Public lecture: A British family’s legacy of slave ownership, and its relevance today

Thursday 4 November 2021

4.00-5.30PM GMT

Wilberforce Institute, 27 High Street, Hull. HU1 1NE

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Cecile Oxaal: Alex Renton: Karen Okra

This talk will be given by Alex Renton, author of Blood Legacy: Reckoning With a Family’s Story of Slavery, and will include contributions from Cecile Oxaal and Karen Okra, who will both share details of their own family histories.

Alex’s ancestors were prominent Scots who were also slave holders in Tobago and Jamaica. In the excerpt below, Alex reflects on what he decided to do when skeletons fell out of his family cupboard. As he notes, it’s not easy to stuff them back in. When they’re 150 years old, and more, you might think they represent what police drama calls a cold case. But often the old crimes turn out to have much more relevance today than first appears.

Alex’s family’s cupboard was an archive store-room in the old house in Scotland where his grandparents lived. His grandfather was a historian, in charge of Scotland’s national archive for twenty years. At home he carefully curated the family’s own papers, which went back to the seventeenth century. Several of his books on Scottish history were based on them. But in the great mass of letters, diaries and accounts was a story that he never got around to telling, or that he decided was best left untold.

‘Like many old families in Britain, we grew up with a legend of our ancestors’ essential goodness. The men whose pictures hung on the walls of the old house had played their role in the management of the best empire the world had ever known, we learnt: a benevolent machine for civilising the greater part of the globe. But there was another, less pride-inducing side of the story. The first I knew of it was seeing, in my grandfather’s catalogue of the papers, the words ‘Tobago’ and ‘Jamaica’, again and again. His own grandfather had been a third generation plantation-owner: he had received £1.5 million in government compensation money in 1833 at abolition for ‘giving up’ the 198 enslaved people in Jamaica.

My family has glossed over this history, as my education did, as Britain has. This denial – of the 3.25 million Africans who were enslaved and transported, of the generations that were exploited and abused afterwards, and of what the 12% of GDP slavery-related industries meant to Britain in the early 1800s – is a crime that still toxifies Britain today.

It also acts to deny that the racism and inequality that afflicts our 21st century country has its roots in the story of British slavery and colonialism. I believe it is right for people like me, with the privilege of access to this history, and as beneficiaries of the wealth of slavery, to acknowledge it today. We cannot change the history, but – as Sir Geoff Palmer, campaigner in Scotland for acknowledgement of the country’s history in enslavement puts it – ‘we can still change the consequences’.

Alex will be joined by Cecil Oxaal who will talk about her family history, one of mixed heritage from wealthy white slaveholders. Karen Okra will also be sharing her family heritage. Together our speakers will offer three different but equally interesting perspectives on people in Britain with Caribbean histories.

For more information about Alex’s book go to