Talking reparation with Charles Gladstone

The following article originally appeared in The Gleaner on October 1, 2023 as part of a series called “Reparation Conversations.”

Professor Verene Shepherd and Charles Gladstone

On September 15, Professor Verene Shepherd (VS) had a frank e-conversation with Charles Gladstone (CG), the great, great-grandson of the youngest child of enslaver John Gladstone, father of a 19th-century British prime minister, William Gladstone. John Gladstone enslaved around 2,508 Africans on plantations in Jamaica and Guyana and collected compensation at Emancipation estimated by some at £83 million today.

VS: Thank you, Mr Gladstone, for agreeing to talk with me about what we could call “uncomfortable truths”.

CG: Well, thank you, Professor. It’s a real honour to be speaking with you.

VS: Recently, you were in the news because you owned up to your family’s connection to chattel enslavement of Africans in Guyana, travelled there with others, issued an apology, and committed funds. Tell me about that connection and how long ago you knew about this.

CG: My ancestor, John Gladstone, held people in slavery in Guyana and Jamaica and on Emancipation he received a vast compensation payment. I had absolutely no idea about this until around the time of George Floyd’s murder [in 2020], and then the subsequent toppling of [Edward] Colston’s statue into the Bristol harbour in the UK. I don’t know, and I will never know, whether my parents and grandparents knew this history and covered it up; or whether it was simply something that just wasn’t known. I believe that it was part of a wider British and Government conspiracy not to talk about this shameful piece of our past. When I discovered [the connection] it took me terribly by surprise.

VS: Where did you find the historical details?

CG: The reason I really managed to find information was due to the amazing work at UCL. I contacted Professor Mathew Smith, who at that point was about to take on that department. He had not even yet left home [in Jamaica] to come to London; but I reached out about funding the programme there on a five-year guaranteed basis. But it’ll go on for longer. I fund some of his research students, because that felt to me like a way to do some good. I’m a huge believer in education, [despite] the British attitude to education around this appalling period; so that seemed to me to be a good starting point and allowed me to actually put my head up above the par and say, “I fully acknowledge this shameful crime against humanity that my family and my country are involved in, and I would like [UCL] to uncover more”.

VS: What took so long then for you to turn your gaze to the Caribbean?

CG: The answer is, Professor, it’s really opportunity, and I’ll explain how that opportunity came about. I mean, it’s very hard to know what to do for someone such as me when there’s absolutely no precedent, and you have no guiding light in society. Initially, I contacted UCL. Then I was lucky enough in late April 2023 to be invited by Alex Renton and Laura Trevelyan to join their group, the heirs and heiresses of slavery that was about to be launched. I said, “this is exactly what I have been looking for!” Also, Eric Phillips of Guyana, who Laura had met in Baltimore, invited me to come out for the 200th anniversary of the Demerara uprising. Later I met the Vice Chancellor of UG who was opening the new Department of Migration Diaspora Studies. We started planning the trip in early May. Our aim was to do something as quickly as we could, for I profoundly believe that slavery was a crime against humanity.

VS: So, summarise what happened in Guyana.

CG: On the visit to Guyana I was accompanied by my wife, brother, my nephew (sister’s son), one of my daughters and one of my sons; just our branch of the family. We were welcomed, and it was a joyful occasion. We fell in love with the country. It was a life-changing experience for us – in a positive way. We spent three intense days. We offered a formal apology, met with the prime minister and appeared on the Reparations TV Show.

My children and nephew spoke at the University and on the TV. We attended an extraordinary cultural event, had lunch in Buxton and went to the most moving ceremony I’ve ever been, where the ancestors were asked to accept our apology. We went to church in the John Smith Chapel and also visited an exhibition about the uprising.

We had about four or five events every day, all organised by Eric Phillips and others. We created an international stir in the media also. If our aim as a family and a group is to raise consciousness on reparation, which is that the 10 Point Plan needs to be adopted by European governments, then the trip probably couldn’t have been more efficient. The legacy that my family and I can leave here is one of a relationship between the younger generation and Guyana and I hope, Jamaica.

VS: What was the feedback in the UK?

CG: I make the distinction between the Twitterati in Britain, you know the right wing, TV shows and papers and all the rest of it who, for whatever reason, don’t like what we are doing in the Caribbean; but other media did good coverage.

VS: I don’t think I heard you talk much about Jamaica; but John Gladstone owned properties in Jamaica, including Oxford estate in my own parish of Saint Mary.

CG: I had to start somewhere. Guyana was at very short notice. I felt that doing it all in one go with Guyana would be disrespectful of Jamaica, which is a country that I’ve been to, and I like very, very much. We can now have a conversation, with Jamaica.

VS: Well, you should contact Minister Olivia Grange, who has portfolio responsibility for reparation; and Laleta Davis Mattis, the chair of the National Council on Reparation.

CG: My plan is to try to be useful to members of the Reparations Committees, in whatever way I can. I definitely wish to make an apology to Jamaica. I’d come tomorrow if it were useful; but I want to have actually meaningful conversations about how we might do useful things together to ensure that it isn’t just ‘Oh, well, there that family goes, and they’re making another [apology]’.


We continue in the next edition Reparation Conversations. 

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