The Booker Prize was first awarded in 1969. Its aim was to stimulate the reading and discussion of contemporary fiction, in the hope that newly published work would eventually become as central to Anglophone culture as Francophone fiction was to France, thanks to the Prix Goncourt.
The publishers Tom Maschler and Graham C Greene, who came up with the idea, found a backer in Booker McConnell, a conglomerate with a significant long-term presence in Guyana. The company had recently acquired a commercial interest in literary estates. Thus a prize for writers and readers of the Commonwealth – not just Britain – was born.
A more detailed overview of the prize’s history and that of its younger sibling, The International Booker Prize (for fiction in translation), was published in a special edition of the Times Literary Supplement in 2018. That piece is available for free here.
The present-day Booker Prize Foundation was established in 2002, the point at which Booker ceased to fund the prize and the Man Group took over as sponsor.
The Foundation – whose charitable purpose is to promote the art of literature for the public benefit – has no financial ties with the Booker Group, and neither of the two contemporary Booker Prizes is a direct beneficiary of Booker’s legacy.
The Foundation has retained the Booker name, since by 2002 The Booker Prize had become widely known, and the fortuitous harmony of Booker and ‘book’ was too happy a convergence to pass up.
Nonetheless, the level of conversation around the impact of the past on racial inequity in the present has led us to consider Booker’s history to be the prize’s prehistory. In the interests of public understanding, a brief outline follows.
1815 – 1834
In 1815, eight years after the abolition of the slave trade, Josias Booker arrived in Demerara from Liverpool. His younger brother George, who was 16 at the time, joined him later.
George worked as a shipping agent for the export of timber. Josias became the manager of a cotton plantation, Broom Hall, where he managed nearly 200 enslaved people. He went on to manage another plantation and train the workforces of several more.
When Josias returned to Liverpool in 1827, his brother William became the attorney for Broom Hall. George added sugar to his business interests – though the scale of production is unclear – and was elected to the British Guiana Court of Policy.
With the abolition of slavery, which took effect in 1834, the Booker brothers received compensation from the state for 52 emancipated slaves. The Slave Ownership Database at University College London records the total sum as £2,884, equivalent to £378,000 in 2020.
Booker, a trading and shipping business, was founded.
1830s – 1917
As part of the deal struck with the British government, former slave owners retained the enslaved as unpaid ‘apprentices’ until 1838. After that, an indentured labour force was brought to British Guiana. The system of indentured labour continued until 1917, with people of East Indian descent becoming the largest ethnic group in British Guiana.
Ian Fleming, a good friend and golfing partner of Booker Chairman Jock Campbell, died in 1964. Before he did, Campbell established an ‘authors’ division’ within Booker, and bought (for £100,000) a 51 per cent share in the profits from worldwide royalties on Fleming’s books. The Booker Authors’ Division would go on to acquire the copyrights of Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer and Harold Pinter, among others.
British Guiana became independent, and changed its name to Guyana.
The Booker Prize was founded (the inaugural prize was awarded in 1969), thanks to the publisher Tom Maschler and Campbell, who had retired as Booker Chairman in 1967 but continued as President.
Thirty years later, Booker Chairman Michael Caine would write that ‘The Booker Prize can trace its origin, through quirks of history and the imaginativeness of one individual, to James Bond and the attainment of political freedom in Guyana’. Campbell – the imaginative individual – was, Caine wrote, ‘deeply conscious of the wrongs and hurts of slavery and the complex relationships of the African and East Indian populations in Guyana’.
VS Naipaul became the first writer of colour to win the Booker Prize, with his novel In A Free State. Nine years earlier, Naipaul had written a book-length essay, The Middle Passage, in which he described travelling through British Guiana and mentioned the omnipresence of ‘Bookers’. ‘Everywhere on the coast you can see reminders of the past,’ he wrote.
John Berger, the fourth winner of The Booker Prize, gave half his prize money to the British Black Panthers, in reparation, he said, for the slave trade whose profits had created modern Europe: ‘The issue is between me and the culture which has formed me’. He ended his acceptance speech by saying that in the struggle of ‘the oppressed … against exploitation… it is possible for the descendants of the slave and the slavemaster to approach each other again with the amazed hope of potential equals.’
All of Booker’s interests in Guyana were nationalised.
Ben Okri became the first black man to win The Booker Prize, for The Famished Road.
Arundhati Roy became the first woman of colour to win The Booker Prize, for The God of Small Things.
Booker ceased to fund The Booker Prize. The Booker Prize Foundation was established as an independent charity and the Man Group came on board as the Prize’s sponsor.
Crankstart, a charitable foundation, took over from the Man Group as the sponsor of The Booker Prize, which reverted to its original name.
At the end of that year, Bernardine Evaristo, who shared the prize with Margaret Atwood, became the first black woman to win The Booker Prize, for her novel Girl, Woman, Other.
Previous winners of The Booker Prize can be viewed in the Backlist.
For more information on The Booker Prize, please read our Frequently Asked Questions.