UG insisted on hosting descendants of British slave owner’s descendants’ apology for slavery, indentureship on campus

Last Updated on Saturday, 26 August 2023, 0:36 by Denis Chabrol

Charles Gladstone

The descendants of a British slave owner on Friday came to Guyana and offered their “sincerest apologies” for the role he played in enslaving Africans on sugar and coffee plantations in Demerara, but this significant national event failed to attract top cabinet officials in person.

“Slavery was a crime against humanity and its damaging impact continues to be felt across the world today. It is with deep shame and regret that we acknowledge our ancestor’s involvement in this crime and with heartfelt sincerity that we apologise to the descendants of the enslaved in Guyana,” Charles Gladstone said at the launch of the University of Guyana’s International Centre for the Study of Migration and Diaspora.

Charles Gladstone’s great great grandfather, John Gladstone, had owned slaves in Demerara where many of them had staged a freedom revolt in 1823. In retaliation, John Gladstone, who had never visited Guyana, had ordered that those slaves be beheaded, and their heads planted on poles along the way as a means of deterring others not to engage in resistance.

The Gladstones also apologised for their role in indentureship as John was believed to be the owner of two ships that had transported East Indians from India to work as indentured labourers after slavery was abolished. “In writing this heartfelt apology we also acknowledge Sir John Gladstone’s role in bringing indentured labourers to Guyana and apologise for the clear and manifold injustices of this,” he said. While University of Guyana Vice Chancellor, Professor Paloma Mohamed-Martin said assured that adding indentured labourers was not aimed at reducing the significant impact of slavery. “In including our Indian brothers and sisters in this moment, we are not in any way shape or form trying to diminish the heavy burden and all of the things that our African brothers and sisters and our ancestors endured,” she said.

The Vice Chancellor, in her remarks, underscored the national significance of the unprecedented apology to Guyana for slavery, “very significant, the first apology to Guyana that we will receive for slavery and indenture”, Thursday’s event appeared to have been deliberately ignored by the entire Cabinet as no government minister was in attendance.

Well-placed sources told Demerara Waves Online News that the government had insisted that the apology be issued at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre, Liliendaal, East Coast Demerara rather than at the University of Guyana (UG).

Professor Mohamed-Martin did not hide UG’s preference for the Turkeyen Campus as tertiary institutions provide opportunities to understand and illuminate dark and hidden places. “This is the reason why this event had to to take place in this place because it is the role and right of universities and the mandate and responsibility of universities to do exactly what we are trying to do which is to open up spaces fore dialogue, for healing, for understand and for recording what we know and what we wish to know,” she said.

One day ahead of the apology, President Irfaan Ali issued a statement on a Facebook Live calling for reparations and saying that John Gladstone should be charged posthumously with murder. While the event was underway at UG, Dr Ali and Prime Minister Mark Phillips were at the renaming ceremony for the National Intelligence Security Agency’s (NISA) building in honour of late Defence Board Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon. Dr Ali and Minister of Education Priya Manickchand were listed to speak at launch of UG’s Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies, both subject to confirmation. Head of Diaspora Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Rosalinda Rasul was the only government official who delivered remarks at the event, though virtually.

Charles and the five other apologists promised to support the work of the new university department. He also announced that as a wider family, they would be creating a financial fund to assist various projects in Guyana, subject to discussions about the use of the money with the Guyana Reparations Committee and the International Centre for the Study of Migration and the Diaspora. ‘Our aim is to create meaningful and long-term relationships between our family and the people of Guyana,” he said.
The Gladstones said their apology was an acknowledgement of slavery’s continuing impact on the daily lives of many. While acknowledging that they could not change history, the Gladstones believed that could impact the world positively and use the apology for the actions of their ancestors as a launchpad towards a better future. The Gladstones said they support CARICOM’s call for relief such as debt cancellation, repatriation for those who would like to return to their motherland, technology transfer, psychological rehabilitation, combating non-communicable diseases, eradication of illiteracy, rehabilitation of indigenous peoples and a full formal apology.  “We support CARICOM’s Ten Point Justice Plan and urge the British government to enter into meaningful discussions with CARICOM so that both parties can move towards a better future together. We also urge other descendants of those who benefited from slavery to open conversations about their ancestors’ crimes and what they might be able to do to build a better future,” said Charles in his statement.
Already, the Gladstones say they have been partly funding the work of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London for the past two years and have committed to this for five years. They are also funding other British cultural projects that seek to highlight the horrors faced by enslaved people and to educate British people about these crimes against humanity.
Member of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, Eric Phillips , said the United States-headquartered consultancy company, the Brattle Group, developed an assessment of the financial reparations which showed the Dutch for example, in this report, owe the descendants of Africans in Guyana, over US$40 billion dollars and the British over US$1.2 trillion dollars.
Gladstone said he could not comment adequately about the monetary debt to descendants of African slaves. “I don’t have a thought about it. I don’t know anything about the quantum, the amount but I think what we have to try to do is to remove the fear and aggression from the conversation and then I think the governments of Europe and the people of Europe. I think they are frightened of the amount, would be my take on that,” he said, adding that the UK might be afraid to apologise because of what it might actually mean.
Phillips said Guyana’s non-governmental African Cultural and Development Association (ACDA) would on Saturday hold a special ceremony “to ask our ancestors to accept the apology of the Gladstones and to provide forgiveness as this is normally done in a spiritual manner in African culture.”