Joseph Rowntree report explores historic slavery connections

Rebecca Cooney finds out how the Joseph Rowntree charities plan to deal with the bitter aftertaste of their colonial history

The story of sugar and cocoa production is, at best, murky. For a large chunk of its history, key ingredients were grown in colonised countries, often with the use of slave or indentured labour.

So it is no real surprise that even companies such as Rowntree’s, known for a focus on social reforms, might have some uncomfortable truths lurking in their past – and particularly difficult for the charities built from the Rowntree wealth.

Research published today by The Rowntree Society, a small charity dedicated to the history of the Rowntree family and company, has brought some of these truths to light. 

Rowntree & Co was founded as a grocery business in 1822. Joseph Rowntree, the founder’s son, moved the business into manufacturing confectionery, and became deeply invested in improving his employees’ standard of living, earning him a reputation as a social reformer and philanthropist. 

In 1904, he created the charities that would become known as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, as well as the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, using an endowment of the company’s shares. 

But alongside Rowntree’s Quaker ideals and commitment to philanthropy, the Rowntree Society research reveals a more complicated history. 

The research raises concerns that some goods traded through the original grocery business were likely to have been produced by enslaved workers.

In addition, later the Rowntree Company may have used indentured labour – where people from India and south-east Asia were recruited into bonded labour on plantations in the Caribbean and West Africa after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished – on its plantations in the West Indies in the 1890s.

The report also reveals that the company purchased cocoa from Portuguese colonies in West Africa where slavery was still permitted into the early 20th Century, and was a joint owner of a shipping company operating out of the then-colonised countries of Ghana and Nigeria between 1947 and 1972.

The research also uncovered more recent issues – alleged racial discrimination at a company subsidiary in South Africa, which in the early 1980s used summary dismissal and forced unemployment to suppress unrest among its black workforce.

The report acknowledges that this side of the company’s history had “not been hidden”, but had also “not formed part of the public presentation of Rowntree history”. 

The leaders of the four organisations endowed by the company’s wealth say they want to acknowledge its history openly, to apologise to communities that have been harmed, and to make a start on addressing the issue. 

Fiona Weir, chief executive of the JRRT, a non-charitable campaign group focused on democratic and political reform, says the research was inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, but was also driven by the pandemic. 

“The impact of Covid-19 has really laid bare inequalities in the UK in an extraordinary way," Weir says. 

"When we look back on the history of what we’ve just gone through, we will see it as a turning point year in which many of us began to grapple with our history and to really think deeply what to do about racial injustice today." 

Paul Kissack, chief executive of the anti-poverty charity the JCF and the JRHT housing association, said the report makes for “uncomfortable reading”,  but was important in acknowledging  an “under-researched, under-told part of the story”. 

He says: “Given that our wealth stems from that history, from indentured labour and slavery, we have a particular obligation in apologising for that – and we are apologising for that fact that our wealth comes from those practices – and, now and in the future, treating it a rallying call for us to renew our focus on racial justice.”

Celia McKeon, chief executive of the grantmaking Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, agrees.

“As an organisation that has funded racial justice work in this country since the 1960s, the hardest thing has been recognising the link between the struggles that are going on now and the deeply dehumanising impact of the Rowntree Company’s history,” she says. 

But, she adds, “we feel particularly compelled to acknowledge this openly, to apologise to those communities who’ve been harmed”. 

Weir says she believes the difficulty of the issues thrown up by the research “has translated into a sense that we’ve really got to try to embed some of this into what we do and to acknowledge it”.

There are obvious parallels between this work and the report published by the National Trust in August last year, which detailed the links between 93 of its historical properties and slavery and colonialism.

The report led to a public outcry, driven largely by vociferous criticism in the press and from Baroness Stowell, the then-chair of the Charity Commission (although the commission later concluded that the National Trust had not breached charity law). 

McKeon says she believes “there will be a range of reactions” to the Rowntree report “because we’re sharing complex and uncomfortable history”.

But, she says: “We’re clear that this is our charitable work – if we are organisations that are committed to supporting work to advance racial justice, then that means recognising, and grappling with, parts of our history that have contributed to some of the structures of injustice and racism that exist today.

“To fulfill our charitable purposes, we need to listen to the communities that have been harmed and work out the appropriate steps to take in light of our past.”

Kissack points out that 25 per cent of families in poverty are from BAME backgrounds, so for the JCF and the JRHT, “it’s not a choice for us as to whether we engage in questions of racial justice; it’s absolutely the heart of our mission”. 

He adds: “If we can’t understand our history in that area, how will we understand the border history that we’re working within?”

The report says further research will be needed on all the areas it has highlighted.

But for the organisations that have begun to form a picture of the challenging aspects of their own history, what can they practically do to address the issue?

Kissack says, in all honesty, that they don’t yet entirely know. 

“We need to approach this with a bit of humility and be guided in the nature of this work by people who are more expert in it that we are, other people with lived experience of racial injustice – and there’s lots for us to learn from those within the sector who are a bit further along with this,” he says.

All of the organisations are carrying out reviews of who they make grants to, to ensure that black and minority ethnic-led organisations are not being excluded, and to examine whether the money is being used to tackle racial inequalities. 

McKeon says the JRCT is “committing to a process of restorative justice”. 

She says: “This means listening to and working with those communities affected, to identify ways we can make a meaningful contribution to repairing some of that harm.”

And Weir is clear that the work is only beginning. “Hopefully we’ll have more of a story to tell in a year's time about what we’re doing,” she says.

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