Black History Month 2021

We Must Keep the Memory of British Chattel Slavery Alive

by Joyce Trotman

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Inspired by the sympathetic foreword written by H.R.H Prince of Wales to the book Lily’s Promise, I write in this October’s Black History Month in memory of (and on behalf of) all those survivors of British chattel slavery generally in the Caribbean, but also specifically in British Guiana (now Guyana), of my great grandmother, Seebucka Trotman, daughter of freed slaves, and my great-great-grandfather, freed slave, Ben Conwright. Ten years after slavery was abolished, Ben Conwright joined with about 40 other freed slaves, pooled their savings and bought the old Dutch plantation of Williamsburg on 5th May, 1848. They renamed it Golden Grove, the home of my Trotman forebears.

The following is Prince Charles’ observation on the German holocaust: “It was the greatest crime of man against man, during which humanity showed itself capable of incomparable inhumanity on an incomprehensible scale…” This could also be said about the British slave trade and the system of chattel slavery. In the case of the enslaved Africans, complete cancellation of identity: branded with hot irons as is done with cattle, with either the name or initials of the plantation proprietor, to confirm ownership (DY for those ‘owned’ by James Stuart, Duke of York, S for the Church of England absentee landlords of sugar-cane plantations in Barbados); African first names and surnames replaced by European ones; African religion replaced by the Christian religion under the scheme of Amelioration; deprived of native language with the necessity of creating a patois or a creolese; African women raped by white plantation owners (hence the mixed race Caribbean people with skin colours of various shades of brown, devoid of family life); labour on the sugar-cane plantations in inhuman conditions; brutal beatings, cruel forms of punishments; right of the plantation owner to commit murder with impunity. “… a permanent reminder of the depths to which humankind can sink and the evil it can impart on a fellow human being,

Observance of Commonwealth Day takes place on the second Monday in March each year. In attendance is the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth supported by the full panoply of the Church of England clergy. The High Commissioners of the countries that are members of the Commonwealth are welcomed into the Abbey holding high their colourful flags of independence. Historically, this represents the end of the process that began with free Africans captured in Africa, converted into human cargo, transported in inhuman conditions across the Atlantic to the Caribbean Islands and British Guiana, through the slave trade, chattel slavery, apprenticeship (the semi-state of slavery); then graduation to the condition of a colonist, still under the power of the British government; and ending with independence.

On this day it is never mentioned that it all began with the trade in humans starting under the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, and continuing under the Stuarts, the Hanoverians, and Victoria, but fortunately the Observance of Commonwealth Day and of October’s Black and White History Month both constitute the “recognition that the responsibility of memory is slowly but surely passing from survivors to our generation and to future generations yet unborn“.

Like Prince Charles “I have seen the impact of survivors’ words and their sheer presence have had on others, in schools, communities, and organisations across our country and around the world” – in the NHS, the Services, carnival, cuisine, music, colour, academia, art, sport, television, theatre, education; Sir Sridath Rampal, Beryl Answick-Gilroy, Sir Herman Ouseley, Baroness Amos, Frank Bowling RA, Alift Harewood MBE, Thelma Lewis MBE, Gafton Shepherd MBE, Norman Beaton, Sir Trevor MacDonald, Moira Stuart, Baroness Scotland, Rudolph Walker (all except for Sir Sridath with European surnames – and now you know why) are some of the names that come to mind. These and all the multitude of mixed-race British Caribbean people under the umbrella title of the Windrush Generation, physical reminders of British chattel slavery, have “rebuilt their lives in the United Kingdom after the Second World War and contributed enormously to the fabric of our nation.

During this Black and White/British and African History month, while the usual good wishes are sincerely exchanged, there are two elephants in the room: (1) the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act instituted under a Conservative government which by Act of Parliament with royal assent converted loyal Commonwealth citizens into foreigners deprived of the right to visit or to reside in this country built on the labours of their African ancestors under chattel slavery, described as cruel and racist by Hugh Gaitskell, the then leader of the Labour opposition. The pledge of Denis Healey, then Labour’s spokesperson on colonial issues, to repeal the Act if elected, was ignored. Harold Wilson upheld it: “We do not contest the need for control of immigration into this country”, he said.

(2) The betrayal of the Windrush Generation languishing in a hostile environment. There is a warm welcome for the people from Hong Kong and Afghanistan, refugees and migrants, to this country founded on the blood, sweat and tears of our African ancestors as they laboured on the various British owned sugar plantations in the Caribbean so that those in Great Britain could have a teaspoon of sugar to sweeten their tea.

“Nothing is possible without the facts”, Maria Ressa, the 2021 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize reminds us. In our case the facts are clear, the evidence is obvious, no time for selective amnesia. The facts tell us that our joint history is connected with the production of sugar, now patented as Demerara sugar. If we are talking colour, black history and white history meet in a packet of brown Demerara sugar. As members of a common heritage, I think the time has come for us to meet and find a way to live together in harmony as we “recommit ourselves to the beliefs of tolerance and respect, and the central idea… that we are all, irrespective of race, colour, class or creed, created in the image of God“.

October, 2021.

Joyce Trotman is the author of Thomas Clarkson: My Saint (2014), and a member of Croydon Quaker Meeting.