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Remorse, Roots and Reparations: Clive Lewis and Laura Trevelyan

7 min read

Clive Lewis MP and Laura Trevelyan, the former BBC journalist, are campaigning for reparative justice for the Caribbean. They tell Seun Matiluko about how they started working together, the backlash they’ve received, and their plans for joint advocacy.

In a parliamentary debate on 8 March 2023, Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South, became the first person to reference renowned Caribbean anti-colonial activists Walter Rodney and Sir Hilary Beckles in the House of Commons. When told this, during a conference call on a windy September morning, Lewis and new friend Laura Trevelyan laughed with Trevelyan adding “(this) is pretty extraordinary when you think of the historical link between the Caribbean and Britain”.

Trevelyan, a former journalist and member of the British institution that was and is the Trevelyan family (“George Macaulay Trevelyan’s History of England was a text Hilary Beckles was taught at school”), has recently become intimately aware of this link. A BBC reporter since 1993, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, in the early 2000s and while there, in 2016, was first made aware that some of her ancestors “part-owned ten plantations in Grenada”, for which they received the equivalent of £3 million when the British Empire formally abolished slavery in 1834. “University College London did this great public service with the database of legacies of British slavery, by putting online the compensation records from 1834.”

She was shocked when her distant cousin John Dower, whom she had never met, emailed her with the news. She had previously been made aware of the Trevelyan link to the Irish famine – “Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness would tease me about going around South Armagh with the blood of the Irish on my hands” – but, despite writing a book about her family in 2006, had no idea about her ancestors’ connections to bloodshed in the Caribbean.

She sat with the news for four years before feeling the need to speak up in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd.

“In Brooklyn, there were protests every night… I was confronted with it on my doorstep: if one of the legacies of slavery in America is police brutality towards Black men, what does it mean in the Caribbean that my ancestors were enslavers?”

Unlike other high-profile Brits with slave-holding ancestry, she didn’t want to obfuscate this part of her family tree. “I started to ask my BBC bosses, could I go to the Caribbean? Can we make this a documentary?”

Clive Lewis, a descendant of people enslaved in Grenada, says this is a testament to her character: “Richard Drax, Antoinette Sandbach and others show this was not a foregone conclusion. That Laura and her family… did not have to do this.”

The BBC commissioned a twelve-minute documentary which aired in 2022. It featured Trevelyan travelling to Grenada, revisiting her family’s history and chatting with local schoolchildren, academics and activists.

Trevelyan says, “after the documentary… Hilary Beckles [the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies] Zoomed with our family and explained to us why an apology is important... He explained that it's a painful void in the Caribbean to not know who your ancestors were… that if we apologise for what our ancestors did, it would have meaning.”

On 27 February 2023, Trevelyan and her cousin John travelled to Grenada to read an apology letter to a Reparations Forum, signed by 104 members of the family. “To have 104 sign a letter is not bad, it’s ten per cent (of the family). What the other 90 per cent think, I don’t know, but certainly some of them are vehemently opposed. There are people… that find it very intrusive, like, you know, ‘What the hell have you done, Laura?’”

Trevelyan also personally donated £100,000 – her pension fund – to support the Caribbean island’s development. “It was a very tricky wire transfer, which got rejected twice, first by the Bank of Grenada for money laundering concerns and then… by my bank when I had to send it to the Cayman Islands.”

The apology letter grabbed the attention of Clive Lewis, who has been a member of the Afrikan Reparations All-Party Parliamentary Group since February. “It gave me the courage to be able to stand up (in Parliament) and mention reparations. I’ll be really honest… it’s something I had wanted to mention before but… it’s a very sensitive area and you don’t just dip your toe in lightly.” In the 80s and 90s, when Labour MP Bernie Grant campaigned for reparations for African and Caribbean colonialism, he received little party or cross-party support.

He adds, “this is an issue that isn’t going to go away. It’s an issue that everyone from David Lammy to Lisa Nandy is going to confront when they go around the world… I think this is something that any progressive potential government would want to engage with and embrace, and I will be doing my part to ensure they do.”

Lewis is a republican – who this time last year argued that the monarchy was evidence of the "limited democracy we inhabit" – and also tells me that any “21st century” royal family should engage with the issue too. “Frankly, if they're going to be dragged kicking and screaming, and constantly be behind the curve… I don't think that's going to be a good look for them.”

On the same day Trevelyan read the apology letter, Lewis commended the Trevelyan family’s actions in a parliamentary point of order, causing a front bench MP to advise him to put his name down for any upcoming relevant debates. And so he did, leading the 8 March debate, entitled Financial Security and Reducing Inequality in the Caribbean: Government Role, where he referenced Rodney and Beckles to make the case for reparations. His speech, according to Trevelyan, made waves: “you can't underestimate… the way that Clive is viewed in the Caribbean because of what he's done.”

Drummers joined campaigners from Slavery Remembrance in Trafalgar Square to commemorate Sankofa Day, a celebration of the great Haitian Revolution and to mark the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.
Aug 2023: Drummers joined campaigners from Slavery Remembrance in Trafalgar Square to commemorate Sankofa Day, a celebration of the great Haitian Revolution and to mark the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. 

In the same month, Trevelyan quit her BBC job to become a campaigner for Caribbean reparatory justice. She will soon be announced as a fellow at the PJ Patterson Institute for Africa-Caribbean Advocacy at the University of the West Indies. Her campaigning thus far has included setting up the Heirs of Slavery, an advocacy group comprised of descendants of individuals who profited from transatlantic slavery. The group has been contacted by over 120 families. Their website provides the disclaimer that they take “privacy seriously and will not share details of people getting in touch with us”.

Trevelyan has received considerable backlash for her activism (“am I either a neo-colonialist or a white saviour?”) and perhaps as a result sometimes appears to give scripted answers to my questions. It is understandable, then, that she would have empathy for those who want to make amends without the prohibitive glare of the media: “we’re having a conference in November, a private conference without any press, and inviting all those families… just to talk it through.”

Alongside their individual work, Trevelyan and Lewis have many plans for joint advocacy (they have a WhatsApp group). This includes campaigning for climate reparations and pressing the government to follow, at least, the first step in the Caribbean Community’s ten-point plan for reparatory justice – providing a full formal apology. And this includes co-hosting an as-of-yet untitled six-episode podcast series about Caribbean reparations that will come out this Black History Month. Lewis says it will feature “a host of Caribbean celebrities and historians (including) my dad… to tell the story of our journey [and] the story of the Caribbean”.

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