When the Booker Prize was first conceived, in 1968, its founders Tom Maschler and Graham C Greene found a backer in Booker McConnell, a wholesale food distributor with a significant long-term presence in Guyana.
In the 19th century, George Booker had been the manager of a cotton plantation in Demerara, where he managed nearly 200 enslaved people. He and his brother Josias had business interests in a number of plantations, with sugar as the primary crop. It was this history that led the original Booker Prize sponsors to be referred to colloquially as ‘the sugar daddies’, and which compelled John Berger, winner of the 1972 Booker Prize, to ‘turn this prize against itself’ and donate half of his prize money to the British Black Panther movement.
Though the present-day Booker Prize Foundation has no financial ties with the Booker Group (Booker continued to fund the Prize until 2002; the Booker and International Booker Prizes are now funded by a charitable foundation, Crankstart), we consider Booker’s history to be the Prize’s prehistory. Bearing in mind the impact of the past on racial inequity in the present, we have outlined Booker’s 19th century origins below.
A more substantial account, written from the point of view of a Guyanese historian, will follow.
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 Legacies of 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.
British Guiana became independent, and changed its name to Guyana.