Case for British slavery reparations should no longer be brushed aside
There is now a global debate focused on all those nations who built their wealth by denying black people humanity
I once asked a British cabinet minister why the country had never apologised for the transatlantic slave trade. After all, this nation trafficked more enslaved Africans than almost any other –at least 3 million on British ships –yet it has only ever expressed “regret”. It’s a strange choice of words for playing a leading role in the greatest atrocity in human history.
The minister explained to me that the UK cannot apologise, because the case against it –watertight in moral and ethical terms –might then become legal too. In short, Britain won’t use the language of apology, out of fear this might pave the way for reparations.
That admission made me sit up and take notice. Because, passionate as I have always been about racial justice, I’m also not immune from the perception of reparations as specially “radioactive”.
Yet I’m now seeing with increasing clarity how this perception only serves to reinforce systems of race and power. The debate about reparations has, conveniently, been branded extreme and unrealistic by those who don’t want to pay them. We happily listen to the heir to the throne –who on Wind rush Day said Britain owed a “debt of gratitude” to the people of the Caribbean –while ignoring the reality that what Britain owes is, in fact, a straight-up financial debt.
The case is unequivocal. The African American intellectual WEB Du Bois was right when he described the enslavement of at least 12 million Africans as “the sum of all villainies, the cause of all sorrow, the root of all Iprejudice”. In the Caribbean, Britain received, in the words of Nobel prize-winning economist Arthur Lewis, 200 years of free labour –from over 15 million black people, and those who were indentured from India. The proceeds from this enslavement, and the heavily exploitative years of “apprenticed” labour that followed it, provided the profits with which Britain modernised its econo-my.
Thesystemic poverty that remains in the Caribbean can be directly traced to the era of enslavement and colonialism, at the end of which Britain walked away leaving 60% of the region’s black inhabitants functionally illiterate.A common complaint about reparations is the alleged unfairness of burdening today’s generation with debt arising from their ancestors’ wrongs. Yet where is the outrage that my generation contributed towards the more than £300bn in today’s money notorious-ly paid to Britain’s slave owners for the loss of their human “property”? Their compensation under the Slavery Abolition Act –comprising an astounding 40% of the national budget at the time –was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015.
The case for reparations is becoming a global conversation to which every nation that systematically enriched itself by stealing black people’s very humanity –not to mention unquantifiable torture and cultural destruction –now finds itself exposed.Instead of going away, these reparatory justice movements will continue to reinforce each other across the black diaspora.
Source –The Guardian