When Laura Trevelyan, a longtime anchor and correspondent with the BBC, began reckoning with her own family history, she was shocked. "It seems pretty extraordinary that my ancestors enslaved Africans on the Caribbean island of Grenada," she says. She adds that even after slavery was abolished by the British parliament, none of the families of the enslaved received reparations — including the families of more than a thousand Africans who were enslaved by her ancestors across six plantations on Grenada.

To try to make amends, Trevelyan has founded a new reparations effort. She linked up with David Lascelles, who is a second cousin of King Charles III and heir to an estate built on earnings from the slave and sugar trades on the island of Barbados.

They co-founded a group called Heirs of Slavery, which encourages wealthy British families who profited from past enslavement to make formal apologies and seek reparative justice in the former Caribbean colonies.

The British Empire traded an estimated 3.1 million Africans to the Caribbean, North and South America and elsewhere across a period of 150 years. The slave trade was abolished by Britain's parliament in 1807. An act of emancipation was passed in 1833. But Trevelyan says it wasn't until 2016 when University College London published an online database of compensation that she discovered a startling injustice.

Enslavement, abolition and compensation

"It wasn't the enslaved who received compensation. It was the slave owners who were paid because that was the only way that abolition could get through Britain's parliament," Trevelyan tells NPR's Michel Martin. "What was already a horrific situation was then made even more unfair."

Trevelyan and Lascelles say they learned their ancestors earned the equivalent of millions of dollars in compensation when slavery was abolished. Trevelyan has donated a portion of her BBC pension to reparations and, in February, she and other family members traveled to Grenada to make a formal apology.

Lascelles, who is a descendant of George V and a family that built Yorkshire's Harewood House, tells Morning Edition he discovered much of his ancestors' history through boxes of archival papers related to businesses in the former British West Indies and stored on his family's estate.

"They were in very, very fragile condition. They were in boxes that [were] shoved behind a boiler in the basement of the house. But clearly, once it was out in the open, I've made it very clear that it was something we had to address and speak openly about," Lascelles says.

Lobbying the royal family

Trevelyan says she and other members of wealthy British families want to set an example through "coalition building." And they're asking King Charles to join them. Although Lascelles says he and the king don't have a personal relationship, he predicts Charles is likely to be open about the royal family's own discoveries.

"They are researching their own history and they are talking openly about that and even given a timescale and when the kind of fruits of that research will happen," Lascelles says.

The group is also calling on the British government to engage with CARICOM, the Caribbean governments reparations commission, which asks the former colonial powers for debt relief and for investment in health and education.

"These are areas where the Caribbean was left with nothing when emancipation happened and slavery ended," Trevelyan says.

Trevelyan points to a "long overdue reckoning" with reparations funds established by entities from the Dutch government to the Church of England. Although most people in the U.S. oppose reparations, Trevelyan hopes it will be different in Europe.

"It's ugly and it's difficult," says Trevelyan. "But it's important to talk about how the present is defined by the past. And acknowledgement is hopefully the beginning of healing."

"It's about responsibility in the end, isn't it?" Lascelles says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



What if you found out that your ancestors enslaved hundreds of people, even a thousand people, and that's the source of your family's wealth and status today? That's the experience of our next two guests. But unlike some who have chosen to deny or ignore such knowledge, they have decided to embrace it. Laura Trevelyan is a former longtime broadcaster with the BBC. David Lascelles is a second cousin of King Charles. They are two of the people who have started a group called Heirs of Slavery. It's comprised of people whose ancestors supported and profited from the transatlantic slave trade. They joined us to talk about their family histories and their effort to make amends.

LAURA TREVELYAN: It seems pretty extraordinary - doesn't it? - that my ancestors enslaved Africans on the Caribbean island of Grenada, and when slavery was abolished by Britain's Parliament in 1833, in 1834, it wasn't the enslaved who received compensation; it was the slave owners who were paid because that was the only way that abolition could get through Britain's Parliament. So what was already a horrific situation was then made even more unfair. And I discovered this soon after University College London published the database of the compensation that was paid to Britain's slave owners.

MARTIN: David, same for you - did you hear about this through this database?

DAVID LASCELLES: No, we've known about this history for a little while. We unearthed in the basement here of Harewood House some boxes of archives detailing the Lascelles' family business in the West Indies at that time. Obviously, the broad strokes were known. I know how I received it, which was that clearly, something - on the back of it, something had to be done. And the first thing that had to be done was that that research, those papers, needed to be shared.

