Booker Prize urged to consider changing name over slavery link

Founders of company that went on to sponsor prize had enslaved 200 people on a cotton plantation in 1800s

Shahana Yasmin
Friday 26 April 2024 07:27 BST
Paul Lynch wins the 2023 Booker Prize for ‘Prophet Song’

Radio 1Xtra host Richie Brave has said the Booker Prize, awarded since 1969 for the best work of fiction in English, should consider a name change because of links to slavery.

Brave revealed that his legal surname was Booker and that his ancestors were enslaved by George and Josias Booker, the founders of the company that later went on to sponsor the prize.

“I hope that Booker will start asking themselves some questions around the name,” he told The Guardian.

“That name was inflicted upon us. As an organisation, you have a choice to change your name to something different,” he added.

“I personally wouldn’t want to retain a name that’s associated with that.”

The organisers of the prestigious literary prize had earlier modified an article about the Booker brothers and their ties to slavery.

The article detailed the history of wholesale food distributor Booker McConnell, which sponsored the Booker Prize from 1968 to 2002.

Josias Booker left Liverpool for Demerara in what was then British Guiana in 1815 to run a cotton plantation, called Broom Hall, where he enslaved around 200 people. Josias was later joined by his brother George. The article went on to mention that the brothers received £2,884 from the British government when slavery was abolished in 1833, as compensation for 52 emancipated slaves.

The Bank of England estimates the compensation received by the brothers to be equivalent to £285,836 in 2024.

The article originally referred to the Bookers as having ‘managed nearly 200 enslaved people,’ a characterisation that Brave called out in a post on X.

“Josias & George did not ‘manage’ my family,” he wrote. “They enslaved them. That’s why we STILL have their last name. They were enslavers, not ‘managers’.”

The article has since been edited to remove the reference to them having ‘managed’ the slaves.

“Don’t attempt to sanitise the horrors of slavery,” said Brave.

“When we’re not having the correct conversations, or we’re not using the correct language, not only are we dishonouring people’s ancestors but we are retraumatising people who already feel the trauma as a result of what happened in their families historically.”

In a separate post on X, Brave thanked the Booker organisers for considering his comments and editing the piece.

“I think this is the beginning of a very long conversation that attempts to start righting the wrongs that have happened historically,” he said.

A statement by the Booker organisers said: “A descendant of people enslaved by the Booker brothers in the 19th century contacted us on social media yesterday about an inaccuracy in a description of Booker’s history on our website. We appreciated his getting in touch and fully agree with his point about the importance of language.

“We have updated the article accordingly and apologise for the distress caused. As the article also explains, further research into this important history is in progress, which we will share once it’s complete. This research will contribute to any future thinking.

“The Booker Prizes are committed to excellence in literature and mindful of the conditions for justice. We will continue to reflect on the ways in which we represent this to readers everywhere.”

The original piece also says that a “more substantial account, written from the point of view of a Guyanese historian, will follow”.

This is not the first time the Booker Prize’s connections to slavery have been highlighted.

In 1972, Booker winner John Berger used his acceptance speech to blast the Booker McConnell sugar firm’s exploitation of Guyana and its role in the Industrial Revolution.

“Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers,” Berger said.

“This is why I have to turn this prize against itself.”

He pledged to donate half of his £5,000 prize money to the Black Panther Party and used the other half for a project on migrant workers.

The Booker Prize is currently funded by Crankstart, a charitable foundation.

This article was amended on the day of publication. It previously said that the original sponsors of the Booker Prize were Josias and George Booker, but this was inaccurate. The prize was sponsored by the company Booker McConnell. Josias and George Booker founded the company that ultimately went on to sponsor the prize.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in