Jamaica Eyes Slavery Reparations from UK MP Plantation Owner

RICHARD DRAX
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Jamaica is considering whether to seek compensation from a wealthy UK Conservative MP for his family’s historical role in slavery.

Richard Drax’s ancestors were pioneers of the sugar and slave trades in the Caribbean about 400 years ago.

The MP is facing demands to pay Barbados for harm caused by slavery at an estate he inherited in the country.

Now Jamaica’s National Council on Reparations is also examining the case for pressing Mr Drax for damages.

Mr Drax said he did not wish to comment on the reparations claims.

The case came to the attention of the Jamaican council after British newspaper reports suggested the government of Barbados was planning to demand reparations from Mr Drax.

It is thought to be the first time a government has urged a family to pay compensation for the role of their forebears in the slave trade.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, millions of Africans were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic by Europeans and Americans as a labour force to work, especially on plantations.

Members of the Drax family were among the earliest English colonists to establish sugar plantations built on slave labour in Barbados and Jamaica in the Caribbean.

A member of the Drax family received compensation when the slave trade was abolished by the British Parliament in 1833. Records show John Sawbridge Erle-Drax was awarded £4,293 12s 6d – worth £3m today – for 189 slaves.

Mr 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”.

The 617-acre Drax Hall plantation in Barbados was passed down the family line until the MP inherited the estate, where sugar cane is still grown, from his father in 2017.

For years, reparations campaigners have been calling on Mr Drax to donate the property to Barbadians, but he has not done so.

The BBC has been told the South Dorset MP recently visited Barbados, where he had a meeting with its prime minister, Mia Mottley.

Jamaica’s reparations case

A different branch of the Drax family founded a plantation in Jamaica in the 17th century. William Drax established the estate but it was later sold to different owners.

Men and women “were brutalised in Jamaica” under the Drax name, said Verene Shepherd, director of the Centre for Reparation Research at The University of the West Indies.

The professor of social history said families who can trace their inheritance to slavery should be held accountable, “whether they want to say they’re responsible or not”.

She said “insofar as [Richard Drax’s] lineage is connected to William Drax” and “inheritance was passed down along the line – whether from Jamaica or Barbados – then I think we should also join Barbados in pressing a case for reparations”.

She said the National Council on Reparations investigate “where that money from Jamaica went”.

Verene ShepherdImage source, Getty Image
Verene Shepherd says men and women “were brutalised in Jamaica” under the Drax name

The council examines the past injustices suffered by victims of slavery and advises the Jamaican government on what form compensation should take.

Its chairwoman, Laleta Davis-Mattis, said she would convene a meeting to discuss the case for claiming reparations from Mr Drax.

She said the council needed to review the link between Mr Drax’s family and slavery in Jamaica “to make a substantive judgement and recommendation”.

‘High hurdle’

Matthew Parker, who researched the family’s history for his book, The Sugar Barons, said there was an ancestral connection between Richard Drax and the Drax plantation owners in Jamaica.

The author said there was a debate about the legitimacy of reparations claims over injustices suffered centuries ago.

“The extreme example is: shouldn’t the Italians be paying [the UK] for the Roman invasion?” he said.

Mr Parker said targeting individuals for reparations was a departure from the approach up until now, which has been to put claims to governments.

Caribbean countries have sought slavery reparations from European governments for several years with limited success. Descendants of slaves have also brought lawsuits against companies for their involvement in the trade, with few wins.

The case against Mr Drax is undoubtedly a tough one, said Martyn Day, the founder of law firm Leigh Day.

In 2012, Mr Day won compensation for hundreds of Kenyans tortured by the British colonial government in the 1950s.

“That was a tough case but we won it,” he said. “It’s a high hurdle to get any case going which is hundreds of years old.”

He said any serious case would have to establish that Mr Drax had benefited from the assets and wealth his forefathers had gained in the slave trade.

Mr Day said the most likely route to win compensation would be in a British court.

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