Guardian Newspaper Owner Apologises for Founders’ Links to Transatlantic Slavery

Photo: Tumblr. The Morant Bay rebellion of 1865 was one of the bloodiest events in the fight for civil rights in Jamaica after slavery ended in 1833.
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Community affairs correspondent

The owner of the Guardian has issued an apology for the role the newspaper’s founders had in transatlantic slavery and announced a decade-long programme of restorative justice.

The Scott Trust said it expected to invest more than £10m (US$12.3m, A$18.4m), with millions dedicated specifically to descendant communities linked to the Guardian’s 19th-century founders.

It follows independent academic research commissioned in 2020 to investigate whether there was any historical connection between chattel slavery and John Edward Taylor, the journalist and cotton merchant who founded the newspaper in 1821, and the other Manchester businessmen who funded its creation.

The Scott Trust Legacies of Enslavement report, published on Tuesday, revealed that Taylor, and at least nine of his 11 backers, had links to slavery, principally through the textile industry. Taylor had multiple links through partnerships in the cotton manufacturing firm Oakden & Taylor, and the cotton merchant company Shuttleworth, Taylor & Co, which imported vast amounts of raw cotton produced by enslaved people in the Americas.

Researchers from the universities of Nottingham and Hull were able to identify Taylor’s links to plantations in the Sea Islands, along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, after reviewing an invoice book showing that Shuttleworth, Taylor & Co received cotton from the region, which included the initials and names of plantation owners and enslavers.

Another of the Guardian’s early financiers, the West India merchant Sir George Philips, co-owned the Success sugar plantation in Hanover, Jamaica.

He unsuccessfully attempted to claim compensation from the British government in 1835 for what he regarded as the loss of his human property, which was 108 people. His partner, however, successfully claimed £1,904 19s 10d in compensation, which, according to the most conservative estimate, is worth approximately £200,000 today.

Alongside an apology “to the affected communities identified in the research and surviving descendants of the enslaved for the part the Guardian and its founders had in this crime against humanity”, the trust also apologised for early editorial positions that served to support the cotton industry, and therefore the exploitation of enslaved people.

The restorative justice fund will support projects in the Gullah Geechee region and Jamaica over the next decade after consultation with reparations experts and community groups. The Scott Trust will appoint a programme director and is establishing an advisory panel to guide and review the work. The Scott Trust said a precise figure and allocation of funds would be reported in the next 12 months.

The rest of the wide programme of measures covers four areas: raising awareness of transatlantic slavery and its legacies through partnerships in Manchester and globally; media diversity; further academic research, and increasing the scope and ambition of the Guardian’s reporting.

The Guardian announced it would expand its reporting of Black communities in the UK, US, the Caribbean, South America and Africa, with plans to create 12 new Guardian journalism roles and launch new editorial formats to better serve Black audiences.

The Scott Trust will also fund a new global fellowship programme for mid-career Black journalists and expand the Guardian Foundation’s training bursary scheme.

The Scott Trust bursary currently funds three masters courses and three paid training placements each year for aspiring journalists in the UK from underrepresented backgrounds. The scheme will be expanded to increase the number of places available to Black prospective journalists in the UK, and extended to the Guardian’s offices in the US and Australia.

The academic research was conducted in three stages, first by Dr Sheryllynne Haggerty and Dr Cassandra Gooptar of the University of Nottingham’s Institute for the Study of Slavery, and later by Gooptar and Prof Trevor Burnard of the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation. The Scott Trust has also committed to continuing to fund research through a three-year partnership with the Wilberforce Institute.

The first two tranches of research pinpointed Taylor’s business investments and partnerships, and the 11 men who lent him £100 each to found the Manchester Guardian. Researchers were unable to identify the interests of two of the 11 backers within the timeframe; the remaining nine had links to enslavement through the cotton and textiles trades.

The third stage, completed in summer 2022, focused on identifying some of the enslaved people connected to the Guardian funders.

They include Toby, 90, Clarinda, 50, Billy, 36, and seven-year-old Nancy, who were enslaved on the Spanish Wells plantation on Hilton Head Island in the US in 1862. Researchers also found the names of people forced to work on a plantation in Charleston district in South Carolina, who included Billy, Simon, Amy and Polly. As was common, only their first name was recorded, and in this case there was no data on how old they were or any other information.

The record of enslaved people on the Success plantation in Jamaica had slightly more information. In 1817, this included 50-year-old Archy Gordon, who was noted as blind and James Maxfield, 25, who was recorded as the son of 60-year-old Ann Mowatt. The records included those who were described as “apprehended deserters”, including 16-year-old Sam or Samuel Kerr, who in an advertisement in the Royal Gazette of Jamaica was described as “a Creole boy, 5 feet 3 inches”.

Researchers managed to extract an extraordinary level of detail about some of those who were enslaved on plantations connected to the Guardian’s founders.

Granville, who was enslaved on the Success plantation, was a freedom fighter who was persecuted for his involvement in Jamaica’s Baptist war in 1831-32. He was one of 60,000 enslaved Jamaicans to take part in the uprising.

Also known as the Christmas rebellion, it was one of the largest by enslaved people in the West Indies and played an important role in the abolition of British slavery.

Ole Jacob Sunde, the chair of the Scott Trust, said: “The Scott Trust is deeply sorry for the role John Edward Taylor and his backers played in the cotton trade. We recognise that apologising and sharing these facts transparently is only the first step in addressing the Guardian’s historical links to slavery.

“In response to the findings, the Scott Trust is committing to fund a restorative justice programme over the next decade, which will be designed and carried out in consultation with local and national communities in the US, Jamaica, the UK and elsewhere, centred on long-term initiatives and meaningful impact.”

In an article published on Tuesday, Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media, writes: “We are facing up to, and apologising for, the fact that our founder and those who funded him drew their wealth from a practice that was a crime against humanity.

“As we enter our third century as a news organisation, this awful history must reinforce our determination to use our journalism to expose racism, injustice and inequality, and to hold the powerful to account.”

The Guardian has also launched Cotton Capital, a continuing series of journalism exploring the history of transatlantic slavery and its legacies.

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