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British aristocrats ask King Charles to join a slavery reparations movement

On Feb, 27, Laura Trevelyan and members of her family traveled to Grenada to issue a formal apology.
courtesy of The University of the West Indies
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Laura Trevelyan
On Feb, 27, Laura Trevelyan and members of her family traveled to Grenada to issue a formal apology.

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.

Members of the Trevelyan family at the Reparations Forum 2023 in Grenada, signing and presenting a formal apology.
Reynaldo Bernard / Laura Trevelyan
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Laura Trevelyan
Members of the Trevelyan family at the Reparations Forum 2023 in Grenada, signing and presenting a formal apology.

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.

Trevelyan family's letter of apology presented to the prime minister of Grenada.
/ Laura Trevelyan
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Laura Trevelyan
Trevelyan family's letter of apology presented to the prime minister of Grenada.

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.

Grenada Prime Minister Dickon Mitchell and Laura Trevelyan at the Reparations Forum in Feb. 2023 in Grenada
Reynaldo Bernard / University of West Indies
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University of West Indies
Grenada Prime Minister Dickon Mitchell and Laura Trevelyan at the Reparations Forum in Feb. 2023 in Grenada

"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.

Jan Johnson and H.J. Mai contributed editing. contributed to this story

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

Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.