MARTIN: As I recall, your family got about - what? - 26,000 pounds in 1835? What would that be today?

LASCELLES: Upwards of 2 million pounds - something like that.

MARTIN: Laura, by the time you learned of this - I think that was in 2016 - you had already written a book about your family, but this chapter was not in it. And I'm just wondering why you think that is, that why this was not history that you'd been acquainted with, didn't even really know that this was part of your family's story? Why do you think that is?

TREVELYAN: Yeah. And I was embarrassed by that in 2016, especially someone, you know, who purported to be a family historian and had written a book. But clearly, in Britain, you know, there's a habit of just sweeping the whole history of Britain's role in slavery under the rug. And quite clearly, that's what had happened with my family.

MARTIN: Laura, you've worked in both the U.K. and the U.S. How did the idea of reparations come to you?

TREVELYAN: Well, it came because I went to Grenada to make a BBC documentary, and I met the chair and the vice chair of Grenada's National Reparations Committee - respectively, Ollie Gill and Nicole Philip-Dowe - and I talked to them about this horrible history of my ancestors from the sugar trade. So I just posed the question, you know, what do you think I should do? What do you think the responsibility of our family is? And they both replied in the same way, which is that, you know, on our side of the ledger is a legacy of wealth extraction, poverty, and on your side of the ledger is wealth and privilege.

And so in discussing the issue with the wider family, people felt that an apology was important and necessary and would set an example and would be part of the healing, and education would be an important thing to fund. So I'm giving 100,000 pounds to bursaries for university students in Grenada and also money to help rural school children with the cost of getting to school and with school supplies in Grenada.

MARTIN: What about the question of guilt? Do you feel guilty?

TREVELYAN: No, I don't personally feel guilty 'cause it wasn't me, but I do feel ashamed of what my ancestors did. I'm ashamed that they were absentee slave owners sitting in Britain, sipping their tea, no doubt putting sugar into it as people did them, which was what drove the whole trade in sugar, and profiting from what was happening thousands of miles away. But I do think that if your position in the world today derives in some way from the profit that your ancestors made from slavery, then yes, you have a responsibility to confront that. And I think it's more about a duty to try to do the right thing.

MARTIN: David, what about you?

LASCELLES: It's about accountability in the end, isn't it? I mean, I agree completely with what Laura is saying. I don't feel personally guilty. I mean, many people were made directly rich by it, like my family, like Laura's family, like the families of the other people involved in our group. But the whole country benefited from it. It's a national issue. You know, so I think we as individuals are accountable for trying to do something about it in their own way and also trying to get more people talking about it.

MARTIN: David, you're a cousin to the king. Are you trying to get the Windsors involved? What's your sense of their understanding of this issue?

LASCELLES: I have no insight into that, really. Having (ph) related, I'm certainly - would never make myself out to be a spokesman for the royal family. I've met Charles, King Charles, on several occasions, but we don't have a personal relationship. So I don't have any way of influencing what they do or what they don't do.

MARTIN: Why not? You are part of this group. They certainly, as a family, have benefited from slavery, as you mentioned, just like all the other people who have historical wealth. You don't feel it's your place to say what they should do, as a citizen?

LASCELLES: No, I don't think - I don't see myself being in a position of telling anybody else what to do. I think you can tell people what we've done and why we've done it and how we've done it and what the outcomes of that have been.

MARTIN: All right. Fair enough. So, Laura, before we let you go, I did want to get your insights into how you think this discussion, this debate is playing out on both sides of the Atlantic. Your experience in the U.S. is - a lot of it just isn't talked about. In the United States, there seems to be - it's talked about but often with a sense of fury. How do you understand that?

TREVELYAN: So you have a long-overdue reckoning that's happening in Britain, which is definitely accelerated by the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd. And then here in the United States, a debate which has been going on forever because, whereas in Britain, you know, enslavement was largely - was offshore in the Caribbean. Here in the U.S., it was here in people's homes and out there on the cotton fields. And so we hope that now, you know, 190 years after the abolition of slavery, that Britain's government can begin to negotiate with Caribbean governments to try to repair the damage.

MARTIN: We've been speaking with Laura Trevelyan and David Lascelles. They are both members of a group called Heirs of Slavery.

Thank you both so much for talking to us.

LASCELLES: Thank you, Michel.

TREVELYAN: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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