On April 15 the Rowntree Society announced that its preliminary investigations into the Rowntree company’s historic global supply chains have revealed how “Rowntree businesses benefitted from slavery, unfree labour and other forms of racial exploitation during the eras of colonialism and apartheid.”
The Quaker Rowntree family established and ran a well-known chocolate business in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries out of York, England. In 1904, founder Joseph Rowntree endowed three separate trusts—the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust—to address social problems in Britain. In 2004 the trusts established the Rowntree Society to “further knowledge about the very rich Rowntree legacy.”
In response to the Rowntree Society’s announcement, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation trustees and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust Board posted an apology on its website:
We are deeply sorry that the origins of our endowment have roots in shameful practices that caused deep suffering and created enduring harms. . . . It is especially important to us that the experiences of people whose labour was taken under duress and slavery should occupy a more prominent place in the Rowntree story. We should have done this much earlier.
The statement went on to mark a path forward:
alongside the other independently endowed Rowntree trusts we will fund the Rowntree Society to investigate this part of our history more fully. . . . We know that the harms caused by these practices are still creating injustice and suffering today. . . . We also undertake this knowing that, as the financial beneficiaries of our forebears’ past actions, we have a particular obligation to contribute to repairing their harmful impacts.
The two other Rowntree Trusts also issued apologies on April 15.
Georgina Bailey, a Quaker and policy editor of The House (a weekly magazine covering Parliament), reposted the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s apology on Twitter and commented:
Really pleased to see Quaker-linked organisations moving away from the singular heroic narrative of Quakers as abolitionists, which has systematically ignored our role in the slave trade and the money behind our philanthropy—and to talk about reparations too. If we want to enact our testimonies to truth, peace and equality, we have to start by telling the complete version of our history.