There’s always a big flurry of activity when the winner of the Booker Prize is announced. This year, The Promise by Damon Galgut won the coveted award for the best novel written in English and published in the UK.
Winning the Booker is a big deal. The winner receives £50,000 and authors who are shortlisted win £2,500. This doesn’t sound like very much, but being shortlisted usually results in a dramatic increase in book sales, so it can transform an author’s career overnight.
But apart from the generous prize money, it made me wonder why the Booker is so important and how it all started.
It turns out that the Booker Prize has a very murky past involving exploitation, slavery and reparation.
Here’s a potted history:
In 1815 Josias Booker arrived in British Guiana, and his younger brother George joined him soon after. George found work as a shipping agent for the export of timber and Josias became the manager of a cotton plantation, where he managed nearly 200 enslaved people.
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.
In 1835, George and Richard Booker (another brother) founded a trading and shipping company and established the Booker Line, which focused on shipping goods. Richard Booker died four years later in 1838, leaving Josias and George to increase the business after the purchase of sugar plantations across the colony. At one point, the Bookers controlled 75% of the sugar industry in British Guiana and owned five Booker Line ships. It was common to refer to the country as Booker’s Guiana, rather than British Guiana. After emancipation, the sugar plantations relied on indentured labourers shipped in from Calcutta. This continued for over three quarters of a century, with workers being treated as slaves and living in poor conditions.
In 1952, Jock Campbell took over the chairmanship of the company and his Fabian social politics transformed it into a benevolent force, providing major benefits for sugar workers. Jock Campbell helped to set up Booker’s Author Division, which sponsored the original Booker Prize until 2002.
The modern day Booker has no connection to the family and is currently sponsored by a charitable foundation.
Not only does the prize have a colourful past, the choice of winner is often very controversial. There is often widespread debate about whether the ‘right’ book has won as well as whether the judging panel was diverse enough.
This year’s panel was chaired by historian Maya Jasanoff and included writer and editor Horatio Harrod; actor Natascha McElhone; Professor Chigozie Obioma and former Archbishop Rowan Williams, who is also a poet. A mixed bunch indeed, but the winner was apparently a unanimous choice.
Will I read The Promise? Probably not. It looks too highbrow for me, but I might get around to reading Great Circle, which is very long, but getting great reviews. One of my favourite books this year was Klara and the Sun, which was on the long list, but sadly didn’t make it to the short list.
Do you plan to read any of the books on this year’s list? Let me know in the comments.