Charlie Gladstone: Rishi Sunak is completely wrong on slavery

Charlie Gladstone, the great-great-grandson of William GladstoneUniversity of Guyana

Until recently, Charlie Gladstone had no idea what do about his family’s dark history.

At first, the shocking discovery of his great-great-great grandfather’s involvement in slavery did not go beyond private disgust – until a unique opportunity presented itself.

He was invited to join a group of slaver descendants confronting the past and through them, forged relationships in the country where Africans were once owned by his ancestor.

That ancestor, John Gladstone, was the father of 19th Century Prime Minister William Gladstone and one of the largest slave owners in the British West Indies.

John Gladstone owned or held mortgages over 2,508 enslaved Africans in Guyana and Jamaica in the 19th Century, and was paid more than £100,000 in compensation after the British Parliament passed a law to abolish slavery in most British colonies in 1833.

Last month, more than 170 years on from John Gladstone’s death, a distant relative decided it was time to make amends.

“My impression of being a descendent of John Gladstone is being profoundly ashamed of it,” Charlie Gladstone told the BBC. “I wish it wasn’t the case. I think he was a vile, greedy, unpleasant man.”

Charlie Gladstone visited Guyana to apologise to the descendants of the enslaved in the country and condemn slavery as a “crime against humanity”.

“It was really the opportunity to make a difference that was presented to me in a way that I didn’t understand six or eight months ago,” he said.

Slavery’s legacies

Despite the critics, including protesters who interrupted his apology ceremony, Charlie Gladstone described the trip as a transformative experience that has won him over to the burgeoning reparations movement.

Reparations can take many forms, such as an apology and sometimes compensation for something that was deemed wrong or unfair. Caribbean nations have long been urging European governments to engage with their 10-point reparations plan to atone for their role in the transatlantic slave trade.

But their proposals had gained little traction in European countries, until recent protests over racial injustices brought slavery’s consequences into sharper focus.

Last year, the Dutch government apologised for its role in the transatlantic slave trade and pledged millions of euros to slavery awareness projects. Another significant moment was the Trevelyan family’s apology and offer of reparations to Grenada earlier this year.

Now his family have apologised and started setting up a charity in Guyana, Charlie Gladstone wants to keep the momentum going.

The business entrepreneur is calling on the British government to formally apologise for its part in slavery and commit to reparations.

William Gladstone

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

British authorities and the Monarchy were participants in the slave trade, which saw millions of Africans enslaved and forced to work, especially on plantations in the Caribbean, between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Britain also passed crucial laws to abolish the slave trade in 1807, and then slavery in most parts of the British Empire in 1833.

But to this day, the British government has never formally apologised for slavery or offered to pay reparations.

That does not seem likely to change under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Earlier this year, he refused to apologise and said “trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward”.

For Charlie Gladstone, the prime minister missed the point.

“I think the prime minister is completely wrong, in that we’re not unpicking history, we’re unpicking the present,” he said. “Socio-economic injustices and racism still exist as a result of slavery.”

He accused some media commentators of waging a “culture war” by framing slavery reparations as a punitive “fine”.

“But in reality, it is a request for highly targeted and sensible overseas aid to help with education, healthcare and with many of the legacies left by slavery.”

He said the UK can only start to address those legacies by emulating the Netherlands.

But in the growing national debate about slavery, his view is not universally shared, with critics questioning the legitimacy of reparations claims over injustices suffered centuries ago.

The BBC has been told the government has no plans to pay reparations. Instead, it intends to continue making aid donations to Caribbean nations, building on the billions it says it has invested in the region since independence.

A government spokesperson said: “We acknowledge the role Britain played centuries ago in enabling the horrific slave trade, whilst also noting that Britain led the world in ending it.

“We believe the most effective way for the UK to respond to the wrongs of the past is to ensure that current and future generations learn the lessons from history, and that we continue to work together to tackle today’s challenges.”

Painful past

Following his family’s apology, Charlie Gladstone has discovered a newfound clarity.

“I see my main role as raising consciousness and also showing other descendants that they can do it without fear and it’s something on the whole that’s a positive thing,” he said.

The debate about reparations is nuanced, though, and other descendants of slave owners have different perspectives.

For example, Conservative MP Richard Drax has previously said his family’s slave-trading past was “deeply, deeply regrettable”, but “no one can be held responsible today for what happened many hundreds of years ago”.

Charlie Gladstone said he understood “why descendants still fear because it is a frightening thing to discover your past”.

Even so, “you can’t deny your past,” he said.

“Otherwise, we’re essentially shutting down history and matters of fact,” he added.

Having been in contact with more than 100 descendants of slave owners, Charlie Gladstone is willing to help others come to terms with the ugly inheritance imposed of them by accident of birth.

The first step, he said, is accepting their part in that awful legacy.

“I believe those who do will be judged by history as having done the right thing.”

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