Descendants of a British owner of slaves in Guyana apologize as Caribbean nation seeks reparations

GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) — The descendants of a 19th-century Scottish sugar and coffee planter who owned thousands of slaves in Guyana apologized Friday for the sins of their ancestor, calling slavery a crime against humanity with lasting negative impacts.

Charles Gladstone, a descendant of former plantation owner John Gladstone, traveled to Guyana from Britain with five relatives to offer the formal apology.

“It is with deep shame and regret that we acknowledge our ancestors’ involvement in this crime and with heartfelt sincerity, we apologize to the descendants of the enslaved in Guyana," he told an audience at the University of Guyana. "In doing so, we acknowledge slavery’s continuing impact on the daily lives of many.”

Neither Guyana President Irfaan Ali, who on Thursday demanded reparations and lashed out at the descendants of European slave traders, nor other senior government officials were in the audience of a couple hundred students, university staff members and representatives of grassroots organizations.

During his speech, Gladstone announced that his family would create a fund for various unnamed projects in the country as part of a “meaningful and long-term relationship between our family and the people of Guyana.”

“In writing this heartfelt apology, we also acknowledge Sir John Gladstone’s role in bringing indentured laborers to Guyana, and apologize for the clear and manifold injustices of this,” he said.

John Gladstone was the father of 19th century British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and received more than 100,000 pounds in compensation for hundreds of slaves.

A renowned 1823 slave revolt took place on his estate at Success Village on Guyana’s east coast. The Demerara rebellion was crushed in two days with hundreds of slaves killed. Some enslaved people were beheaded and had their heads planted on poles on the way to Georgetown, Guyana's colonial and current capital, as a lesson to others with similar ideas.

Outside the auditorium where Gladstone made the apology, a handful of protesters shouted “Murderers!” and held signs reading, “The Gladstones are murderers” and “Stolen people, stolen dreams.”

The leader of the protest, Cedric Castellow, dismissed the apology as “perfunctory” and said Britain and other European countries owe Guyana and the Caribbean billions of dollars in reparation payments.

“The British government and others benefited from the slave trade, their descendants and heirs,” Castellow said. “They owe us, and the legacy will affect future generations as well.”

Some protesters slipped into the auditorium. One began to shout at the end of the apology and was shushed by the university’s vice chancellor, Paloma Mohamed, who asked them not to embarrass Guyana.

Gladstone also demanded that the British government start “meaningful discussions” with a 15-nation Caribbean trade block known as Caricom that is seeking reparations and hired a law firm to examine its case for financial compensation from Britain and other European nations.

“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,” Gladstone said.

Among those who traveled to Guyana for Friday’s apology was former BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan. Earlier this year, her family apologized to slave descendants in Grenada because her ancestors owned hundreds of slaves in that eastern Caribbean island.

“It seems that the momentum for the global reparations movement is being led by the Caribbean and its intellectuals,” Trevelyan told The Associated Press after Gladstone’s speech. “People like us support the Caricom ... plan, and I really hope that the British government will begin negotiations with the Caribbean in the near future.”

A handful of nations have apologized for their role in slavery, including the Netherlands.