A former BBC presenter has said that her family would consider paying compensation for the Irish famine as her ancestor “failed” people.
Laura Trevelyan, whose great, great, great-grandfather Sir Charles Trevelyan oversaw the UK government’s response to the tragedy, said that her family would consider reparations if the Irish government found her family were “liable”.
Ms Trevelyan’s family have already agreed to donate £100,000 to the Caribbean island of Grenada to atone for the slave holdings of their ancestors, who had six sugar plantations on the island in the 1800s.
After issuing the apology and promising the money for community projects in February, the US-based British broadcaster quit her job at the BBC in order to become a “roving advocate” for reparative justice.
But she has faced questions over why the family were willing to pay for reparations in the Caribbean but not closer to her ancestral home.
After the apology, Katherine Mezzacappa, an Irish novelist, asked if the Trevelyans had: “Any word on Charles Trevelyan’s catastrophic handling of famine relief in Ireland?”
Sir Charles was the Treasury official in charge of famine relief in the 1840s and was reluctant to hand out aid. Ms Trevelyan noted that he was “providentialist” and “a laissez-faire economist” who felt that private charity “should be leaping to the rescue”.
Sir Charles said the Irish deserved the famine in which around a million people died, saying it was a “punishment from God” for being “idle” and “ungrateful”.
But Ms Trevelyan said that she does not believe her family should be held personally responsible, as Sir Charles was acting in his capacity as a government representative and enacting official policy.
In comparison, her ancestors in Grenada were personally making great profit from the slave trade, she said.
She told BBC Radio Ulster’s The Nolan Show: “If the Irish government said the Trevelyan family are liable for what Sir Charles Edward did then, of course, that would have to be considered.”
She added: “To the best of my knowledge there isn’t an inter-government request from the Irish government to the British for reparations to be paid for the famine because of the action of officials like Sir Charles.”
Sir Charles, a 19th century British civil servant and colonial administrator, has been singled out for blame in the Irish ballad The Fields Of Athenry about a man prosecuted for stealing “Trevelyan’s corn”.
Tripped by own history
Ms Trevelyan said that the song had been sung at her during her 30-year career at the BBC. When she was covering the Good Friday Agreement in the 1990s she also “tripped over my own history” and was questioned about her family links by Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
“I well remember Martin McGuinness saying to me, ‘Is this a coincidence that the British have sent a Trevelyan for the BBC, a state institution, to cover these negotiations?’.
“I assured him it was a coincidence but he didn’t think it was at all and that’s when I tripped up against Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan.
“And I remember so clearly being in Crossmaglen in south Armagh and speaking to a member of Republican Sinn Fein who looked at me in horror and said, ‘How can you be driving around south Armagh with the blood of the Irish on your hands?’ And to my embarrassment I didn’t even really understand what either of them were talking about.
“When I got back to Britain I began to read up on Sir Charles.”
She said she had since researched him extensively, including for a book she wrote about her family and she acknowledged that “those who governed in London at the time of the Irish famine failed their people by standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy”.
She said that he “is an absolutely central character in this” and his actions were “very hard to defend”.