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William Gladstone, Slavery and Reparatory Truth

Welcoming the Gladstone family in Guyana
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Written by John Powell

Though William Gladstone, the Victorian prime minister, never owned slaves, he has been blamed for the sins of his father, John Gladstone, who did. Attempts by Gladstone descendants to make reparations for their ancestors have met with criticism, not least from people in the West Indies. This essay reviews the movement for reparations and the writing of ‘reparatory history’, showing the flaws in both.

As history and activism have converged in recent years, the subject of slavery has become a touchstone for testing political morality in Britain, past and present. The impact of this new historical test has now worked its way through seven generations of Gladstones, mainly because of the prominence of four-time prime minister William Gladstone, who died in 1898. Though he never enslaved anyone, and often disagreed with his father who did, it was only a matter of time until his ‘links’ to slavery would ‘require’ further examination.[1] This interrogation was not required because of Gladstone’s proximity to a slave-holding father, which had always been well known, but rather because a new standard of evaluation was being imposed by activists a century after Gladstone’s death. In reparative, or reparatory history, events were to be judged by the standards of its practitioners and used for the purpose of decentring ‘whiteness’, especially white values and white power. In this field of study, reason, the written word, capitalism, Christianity, individualism, and liberalism were inherently suspect as agents of white power and oppression. Thus, in the prejudgements of this discipline, William Gladstone’s political and cultural achievements played as much a part as the Gladstone plantations in Demerara (Guyana) and Jamaica.

William Gladstone at Eton

William Gladstone at Eton

The first public effects of this new activist model emerged in 2017, when a poll of students on the Liverpool Student Guild website called for some action to highlight Gladstone’s ‘racially marred legacy’. On the basis of 60 ‘likes’, a study group was formed and a feature commissioned by the Guardian.[2] The murder of George Floyd in the United States in 2020 energized students and activists who knew little of Gladstone’s early life to demand removal of his statues, and the rechristening of buildings, parks and streets that had been named in his honour throughout the old British empire. Attempts by justice warriors to denigrate Gladstone’s legacy have lent a slightly comic air to an otherwise serious proceeding—urging the University of Liverpool to rename a residence hall for a long-time member of the Communist Party of Britain, and demanding removal of Gladstone’s statue from the grounds of his own library, along with an earnest reminder that the world cannot celebrate ‘a man known to [have] negatively impacted the BAME peoples in our community’.[3]

The swelling effects of this activist impulse were brought into sharp relief in August 2023 when Charlie Gladstone, great-great grandson of William Gladstone, travelled to Guyana with members of his family to apologize for the family’s involvement in slavery They wished to apologize personally for the deplorable behaviour of Gladstone’s father, and to donate £100,000 to support the University of Guyana’s International Centre for the Study of Migration and Diaspora, in keeping with the ideals of reparatory justice. Four related articles in the Observer of August 19 preceded the family trip, and these were soon followed by dozens of press notices and television reports from around the world. Charlie’s relation to William was routinely highlighted in the press, along with illustrations of the venerable old prime minister, thus implicating him in sins of his father.

