forced to harvest for sugar cane more than 180 years ago.
“I am an African descendant,” he said, whippet-thin and grizzled at the age of 78. “She came here with the chains on her feet, on a slave trade ship”.
Mr Thompson knows that when Parliament voted in 1833 to abolish slavery in Britain’s colonies, Earl Grey’s government was made to pay out compensation worth almost £2 billion in today’s money.
And after an exhausting day spent scratching out a living by farming yams, he wonders what might have been if Nana Bracket and her comrades, rather than the ancestor of David Cameron who owned them, had received £4,101 of it – the equivalent of £415,000 today.
“The English made a lot of money back then. A lot of money,” he said, with a sigh almost long enough to reach Dudley, West Mids, where he worked as a labourer in the 1960s before returning home. “I think it is fair for we to get a bit of compensation for what all our people been through.”
A coalition of 14 Caribbean states, including Jamaica, agrees with Mr Thompson, and is now mounting the first united campaign for reparations from Britain over its role in the Atlantic slave trade.
Represented by CARICOM, the regional organisation, the group is prepared to sue in the courts. It has hired Leigh Day, the London law firm that last year won £20 million for Kenyans tortured by the British during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s.
This month it will unveil a list of 10 demands for Britain, France and Holland, including funds likely to total billions, an apology, and assurances slavery will never be repeated, The Telegraph can disclose.
Professor Verene Shepherd, the chairman of Jamaica’s reparations committee, said British colonisers had “disfigured the Caribbean,” and that their descendants must now pay to repair the damage.
“If you commit a crime against humanity, you are bound to make amends,” Prof Shepherd told The Telegraph. “The planters were given compensation, but not one cent went to the freed Jamaicans”.
From the mid-18th century, British merchants shipped more than three million people from west Africa to the Americas, taking the lead in an Atlantic slave trade pioneered by the Dutch and Portuguese.
About £4 trillion was extracted from the region in unpaid labour alone, according to researchers at the University of Birmingham, and the vast profits went to financing the construction of modern Britain.
The Grange sugar estate that later became Mr Thompson’s village was a golden goose for its part-owner General Sir James Duff, an MP for Banffshire and Mr Cameron’s first cousin six times removed.
Some 202 people, who had been bought like livestock for up to £300, remained in bondage there by the time of abolition, forced to rise at dawn and work days of back-breaking labour for the privilege.
Meanwhile wealthy plantation owners from the surrounding parish of Hanover, named after the reigning British line, would travel to its biggest city of Lucea to enjoy cock-fighting bouts and shows by visiting comedians from America.
These days, 344 people share the tumbledown shacks of Grange, formed from the old estate in the 1920s. The village does not appear on Google Maps, and its existence was news to the parish librarian.
Homes scatter around a hardware shop, a grocery stand and a cupboard-sized bar, where residents can enjoy a Red Stripe after days cleaning rooms or serving meals to tourists in Negril, the closest city.
A small medical centre built with US aid money tends to the ill. At this time of year, torrential rains last for much of the afternoon, which is apparently preferable to the stagnant, mosquito-ridden summers.
Tony Walker, Grange’s energetic councillor, said it struggled even relative to the rest of a country where output per person is £3,352 per year – one seventh of Britain’s – and the minimum wage is 86p an hour.
“We do not have sufficient social services,” he said. “We need a community centre.” He stressed that he was, however, on the way to fulfilling an election campaign pledge to secure rubbish collections.
No longer “sugar cane-dependent,” a few village residents still work in the industry, he said, centring on a former Tate & Lyle factory in nearby Frome now owned, aptly, by the Chinese government.
Yet there are still descendents of freed slaves in the area “who hardly manage to really do anything,” said Mr Walker, who urged Mr Cameron to use his position to “fast-track” some kind of compensation.
The Government has said little since Tony Blair’s 2007 statement of “deep sorrow and regret” for the “unbearable suffering” caused by the slave trade, when he seemed to carefully stop short of an apology.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, described the trade as “brutal, mercenary and inhumane from its beginning to its end” in his 2008 biography of William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist MP.
He pointed to The Zong massacre of 1781, in which the captain of a Liverpool-owned ship that ran out of drinking water threw at least 132 slaves overboard, in an attempt to claim insurance for lost cargo.
Mark Simmonds, Mr Hague’s minister with responsibility for the Caribbean, said during a visit to Jamaica in November that “slavery was abhorrent” – but dismissed all talk of reparations.
“Do I think that we are in a position where we can financially offer compensation for an event two, three, four hundred years ago? No, I don’t,” said Mr Simmonds at a press conference.
Indeed, some international law experts have dismissed the threat of a pan-Caribbean lawsuit as nonsense, arguing that regardless of its evils, the slave trade was legal under British law at the time.
Yet campaigners – including Lord Gifford, a British hereditary peer and barrister who runs a law firm in Kingston and advises the reparations committee – remain unbowed, saying that the slave trade “breached the natural law that man is free”.
“There is no statute of limitations on a crime against humanity,” Lord Gifford, who defended members of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, told The Telegraph. “The claim is soundly based in law.”
Martyn Day, the senior partner at Leigh Day, has said a case could start next year at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Unlike with the Mau Mau, however, there would be no living witnesses.
In support, Prof Shepherd and her colleagues argue that slavery is to blame for a litany of modern ills across the Caribbean, extending to epidemics of diabetes and hypertension allegedly rooted in the salty diets that were forced on the ancestors of sufferers.
In 1962, they stress, Britain left an independent Jamaica in which 80 per cent of the people were functionally illiterate. Male literacy remains more than four points below the international average.
They even claim the trade was “genocidal,” and that while more than a million people were imported from Africa to Jamaica, at the time of emancipation the enslaved population was just over 300,000.
And they have little sympathy for the argument that today’s Britons, especially after being mired for the last six years in a weak economy, should be forced to pay billions of pounds for the sins of their fathers.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said Prof Shepherd. “Your society was developed. You are enjoying a lifestyle because of the blood, sweat and tears of people in the past.”
“It is a question of priorities,” said Lord Gifford. “And this needs to be added to the list of priorities.” He called on Mr Cameron to be inspired by his ancestry to “take a lead” on making amends.
Yet the prime minister is far from the only public figure whose forebears benefited from the trade. On nearby St Lucia, William Jolliffe, a West Sussex businessman and ancestor of Mr Cameron’s wife, Samantha, made money from the Ballenbouche sugar plantation.
Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor praised for his role in the acclaimed film 12 Years A Slave, previously described playing William Pitt the Younger, the abolitionist prime minister, as a “sort of apology” for his family’s ties to Caribbean slave-ownership.
George Orwell and Peter Bazalgette, the chairman of the Arts Council, had similar ties, according to historians at University College London, who estimated that as many as one in five wealthy Victorians depended in part on the slave economy for their fortunes.
In brilliant sunshine ten miles north of Grange, at the Hanover museum, Kemar Harvey, a 29-year-old tour guide, showed visitors around the old parish prison, where rebellious slaves were brought for punishment.
The sight of all the torture implements, death warrants, and solitary confinement cells tends to prompt an unexpected reaction from a lot of those who stop by, he said. “How could you possibly put a price on what was done?” they ask.
For Willie Thompson, though, it would be a start. “I don’t say that giving us money would make it all right,” he said. “What’s happened has happened already. But I think it is on the side of justice that we deserve something.”