By Rohail Karim
The Man Booker prize, one of the highest recognized awards for literature, at least that’s what they want you to believe. Whilst the award does help the winning writer out to some extent, providing a £50,000 cash prize which is important considering the pennies some authors from book sales, (thank you retailers!), there is a negative view surrounding the company’s neo-colonial history.
One of the most infamous and controversial moments of the televised award came in 1972 when John Berger was receiving the prize for his novel G. During his acceptance speech, Berger highlighted the neo-colonial nature of the prize’s sponsor. The Booker, McConnell ltd company had roots in the Caribbean, and Berger made sure the audience knew it. He made note of how “the extreme poverty (in the Caribbean) is the direct consequence of companies like Booker”. The sugar plantations in Guyana used indentured labour (forced labour) for its workers which was basically a form of slavery and is now banned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The prize, despite recognizing ethnic writers was founded on, essentially a form of slavery which has makes people view the prize as an example of how Britain still hasn’t paid their debts to the countries they’ve exploited.
Being of Indo-Guyanese descent, I can’t help but feel anger towards the Booker company. Until recently I had no clue of the company’s history, but upon doing further research, and delving into its past, I’ve come to the realisation that my ancestors could have been the ‘workers’ that were forced to work for the company. Had Berger not spoken up about the history, the roots of the company may have been lost and the company may have still appeared as the prestigious award it’s known for being.
Who would’ve thought that something as prestigious as the Man Booker prize would be the centre of a neo-colonial scandal, ay? Well, unfortunately this award is just the tip of the iceberg. Now I’m not the type of person who ignores how far we have come as a country, and the UK is one of the most multi-cultural nations in the world. However, more needs to be done to raise awareness of how Britain and British companies like Booker treated and exploited other developing countries. Maybe one month of Black history doesn’t cut it. Instead of learning about the histories of Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, why don’t we take a look into the history of our own people just a few centuries ago.
Even though the prize is very rewarding to up and coming authors, and as a contributor to the British literary marketplace, more needs to be done to help those countries that were exploited. There are many ideas that are fitting, but one that could be implemented is matching the prize fund, and giving it to a developing company in Guyana.