British Guiana and the Booker Prize

They don’t exactly intuitively go together, do they?  But the money that lies at the foundation of the Booker Prize arose from Caribbean slavery, and from British Guiana in particular.

John “Jock” Middleton Campbell, Baron Campbell of Eskan was the Chairman of  Booker Bros. McConnell and Co.  His great, great grandfather John Campbell Senior established the Campbell  family fortune through merchandising and provisioning the slave plantations along the coast of Guiana towards the end of the 18th century. As was quite common, the company began acquiring estates through the bankruptcy of their clients. By the 20th century the family owned Las Penitence Wharf on the Demerara River, Georgetown, where they were agents for the Harrison line of shipping. They also owned Ogle Estate, up the East Coast from Demerara, and Albion, further Eastward in the Berbice district. When John Campbell’s grandfather died, he left an estate of 1.5 million pounds, gleaned from the canefields of British Guiana.

Jock Campbell first travelled to British Guiana in 1934 to take control of the family’s sugar estates.  The company, which controlled 80% of the sugar industry,  was so prominent in British Guiana that the country was known as ‘Bookers Guiana’ instead. He was appalled by what he found.  Of course, slavery had been abolished a hundred years earlier, and the place of slaves on the plantation had been taken by East Indian “coolies”. Driven partially by guilt, but also by his Fabian socialist ideals, he declared that

People are more important than ships, shops and sugar estates.

He became in effect a socialist-capitalist and introduced a string of reforms that modernized the sugar industry and trained Guyanese to take over the management of the company.  He improved housing for the sugar workers, introduced pension schemes and sickness benefits, and vastly raised the salaries of workers.  On his return to England, he was made a life peer by Harold Wilson and was active for the Labor Party in the House of Lords.  It was there that he disassociated himself from his ancestors on 5 May 1971, in the House of Lords, arguing that “maximising profits cannot and should not be the sole purpose, or even the primary purpose, of business.”

He had diversified the company into many other interests other than sugar, including taking over the company that owned the copyright on Ian Fleming’s books- a lucrative acquisition as more and more Bond films were produced. It was fitting, then, that the Booker Prize was launched in 1969, after the publishers Jonathan Cape suggested that Booker-McConnell might sponsor a major fiction prize.

I see that on the Man-Booker Page, only Man is listed as the sponsor. But it will always be the Booker Prize to me.

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