Welcoming the Gladstone family in Guyana

Welcoming the Gladstone family in Guyana

The apology was not well received. On August 25, Charlie Gladstone addressed an assembly at the University of Guyana, acknowledging ‘with deep shame and regret’ his ‘ancestor’s involvement in this crime’ and apologising ‘with heartfelt sincerity’ to the ‘descendants of the enslaved in Guyana’.[4] The university’s vice-chancellor was gracious, but many in the audience and around the world were not satisfied. Yells of, ‘it is not accepted’ and ‘murderers’, were heard from the back of the crowd, as protesters waved placards reading, ‘Your guilt is real Charlie. Move quickly to reparations now’. The apology and gift were denounced as ‘perfunctory’, one commentator characterizing it as performance, merely ‘spit shining their halos’.[5] Others complained that the money should have been given to community organisers or reparations groups. The president of Guyana, Dr. Irfaan Ali, publicly declared that the descendants of John Gladstone “must now also outline their plan of action in line with’ the 15-member Caribbean community (CARICOM) ‘10-point plan for reparatory justice’, and he urged that those involved in the slave trade be ‘posthumously’ charged for ‘crimes against humanity’.[6] Patrick Robinson, Jamaica Member of the International Court of Justice, insisted that the United Kingdom could no longer ignore calls for slavery reparations, and insisted that the government move toward payment of more than £18 trillion in reparations to 14 counties.[7] Publicly the Government stood by its position, expressed during Prime Ministers questions in April in the wake of a similar apology by journalist Laura Trevelyan. When Rishi Sunak was then asked whether he would ‘offer a full and meaningful apology’ for Britain’s ‘role in slavery and colonialism and commit to reparatory justice’, he had declined, observing that the country should be ‘inclusive and tolerant of people from all backgrounds’, but that ‘trying to unpick our history’ was not ‘the right way forward’.

All the modern actors in this drama have plausible arguments to make. It seems laudable that Gladstone and his family wished to personally apologize to the people of Guyana, and to make an attempt at repairing the damaging effects of John Gladstone’s slaveholding.[8] It is understandable that the descendants of men and women once enslaved on John Gladstone’s plantations might be sceptical of apologies. It is equally clear that a significant number of Britons raised on the virtues of individualism and personal responsibility would reject the proposition that they are responsible for the slave trade or the ‘colonial mess’ in Caribbean countries, as the president of Guyana called it. While we debate the merits of our modern perspectives, however, it is the past that is being discounted at precisely the moment that its value should be at its highest. Reparatory history is not helping.

It has in the past been the job of historians to examine, know and understand the past, and to refine their judgments through disagreement and discourse with others similarly engaged. Reparatory history seeks something different, equating good history with contemporary social justice. Whether named or unnamed as such, the effects of its emphasis on decentring whiteness has impoverished our understanding of the past, and eroded the very notion of an informed imagining of oneself in another place or time. But for many of today’s historians of race and slavery, history is a tool for promotion, rather than a means of understanding. According to Jessica Marie Johnson, historian of Atlantic slavery and the Atlantic African diaspora at Johns Hopkins University, ‘history is actually about social justice. . . . and about how we are laying the foundation for a new generation of activists’.[9]

Reparatory history is rooted in the Critical Race Theory and critiques of White Supremacy Culture which emerged and were developed in the 1980s and 1990s. These critical legal and culture studies were more or less fully formed and ready for use in what started as a traditional bi-centennial commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007. Among the studies that emanated from this period was Nicholas Draper’s seminal The Price of Emancipation (2010), which for the first time systematically examined the records of the Commissioners of Slave Compensation and highlighted the extent to which wealth from slave-holding colonies in the Caribbean had infiltrated the financial and cultural life of Britain. Forty years earlier, however, all the most salient details related to John Gladstone’s slaveholding had been made widely available with the publication of Sydney Checkland’s family biography (1971).

The movement away from contextualization and understanding emerged in the 2010s as a product of two disparate projects, the academic Legacies of British Slave Ownership at the University of London (2009-2012) and the activist Black Lives Matter movement, formed in the United States in 2013 but widely internationalised following George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Draper’s detailed examination of compensation records formed the foundation of several related projects which aimed to ‘put slavery back into British history’.[10] He was co-founder of the initial project with Catherine Hall, and co-director of its successor, the Structure and Significance of British Caribbean Slave-ownership (2013-2015). These projects led to an important book, Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain, and the creation of a searchable database maintained by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) at the University of London, providing detailed information on enslavers and estates, related maps, and summaries of commercial, cultural, historical, imperial, physical and political legacies of slave ownership, which in turn informed dozens of more narrowly focused works, and provided fodder for the activist cause.

