Can this tiny Caribbean nation make former colonial masters pay for slavery?

Barbados is seeking a reckoning for the horrors of slavery under British rule. Can it make former colonial masters pay?

One of the most historic sites in Barbados is easy to miss unless you know where to look. There’s no sign marking the entrance to Drax Hall, one of the oldest sugar plantations in the Caribbean, just a dirt road cutting through the patchwork of cane fields that blanket the centre of the island.

Trevor Marshall knows how to find it. “Veer right,” he says, as we drive along the highway skirting the estate. We pull off and come to a halt in a driveway. An imposing grey stone mansion looms beyond a wall of trees and tropical palms.

“Here we are at the great, the fabulous, the enigmatic … Drax Hall,” Marshall says with mock grandeur. It’s only half in jest. After all, this plantation is central to Barbados’ founding story. It was here that a bloody and brutal business model was perfected, a British family made their fortune and generations of slaves lived and died.

Drax Hall great house on the island of Barbados.()
An old windmill at Drax Hall which was once used to crush sugar cane.()

The Drax Hall plantation in Barbados is at the centre of a reparations fight over its historic links to the birth of slavery in the British Caribbean.

Foreign Correspondent: Matt Henry

For historians like Marshall, Drax Hall has long been a subject of fascination, even mystery. It’s only recently that it’s gained more widespread notoriety in an intensifying battle over reparations for slavery. This island, once ruled by the British, is ready for a reckoning with the institutions and individuals who made their fortunes here in centuries past, and Drax Hall is just the start.

‘This is where it was created’

For nearly 400 years, sugar cane has been harvested in the fields of Drax Hall. James Drax, a young Englishman who arrived in Barbados shortly after it was claimed by Britain in 1625, was among the first to experiment with the unproven crop. He found, as Marshall puts it, “like love and marriage, horse and carriage, Barbados and sugar cane go well together.” James Drax soon struck it rich.

But it wasn’t just an agricultural experiment. “This is the place where the business model of using slaves on our tropical farms, which we call plantations … this is where it was created,” says Marshall. Another Barbadian historian, Hilary Beckles, says as many as 327 slaves, both adults and children, worked on the plantation at its height. The death rate was horrific.

A tractor in the cane fields of Drax Hall plantation in Barbados, where sugar cane has been harvested for nearly four centuries.()
Drax Hall was built in the 1650s.()
Historian Trevor Marshall in the Drax Hall plantation yard.()

Barbadian historian Trevor Marshall in the plantation yard at Drax Hall. 

Foreign Correspondent: Matt Henry

“It boggles the mind how people could sustain [cutting cane] day after day,” says Marshall, standing in the mid-morning heat. “It was arduous. It was tedious. It was backbreaking. And it was never ending.”

Among the many plantations on Barbados, Drax Hall is a rarity. While the others have changed hands over the centuries, it’s been owned continuously by the same family for nearly 400 years. Today, it’s still one of the island’s largest working plantations.

At the edge of the dirt road, an oil drum is emblazoned with the words: “Private property. No trespassing.” Marshall has been a regular visitor here over the years to buy farm produce, like yams, and counts the plantation manager an old school friend. But visitors, and especially journalists, haven’t been so welcome lately.

The Drax Hall plantation yard.()
Old equipment in the plantation yard.()

The current owner, Richard Drax, is a conservative MP for South Dorset, in England, where he lives on a lavish family estate. He’s often reported to be one of the richest members of the British House of Commons.

Some now say he should make amends for his ancestors’ sins. Marshall is among them. Richard Drax, he says, “owes not just black people, but the island of Barbados, reparations”.

A reckoning in the Caribbean

Reparations have been debated in Barbados for generations, but in the past decade the conversation has moved from the political fringes into the mainstream. Today, Barbados is one of the Caribbean’s loudest voices calling for compensation for the horrors of slavery.

David Comissiong was a young lawyer back in the early 90s when he first started pushing for the idea to be taken seriously. At the time, he was dismissed as “a dreamer,” he says from behind his desk in Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the capital Bridgetown.

There’s a “big difference” between then and now. “This is a conversation whose time has come,” he says, rapping his fingertips on the desk.

A local fisherman at Batts Rock Beach, just north of the capital Bridgetown.()
A man cuts sugar cane by hand on Barbados. The canes in this field are still too young for a mechanical harvester.()

Comissiong is the deputy chair of Barbados’ national task force on reparations, which was established in 2012 to develop the government’s position on the issue and mobilise public support. It reports directly to the Prime Minister Mia Mottley, herself a vocal advocate for reparations on the world stage.

What are ‘reparations’?

David Comissiong

David Comissiong. ()

“Reparations is about, first of all, an acknowledgement, a proper apology, and then a sitting with the victims, or the representatives of the victims, and working out a package of compensation that [they] are involved in and approve.”

Cyndi Celeste

Cyndi Celeste. ()

“Reparations is not just economic, reparations is emotional. And part of it is what we do for ourselves.”

