Barbados plans to make Tory MP pay reparations for family’s slave past

Richard Drax reported to have visited Caribbean island for meeting on next steps, including plans for former sugar plantation

The government of Barbados is considering plans to make a wealthy Conservative MP the first individual to pay reparations for his ancestor’s pivotal role in slavery.

The Observer understands that Richard Drax, MP for South Dorset, recently travelled to the Caribbean island for a private meeting with the country’s prime minister, Mia Mottley. A report is now before Mottley’s cabinet laying out the next steps, which include legal action in the event that no agreement is reached with Drax.

Barbados became a republic a year ago after it removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

The Drax family pioneered the plantation system in the 17th century and played a major role in the development of sugar and slavery across the Caribbean and the US.

Barbados MP Trevor Prescod, chairman of Barbados National Task Force on Reparations, part of the Caricom Reparations Commission, said the UN had declared slavery to be a crime against humanity: “If the issue cannot be resolved we would take legal action in the international courts. The case against the Drax family would be for hundreds of years of slavery, so it’s likely any damages would go well beyond the value of the land.”

Countries in the Caribbean community (Caricom) have been campaigning for the payment of reparations by former colonial powers and institutions which profited from slavery. This is the first time a family has been singled out.

Among the plans being considered are that 17th-century Drax Hall is turned into an Afro-centric museum and that a large portion of the plantation is used for social housing for low-income Bajan families. There is also a recommendation that Richard Drax pays for some of the work.

David Comissiong, the Barbados ambassador to Caricom and deputy chairman of the task force, said that besides Drax, other families whose ancestors benefited from slavery are being considered including the British royal family: “It is now a matter that is before the government of Barbados. It is being dealt with at the highest level.

Conservative MP Richard Drax speaking in the House of Commons in 2020.
Conservative MP Richard Drax speaking in the House of Commons in 2020. Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA

“Drax is fabulously wealthy today. The Drax family is the central family in the whole story of enslavement in Barbados. They are the architects of slavery-based sugar production. They have a deep historical responsibility. The process has only just begun and we trust that we will be able to negotiate. If that doesn’t work, there are other methods, including litigation.

“Other families are involved, though not as prominently as the Draxes. This reparations journey has begun. The matter is now for the cabinet of Barbados. It is in motion. It is being dealt with.”

Drax came under the spotlight in December 2020, after the Observer revealed he had not declared his inheritance of the 250-hectare (617 acres) Drax Hall plantation. He did so only after official documents surfaced which named him as the owner. He had inherited the plantation, valued at Bds$12.5m (£5.25m), from his father, Walter, in 2017.

Drax, 64, lives at the family’s mansion in Charborough Park, Dorset. He and his family are worth at least £150m and own 23.5 square miles in Dorset, and an estate and grouse moor in Yorkshire. The family also own 125 Dorset properties personally or through family trusts and a £4.5m holiday villa on nearby Sandbanks.

Drax’s ancestor, Sir James Drax, was one of the first Englishmen to colonise Barbados in the early 17th century. He part-owned at least two slave ships, the Samuel and the Hope.

The Drax family also owned a plantation in Jamaica, which they sold in the 19th century. When slavery was abolished across the British empire in 1833, the family received £4,293 12s 6d, a very large sum in 1836, in compensation for freeing 189 enslaved people.

Prescod added: “The Drax family had slave ships. They had agents in the African continent and kidnapped black African people to work on their plantations here in Barbados. I have no doubt that what would have motivated them was that they never perceived us to be equal to them, that we were human beings. They considered us as chattels.”

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Paul Lashmar and Jonathan Smith in Barbados

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