The largely traditional historical analyses of Draper and his early colleagues were gradually appropriated by activist scholars, the political left and a wide range of public figures to create an atmosphere particularly receptive to interpretations of British history that emphasised the destructive roles of racism, imperialism and capitalism– even where these were found within the anti-slavery movement itself. In 2012, Richard Huzzey could still argue that there was ‘no vindication for colonialism or racism in the truth that Victorian politics and culture were not fundamentally mercenary, conspiratorial, or amoral’.[11]  By 2020, however, even British hostility toward slavery had been routinely racialised and the lines between historical scholarship and activism further blurred. Abolition in 1834 was, in Padraic Scanlan’s Slave Empire, simply ‘the first breath of a new British world where white supremacy, framed as a benign, raceless ideal of human flourishing, justified new kinds of conquest and domination’.[12] Similarly, in an outstanding study of the anti-abolitionist interest in Britain during the 1820s and 1830s, Michael Taylor argued in the adjunctive preface and epilogue that those who were not active abolitionists were necessarily ‘pro-slavery’, implicating Gladstone as one of  ‘those people’ – ‘their money, their ideas, and their politics’, which ‘bequeathed the true and terrible legacies of British slavery’.[13]

The work of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery and recent studies such as those by Taylor and Scanlan illustrate the current historical challenge in examining the issue of slavery in nineteenth-century Britain. It is just possible to tell a story repugnant to contemporary morality, but difficult to do it without apology and at least a nominal identification with an activist agenda that has little regard for the past per se. And while the early works of Draper, Hall and others are essential for better understanding why a generally progressive society was politically divided over the issue of slavery, their historical work has been used, not for better understanding, but rather for promoting contemporary social goals.[14] Today the Centre is committed to ‘reparative history’, distancing themselves from any notion of ‘a disinterested examination of the past’. [15] Not only has this activist disregard for the past served as a template for the public discourse on race, slavery and reparations, its theoretical assertions have become required signalling for activists and organisations calling out the descendants of British slaveholders. The CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC), for instance, developed a ‘10-point Reparations Plan’ in 2013. By the time Charlie Gladstone apologised in Guyana ten years later, this had become the ‘10-point Plan for Reparatory Justice’, with new language calling for a ‘reparatory justice approach to truth’. The goals of acknowledging injustices and setting them right are admirable, but not exactly coterminous with the kind of professional history which seeks to understand the past on its own terms, and to make judgments about the past without primary reference to a future that could not have been known or comprehended. By the time Professor Matthew J. Smith assumed the Centre’s directorship in June 2020, this particular ‘approach to truth’ had widened its remit to include medical inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic and ‘the recent horrific murders of unarmed Black US citizens’ as part of the struggle to deal with ‘with the legacies of forced labour and abuses of Africans and their descendants’.[16] The increasingly close association of historical inquiry and activist intent has fostered an atmosphere in the academy in which the morality of the past is inherently suspect, and in which William Gladstone can be implicated, without serious inquiry, in ‘crimes against humanity’.[17] To the activist, and increasingly to a growing number of students and scholars, it is enough merely to assert ‘the fact’ that ‘we are all implicated in the legacy of slavery’, with no distinction between circumstantial association and moral responsibility. [18] No understanding needed.

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Dr. John Powell is Professor of History at Oklahoma Baptist University. He is currently at work on a biography of ‘Young Gladstone’.

 

[1] ‘The Slave Trade and the British Empire: An Audit of Commemoration in Wales’, Task and Finish Group Report and Audit, 26 November 2020, pp. 8-9. Also Stephen Mullen, ‘Glasgow, Slavery and Atlantic Commerce: An Audit of Connection and Modern Legacies’, March 2022, pp. 99, 107. These audits and recent attacks are almost invariably based on superficial and often erroneous readings of the evidence. For a full discussion of the distinctions between William Gladstone’s views on slavery and those of his father, see John Powell, ‘William Gladstone and The Question of Slavery, 1832-1833’, Journal of Liberal History 120 (Fall 2023), 8-31, 60.

