“Shadow of Slavery”

Facing up to the past – the “shadow of slavery” still hanging over Richard Drax

A large photograph of Richard Drax illustrated a headline on the Observer front page on Sunday 12 December 2020 which read: “wealthy MP urged to pay up for his family’s slave trade past”.

The article underneath revealed that the MP for South Dorset still controlled the plantation where his ancestor, James Drax, pioneered the use of black slaves rather than white indentured servants to cultivate sugar. This model of cultivation was immensely lucrative and copied across the Caribbean and the Americas.

“Killing Field”

The Caribbean Community Reparations Commission has described the Drax Hall Plantation on Barbados as a “killing field” and a “crime scene”. The average life expectancy of a plantation field slave was seven years.

The Barbadian academic, Sir Hilary Beckles, vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, has said that Richard Drax must acknowledge the wealth accrued by his family through slavery.

The Observer quotes him as saying: “when I drive through the Drax Hall land and its environs I feel a keen sense of being in a massive killing field … Black life mattered only to make millionaires of English enslavers and the Drax family did it longer than any other elite family”.

Wealth from slavery

The Observer article gives details of Richard Drax’s ownership of Drax Hall and of his personal wealth. It notes that he is “probably the wealthiest landowner in the House of Commons. As well as Charborough Park, Drax owns a £4.5m villa on Sandbanks.

Another article in The Observer is headlined: “He’s the MP with the Downton Abbey Lifestyle. But the shadow of slavery hangs over the gilded life of Richard Drax”.

The article draws upon the University College Slave Owners Legacy Website to outline the origins of Richard Drax’s wealth: the slave labour of Africans who had endured the horrors of crossing the Atlantic Ocean, closely confined, and chained in a slave ship.

One American Historian, Stanley Elkins, has compared the experience of slaves to that of inmates in Nazi Concentration Camps. (1)

The historian David Olusoga is quoted by The Observer: “from the very earliest stages of the family’s involvement in slavery and the sugar trade … the Drax dynasty were able to generate extraordinary wealth through the cultivation of sugar by enslaved Africans”.

The Observer article gives details of Richard Drax’s great wealth – ironic, perhaps, that such a wealthy man represents constituents who live in some of the most deprived areas in England, with social mobility the lowest in the country.

Drax Hall and its plantations are valued by Barbadian Authorities as worth £4.7m, and are currently not included, The Observer reports, in the Parliamentary Register of Members’ interests.

Richard Drax told The Observer that these properties were “not yet transferred to my name” following the death of his father.

“I can’t be held responsible”

Richard Drax when challenged in 2010 by the Daily Mirror about his family’s historic links with slavery, said in The Dorset Echo “I can’t be held responsible for something that happened 300 or 400 years ago … They are using the old class thing … it shows how desperate they are if all they can do is pick at bits of my family history”.

In June 2020, Richard Drax is quoted by The Observer as saying of Black Lives Matter Protest: “The desecration of the Cenotaph by rioters two weeks ago, on the actual D-Day Anniversary, was beyond ironic”.

Keith Flett, in his blog, casts doubt about this assertion, saying that this did not happen on that protest or any other Black Live Matter Protest. He also notes that Richard Drax refused sign up to an Early Day Motion calling upon the United Kingdom to stop selling tear gas, riot shields and rubber bullets to the United States – this Motion being put forward after the tragic death of George Floyd. (2)

When approached by The Observer, Richard Drax said that he was “keenly aware of the slave trade in the West Indies”, and of the role played in it by his “very distant ancestor”.

He said that he could not be held responsible for something “that happened many hundreds of years ago”.

This, he said, “was part of the nation’s history, from which we all must learn”.

Sir Hilary Beckles’ response is reported by The Observer: “It is no answer for Richard Drax to say it has nothing to do with him when he is the owner (of Drax Hall) and the inheritor. They should pay reparations”.

Perhaps Richard Drax should follow the example of Lloyds of London and Greene King: to acknowledge the source of his wealth and to seek to come to terms with his family’s past.

It would seem to be the right thing to do.




(1) Stanley M Elkins, “Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Cultural Life”, 1959

(2) kmflett.wordpress.com