Drax Hall, haunted by death

Professor Sir Hilary Beckles – Britain’s First and Last Slavery Family: The Drax Heritage and Legacy

Stand Up to Racism Dorset

Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, spoke with passion and forensic clarity of the origins of the great wealth of South Dorset’s Conservative MP, Richard Grosvenor Plunkett Ernle Earle Drax, at a recent Zoom Meeting held by Stand Up to Racism Dorset. 

The meeting, with over 200 attendees from all over the United Kingdom, the Caribbean and the United States, was an opportunity to hear from a renowned historian of the involvement and enrichment of the Drax family through their participation in the Slave Trade and the practice of Slavery.

Sir Hilary, a distinguished guest

Sir Hilary is the Chair of CARICOM, the Caribbean Reparations Commission – founded in 2014 by 15 Caribbean nations to call for reparations from Europe “for the enduring suffering inflicted by the Atlantic Slave Trade”. (1)

Sir Hilary was an advisor to the UN World Culture Report and to the UNESCO Peace Global Programme. He was invited to speak in the UN General Assembly to launch the UN Decade for People of African Descent. (2)

A lawyer speaks for reparations to be made

Thalia Maragh, a member of the Jamaican Bar, now practising in the United Kingdom, introduced Sir Hilary to the meeting.

She made the point that the current under development of the Caribbean nations was a direct consequence of their exploitation as colonies by European powers.

Richard Drax, along with David Cameron, came from families enriched in the past by their involvement in Slavery. Their wealth came from the former enslavement of human beings.

The time for reparations to be made was now, she said: “the 21st Century was the time for reparative justice for the Slave Trade”.

Video Courtesy of Stand Up To Racism, Dorset (February, 2021)

The cruelty of racism and slavery

Sir Hilary spoke, first and foremost, of the toxic force of racism, so prevalent in the world. He had been born in Barbados. It was hard to imagine that so beautiful an island had been a “place of evil scarce the world had seen”.

Hundreds of thousands of slaves had suffered and perished there, regarded by Plantation Owners as property, with no rights or humanity. The model of slavery which had been developed in Barbados had spread across the Caribbean and the Americas.

Sir Hilary’s journey

Sir Hilary explained how he had left Barbados as a child, settling with his family in Birmingham – where, he said, he had “survived the British School System”. Like so many youngsters of colour he had been “thrown into the worst schools of the city”: no thought had been given to the welfare of immigrants of colour invited into England.

Sir Hilary survived against the odds, graduating at Hull University. Sir Hilary noted that the abolitionist William Wilberforce had once represented Hull in the House of Commons.

Returning to Barbados, Sir Hilary began his distinguished academic career at the University of the West Indies.

A cruel history uncovered

The construction of a new building on the University Campus (the site of a former sugar plantation) revealed thousands of bones – the remains of slaves buried without dignity in a mass grave. It was impossible to avoid the legacy of Slavery in Barbados. 

Richard Drax, said Sir Hilary, “cannot say that this is nothing to do with me”. 

Whenever Sir Hilary was driven home from the airport, he had to pass Drax Hall – the heart of the former slave plantation owned by the Drax family. Richard Drax still owned Drax Hall, a place of “evil”, where the soil had thirsted for blood. “We feel the evil in the Drax estate” Sir Hilary said

James Drax – the father of Caribbean Slavery

The Drax family had first arrived in Barbados with James Drax, in the 1630’s. James Drax had arrived with £300 – he was, he said to a friend, determined to make fortune: to turn that £300 into £300,000.

This he did – through slavery: through starting up a system that lasted hundreds of years. “No family”, said Sir Hilary, “has made so much money from slavery”.

As a member of the colonial assembly, James Drax sponsored the passing of laws that declared African slaves and their children to be property – in perpetuity, with no rights to humanity.

The first English slave ship arrived in 1641. James Drax was one of the backers of the enterprise. By 1651, his plantation, Drax Hall, covered over 600 acres, with over 300 African slaves. It was, and remained, one of the largest slave plantations in the Caribbean. James Drax was known as the “Prince of Barbados”. Drax Hall – his lavish mansion – is still standing, owned by his descendant, Richard Drax.