Other Caribbean nations including Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti, Guyana and Belize have since started their own reparations task forces. In 2013, Caribbean nations launched a regional commission to bring European governments to the negotiating table. Barbados took a leading role.

“Europe’s development was purchased at the price of the underdevelopment, of the looting and plundering of our people,” says Comissiong. “Reparations is about saying, you committed a crime during those centuries, you profited from that crime. Now is the time to help repair some of the damage that you have done.”

Reparations can take many forms, from monetary payments to funding programs to alleviate societal problems caused by centuries of “underdevelopment” during slavery. Caribbean nations have asked for help building public health and literacy programs.

So far, their appeals have met with mixed results at best. Last December, the Dutch government issued an apology for its role in the slave trade, describing it as a crime against humanity. Others like the United Kingdom have rejected the notion of reparations out of hand.

Even if the direct approach is failing, Comissiong senses European nations are facing growing pressure from within. “We are in a phase of cultivating world public opinion,” he says. “We will bring their governments to the table by the force of our campaign and the force of even their own domestic public opinion.”

Bridgetown Harbour in the centre of the capital.()
Cyndi Celeste in the square in central Bridgetown.()

Bajan poet Cyndi Celeste at the spot where a statue of Lord Horatio Nelson once stood in central Bridgetown.

Foreign Correspondent: Matt Henry

At the same time, across the Caribbean, there’s been a renewed reckoning with the legacies of colonialism.

In Barbados, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted in 2020, locals demanded a statue of British naval hero Horatio Nelson be removed from Bridgetown’s central square, where it had stood for over 200 years. Cyndi Celeste, a spoken word artist who delivered an oration the night Nelson was torn down, says it was a moment that “reawakened the urge to chart our own course and to really step into who we are as a people”.

Across the river from where we sit, the towering neo-Gothic parliament building looms like a cathedral over the capital. Britain’s influence once ran so deep here Barbados was dubbed “Little England”.

Tourism is one of Barbados’s biggest economic drivers with nearly half of all visitors to the island coming from the UK.()
Once the country’s key export, Barbados’s sugar industry has been in decline in recent decades and is now propped up by government subsidies.()

The country ceased being a British colony in 1966, declaring its independence, but the moniker has stuck around. It’s one Celeste’s generation are eager to shake for good. “We are no longer Little England,” Celeste says. “We are our own people.”

In November 2022, Barbados declared itself a republic, casting aside the British crown after nearly four centuries. “As a new republic, the conversation has been centred around reparations,” says Celeste. “It has been centred around what we want our identity to be.”

The first sugar island

But forging a new identity can be difficult when this nation still feels burdened by its past. Barbados, a tiny island just 34 kilometres from end to end, was Britain’s first colonial foothold in the Caribbean. Its position at the easternmost tip of the Caribbean made it a key hub for the trans-Atlantic slave trade during the “sugar revolution” of the 17th century. Ships bearing sugar departed for Europe while new ones arrived carrying slaves from the coast of Africa.

It’s estimated around 400,000 Africans were kidnapped and forcibly transported to the island to work on plantations run by European planters, most of them British. Today, of the 280,000 people who call the island home, the majority are descendants of enslaved Africans.

This was “the first sugar island,” says Kevin Farmer, the deputy director of the Barbados Museum and Historic Society, quoting Beckles. “It is the blueprint. The refinement of that model utilising enslaved labour is perfected on this island.”

A slave burial ground was discovered in this field at the former Newton plantation a few decades ago.()

Among the horrors perfected here was a legal system known as the “slave code”, which declared Africans non-human and the property of the white planters. It inspired similar laws as far afield as the American colonies.

For such a small island, Farmer notes, Barbados’ impact has been “profound”. “What happens here has affected so many millions of people throughout the world, even if they themselves don’t quite recognise it,” he says.

In an upstairs library at the museum, in Bridgetown’s historic garrison quarter, shelves heave with books, many from the time of slavery. Farmer is cradling one dating to 1786 called The Instructions for the Management of a Plantation and the Treatment of Negroes. It’s effectively a manual for how to run a slave plantation for maximum profit, written in Barbados by the most influential planters of the day, in which they offer their advice on everything from organising “field gangs” to discipline.

A book from the 18th century containing planters instructions for running a slave plantation.()

The way the book is written can seem almost “benevolent,” says Farmer, carefully leafing through its yellowed pages. “The reality is that most enslaved people, if they lived 15 or 20 years on a plantation and survived, they were lucky. Very early on, persons lasted no more than a decade. It was horrific, it was horrible.”

Like the Barbados slave code, “The Instructions” spread across the British Empire.

Among the 10 authors listed on the book’s title page is Edward Drax, then-heir to the Drax family plantation. “That the family’s profits allowed them, still up to today, 400 years later, to have a plantation on this island,” says Farmer. “The monies that they would have made must have been massive.”

An Anglican Church missionary organisation operated a slave plantation on Barbados for over a century.()

They weren’t the only family to get rich off sugar and slavery. The British royals were “integral” in that story too, says Farmer, starting with King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York, who ran a monopoly on the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the Royal Africa Company for a time in the 1600s.

