By Paul Anthony Campbell, Parks Projects & Strategy Manager, Brighton & Hove City Council
As a volunteer elected advisor for the National Trust Gardens and Parks panel, I was inspired by the bold step the Trust recently took to explore which of their assets were linked to the transatlantic slave trade. So, I decided to do my own investigation in Brighton and Hove.
Brunswick Square is just 100 metres from where I live and seemed like a good place to start. I discovered that sixteen former residents of Brunswick Square owned over 2,500 slaves. In 1837 as part of the Slave Compensation Act, these sixteen individuals shared approximately £57,000 between them from the British Government for freeing their slaves. This is equivalent to around £5.5 million in today’s money, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator.
But this fact is not the most shocking thing that I discovered on my journey.
I love heritage, interpretation, and crave having an authentic 360-degree picture of the people, places and situations I encounter. Gandhi is one of my heroes, but I have read some less favorable things about him. Barack Obama will probably always be a shining light; however, investigative film maker Michael Moore identified some less palatable decisions made by the great man. Therefore, we need to see the whole picture, ‘warts and all’, to better understand people, places and our relationships with them.
Where better to start in understanding people than my own name, ‘Campbell’? I decided a few years ago that having this name permitted me to wear a Scottish kilt.
When in 2016 I was invited to a Scottish Burns Night in Croatia, I decided to embrace the Campbell tartan. Then immediately I doubted this decision, as my connection to Scotland is only by name, and probably given to my family by slave owners. This forced me to do some research.
Today, one in ten family names in Jamaica are of Scottish Celtic origin. More unbelievably, the Jamaican flag is based on the Scottish ‘saltire’. These are the only two flags in the world that share the ‘saltire’ diagonal layout.
Over 300 Campbells were compensated for thousands of slaves they owned, mostly in the Caribbean where my parents are from. This mini investigation highlights the depth of Scotland’s role in Jamaica’s history, which I wasn’t aware of.Another relationship that is also rarely discussed is the battles and skirmishes fought with slaves in Africa and the wider Caribbean. Each year Black History Month rolls out the usual abolitionists, but do people know who Jean Jacques Dessalines was - and his impact on the country of Haiti? I didn’t, until recently.
Dessalines led the slaves of Haiti to their freedom through combat, which is the only time in history this has occurred. In 1804, following fierce fighting, they beat the French army - costing western Europe its most profitable sugar income island. They killed the remaining French who didn’t join them, which must have sent shockwaves across Europe: ‘Haiti has fallen to the Slaves’. Protests in parliament are useful, but the significant loss of income and hundreds of dead white people may have been a little bit more powerful in persuading the law makers, in my opinion. They secured victory in 1804, and in 1807 the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed. Sadly, for Haiti, the French were still reeling from their losses and on July 11th, 1825 they forced Haiti at cannon-point (they sent an armada of battleships to their shores), to pay 150 million francs in compensation for their loss. The final extortion payment from Haiti was only completed in 1947, when my dad was born.
A year before Haiti had finished paying its debt, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation was established - known today as UNESCO. In 1974 UNESCO facilitated an intellectual battle between Africans and European scholars in Cairo. The Symposium between 18 European and Arab academics versus two African academics was about the cultural origins of the Egyptians. Were they of European/Arabic descent or African? The bout was completely unbalanced, but after a few days of presentations and debates, UNESCO concluded that the two African scholars won the case and that the Egyptians were most likely of African descent. One of the African professors, Cheikh Anta Diop, is probably one of the most unsung heroes of black history.
Today Brighton and Lewes Downs is a UNESCO World Biosphere Region also known as ‘The Living Coast.’ So what is it? It recognises how our Elm trees of national significance are spread across the urban realm, our internationally important chalk grasslands run along the South Downs in the north, and how our internationally important marine coastline to the south all co-exists amidst a bustling population. I call it ‘the Green, the Grey and the Blue’, but co-existing is the key word here.
Back in Brunswick Square, in addition to the sixteen slave owners, Brighton and Hove had a total of 88 individuals who were compensated for their 14,000 slaves and paid around £328,863 between them. This is approximately 40 million pounds in today’s money. This compensation information of slaveowners can be found in an incredible database created by University College London. This database leaves no stone unturned and is still being updated today as new records are found.
Many people won’t know that the £20 million loan which the government took out in 1837 to pay the slave owners’ compensation, was only fully repaid in 2015. Let me repeat that sentence again in case you missed it; the loan that was taken out in 1837 to compensate slave owners, was only fully paid by taxpayers in 2015.
Ironically, 2015 is the very same year the government enacted The Modern-Day Slavery Act. By coincidence, Brighton designer Juliet Sargent became the first black woman to win a gold medal at Chelsea Flower Show for her garden about Modern Day Slavery.
It’s both incredulous and harrowing that 2015 marked the end and the beginning of two separate slavery milestones. One recent report identified that modern-day slavery exists in every major city in the UK.
Intriguingly, when people talk about slavery as ‘history’ we can now see that it remains very real and prevalent today. Most taxpayers would be shocked that they had been paying off such a debt so recently. My ancestors, who were most likely slaves, had already paid with their lives for western Europe. It is unbelievable that several generations of descendants have had to pay further still.
Perhaps now more than ever might be a good time to raise the sensitive subject of Reparations. Compensation for the ancestors of slaves across the world. An apology of course would be mandatory, and then a cash pay-out of perhaps £50,000 each for the descendants.
“But we can’t afford it”, I hear some cry. Not so. If you have been watching the COVID-19 pay-outs globally by governments, you would know that there is indeed "a magic money tree". In fact, I do declare there is a ‘magic money forest.’ And since I work in Cityparks, one should take this as an official plant identification. I think the Latin name of the magic money tree might be Hocus-pocus cashius gigantium. But jokes aside, anyone who looks at our nations and the world’s global debt would realise one thing: no one is paying this off. Our two trillion-pound debt in £50 notes is equivalent in volume to all the Brunswick Square Regency buildings stacked as cash. It is an unimaginable amount of physical money.
Whilst money would be a useful recognition and assistance to many of the black community, I fear its benefit in healing the wounds of slavery would be minimal. These discriminatory scars affect us all. Robin DiAngelo in her book 'White Fragility' points out that the western world is built on discrimination and racism and we are all affected by it, whether we care to acknowledge this or not.
To move society forward, the best solution I could devise is education, knowledge - and the proactive and sincere disclosure of our combined histories. All races, all faiths, genders, abilities, presented through time and continuously to the present day - ‘warts and all’. A non-judgemental upgrade of what we have done, learnt and felt through time.
Without the full picture and a complete re-framing of how society depicts the world’s populace, the corrosive mediums around us will still see the white minority locked into a racially-discriminatory world of continuous slavery for darker skinned people, who may also be bombed or starved with little outcry.
How do we know we are better than the 16 Brunswick Square or 88 slave owners of Brighton and Hove? By what barometer should we be judged in 200 years from now?
In the words of Akala, "an educated person could never be a racist". Akala’s book, 'Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire" is a must-read for anyone interested in the black experience in the UKFor my final words … "Black history is everyone’s history, and whilst we may not have known it, we have all been paying for it.”