Monstrous barbarism

In 1675, plantation owners learned of an impending slave uprising. Henry Drax, James Drax’s son, was amongst those who rounded up its leaders. 120 slaves were taken captive – of these 47 were burnt alive, and 30 men castrated and left to bleed to death.

So began what have been called the years of “the barbarity”. 80% of the island’s population was composed of slaves. Any signs of unrest met with a terrible and monstrously cruel response.

A new model of slavery

Yet by the end of the 18th Century, the price of slaves had increased significantly. It was a member of the Drax family, Edward Drax, who came up with a new business model. Instead of working young slaves in their mid and late teens to death in 7 years, and shipping in replacements annually from West Africa, slave women were encouraged to bear children.

Slave women were given better food and lighter duties. They were paid a bonus for each child they bought into the world. After giving birth to 6 children, they were given their freedom.

Edward Drax, along with co-authors, put forward this model in his “Instructions to (Slave Plantation) Managers”.

The Drax family by now ran a second, larger plantation, in Jamaica, with a second “Drax Hall”.

Emancipation no answer

Emancipation in the 1830s was, said Sir Hilary, largely the result of economics – it was cheaper to free slaves, and then re-employ them without the obligation to feed, house or clothe them. It was no coincidence that Adam Smith, a prophet of the free market, came from Glasgow University – located in a city grown rich on the proceeds of slavery.

In Jamaica, freed slaves made for the hills and mountains, to make a living from subsistence farming in the wilderness. In Barbados, there was nowhere for the freed slaves to go. They had to continue working for their former slave masters if they were to eat.

Wealth blind to history

The Drax family, nonetheless, had fought hard in England to block emancipation. They funded MPs to vote against measures to abolish Slavery.  They saw no reason to welcome laws which would end a system which had raised them from the dust to the ranks of the aristocracy.

The Harewood and Drax families were paid compensation worth millions today. The Drax family still retained its Barbados plantation. Freed slaves continued to make them rich.

Sir Hilary said that Drax Hall, located in “the beautiful St George’s valley”, was a place haunted by death. Any slave or freed slave of 30 years or more was the exception. Thousands died as a result of illnesses or horrific accidents in the sugar refineries, 

Sir Hilary had started his research into the Drax family three to four years ago. The Drax family were, he said, “the personification of evil in the island of Barbados”. The Draxes were known in folklore as the “Barons of Barbados”. “When we drive past the sugar fields”, Sir Hilary said, “beneath the flowing green is nothing but the blood of Africans fertilizing the soil”.

Do the right thing

The estate remains. Sir Hilary said that Barbadians wanted to make their island an exemplar of freedom and justice. He called upon Richard Drax “to do the right thing” – to hand over Drax Hall to the people of the island. Drax Hall would advance the cause of education and the young: it would no longer be “the symbol of the evil of slavery”.

Richard Drax could in no way say all this history of suffering had nothing to do with him: “you Richard Drax are accountable – you have inherited your wealth through slavery”.

Questions and observations

Many questions and observations were made by attendees. Young BLM activist Henni Nicolet spoke of the need to challenge institutional racism. Phil Marfleet of Stand Up to Racism Dorset and Dorset Socialists reminded attendees of the wealthiest landowning MP in the Commons representing a constituency with the lowest social mobility in England and one distinguished by the lowest average weekly wages in 2017.

An attendee from South Carolina said that Jamaican and Barbadian slave owners had kick started the cultivation of rice by slaves there. The UCL Slave Owners Legacy Website was highlighted as an exemplary source of information.


The meeting concluded with the organisers, Phil Marfleet and Lynne Hubbard, thanking Sir Hilary for his powerful and moving words.

1 The Guardian, March 9 2014, “Caribbean Nations prepare demand for slavery reparations”

2 University of West Indies website, “About the VC”