[2] Frances Perraudin, “Liverpool student fights to remove Gladstone’s name from building,” The Guardian, 16 November 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/16/liverpool-university-student-william-gladstone-halls-of-residence.

[3] ‘Counter-petition to keep Gladstone statue and name’, BBC, 15 June 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-53050073.

[4] All references, unless otherwise noted, are from the widely disseminated Associated Press article by Bert Wilkinson, ‘Descendants of a British owner of slaves in Guyana apologize as Caribbean nation seeks reparations’, ABC News, 25 August 2023, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/descendants-british-owner-slaves-guyana-apologize-caribbean-seeks-102569708.

[5] On ‘spit shining their halos’, see Esther Krakue on Talk TV, 22 August 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIrFHoNJ92g&t=254s.

[6] “Family of former British PM apologises for links to slavery’, Al Jazeera, 27 August 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/8/27/family-of-former-british-pm-apologises-for-links-to-slavery.

[7] ‘Jamaicans call for Gladstone slavery reparations’, BBC News, 26 August 2023, https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/world/2023-08-26-jamaicans-call-for-gladstone-slavery-reparations/.

[8] Charlie McCann, ‘The Slavery heirs who went on an apology tour’, 1843 Magazine, https://www.economist.com/1843/2024/01/26/the-slavery-heirs-who-went-on-an-apology-tour.

[9] Julie Scharper, ‘Black Beyond Data’, Johns Hopkins University HUB, 2 June 2022, https://hub.jhu.edu/2022/06/02/black-beyond-data-jessica-marie-johnson/.

[10] Nicholas Draper, ‘The Fall of Slavery: statues, symbols and social contention‘, History and Policy, 10 June 2020, (https://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/rss).

[11] Richard Huzzey, Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (Cornell University Press, 2012), p. 212.

[12] Padraic X. Scanlan, Slave Empire: How Slavery Built Modern Britain (Robinson, 2020), p. 330.

[13] Michael Taylor, The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery (Vintage, 2020), p. 311. See pp. 248-9 for a more direct condemnation of Gladstone.

[14] Ryan Smith, ‘Why Black Twitter is ‘On Fire’ after Queen Elizabeth II’s Death’, Newsweek, 10 September 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/why-black-twitter-fire-after-queen-elizabeth-second-death-1741410; Call for submissions – Women in Power: Female Agency in the Nineteenth Century, The Victorianist: British Association for Victorian Studies Postgraduates, 26 January 2021, https://royalhistsoc.org/?s=women+in+power; Trushula Patel, ‘Two Separate Societies Divided by Color: Race Colonialism and Bridgerton’, Perspectives on History, 9 August 2022, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2022/two-separate-societies-divided-by-color-race-colonialism-and-embridgerton/em.

[15] ‘LBS, past and present’, 12 June 2020, LBS, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/project/lbspp1/. On reparative history, see Catherine Hall, ‘Doing Reparatory History: Bringing ‘race’ and slavery home‘, Race and Class 60/1 (2018): 3-21.

[16] Matthew Smith, ‘Looking Forward‘, LBS, 12 June 2020, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/project/lbspp2.

[17] See ‘Change proposed for Vancouver school named after U. K. Prime Minister with Links to Slavery‘, 11 June 2020, CBC, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/change-proposed-for-vancouver-school-named-after-u-k-prime-minister-with-links-to-slavery-1.5608483#:~:text=The%20Vancouver%20School%20Board%20told,the%20community%20and%20the%20school.%22.

[18] Trevor Burnard, ‘We must face up to the fact that we’re all implicated in the legacy of slavery’, Yorkshire Post, 12 April 2023, https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/opinion/columnists/we-must-face-up-to-the-fact-that-were-all-implicated-in-the-legacy-of-slavery-trevor-burnard-4099759.

 

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John Powell

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