Others including British banks and universities had financial stakes in the enterprise of slavery. In 1834, when it was finally abolished, it was slave owners who were compensated by the British government in a package worth billions in today’s terms. Slaves got nothing.

“The motivation was greed, every aspect of it was about greed,” says Michael Clarke, the principal of Codrington College, an Anglican theological seminary on the east side of the island.

The college grounds were once a slave plantation operated by a missionary arm of the Anglican Church, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. It once kept as many as 300 slaves here, staying in operation for over a century. Some were even branded with the word “Society”.

Codrington College in Barbados.()
Looking towards the Atlantic Ocean from Codrington College.()
Codrington College principal Michael Clarke.()
Codrington College sits on a former slave plantation run by a church missionary group.()

The estate overlooks Barbados’ rugged Atlantic coast. “Our nearest neighbour would be the African continent,” Clarke says, gesturing out to sea. “As we stand and look out, we have that constant memory of all that has taken place.”

The college is still named after the slave owner who bequeathed the property to the church in 1710, Christopher Codrington. But Clarke thinks it can still be a force for reparations.

“The motivation was greed, every aspect of it was about greed.”

In 2006, the Anglican Church apologised for its role in slavery. The tangled legacies of colonialism were brought home to Michael when he had to make the apology on behalf of the local diocese. “How do you, as the descendent of a slave, apologise to other descendants of slaves for enslaving them?” he says.

Last year the church offered another apology and promised a $190 million fund for communities affected by slavery. “The reality for me is that that pot of money is probably a nice first step,” says Clarke. “It is good to have the apology, but it’s almost, as we say in Barbados sometimes, too little, too late.”

Who should pay?

Comissiong doesn’t dismiss such gestures. “The Church of England came out and said, ‘We are guilty of a sin. And we have to atone for that sin’,” he says. “And that moral question is now being posed to the British government.”

Earlier this year in parliament, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak dismissed calls for reparations and an apology. But Comissiong insists that position is becoming “untenable”. “How can the British government be so out of step with the church, the families?” he says. “You have important British institutions like the Bank of England saying, yes, we were involved and we apologise.”

There are signs that the British royals might also be edging closer on the question of reparations. While the late Queen Elizabeth II stopped short of explicitly apologising for slavery, her son, King Charles III, has described it as an “appalling atrocity” and earlier this year commissioned a study into the monarchy’s links to slavery.

A statue of Bussa, who led a slave rebellion on the island in 1816, in Bridgetown.()

Some British families have voluntarily made reparations payments. In 2021, British philanthropist Bridget Freeman donated $780,000 to the University of the West Indies after discovering a family connection to slave owners in Barbados. Earlier this year, BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan, whose family had more than a thousand slaves in Grenada, paid back $972,000.

In those cases, Comissiong says, the families have freely admitted they “profited from crimes” and have offered to make amends. “Why doesn’t that logic and moral conscience apply to the Drax family?” he asks.

Barbados’ reparations task force has handed a report to the government recommending a formal reparations request be made to Richard Drax. “This was the slavery family in Barbados,” says Comissiong. “The role of that family goes right through the history of Barbados.”

Cane fields at the edge of the Drax Hall estate in Barbados.()
A home in one of the villages contained within the Drax Hall estate.()

Land in the villages contained within the Drax Hall estate was sold off decades ago to tenants who could prove a connection to the plantation. 

Foreign Correspondent: Matt Henry

In the 1980s, government legislation compelled the Drax family and many other plantation owners on the island to sell some of their land to former workers for below market rates. Some say it was a form of reparations. Richard Drax declined requests to speak to the ABC.

Comissiong says Drax Hall should be handed over to the government and turned into a slavery memorial. It should be a place where people can “feel a sense of communion with our ancestors,” he says. “This is a living artefact of our whole history of slavery.”

‘It’s my ancestors who built this’

Marshall is less keen on the idea. “There’s much to be said for private property being in the hands of private people,” he says, standing in the plantation yard at Drax Hall. “But at the same time, the movement of history today is for us to have control of our patrimony: fields, and hills, and houses, which have gone into making me what I am.”

The plantation “great house” towers over the yard. Dating to the 1650s, it’s thought to be the oldest Jacobean mansion in the western hemisphere, one of only three remaining in the Americas. In its heyday, it was “splendidly outfitted,” says Marshall, and functioned as “both a fortress and a dwelling place”.


Today it looks aged, grey and ghostly. It’s a marvel that it’s still at the heart of a working plantation over 350 years on, through slave revolts, rebellions and the end of British rule.

“For me, as the descendent of slaves, this always brings home to me what slavery was like,” says Marshall, looking up at the building. “It’s my ancestors who built this, who constructed it, who provided the labour.”

His resolve seems to harden. “The average Barbadian should be able to come in here and see the famous Drax Hall, that goes back to 1650,” he says. “The average Barbadian cannot come in here.”

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