DEBATING MATTERS TOPIC GUIDE

‘Britain should pay reparations for its colonial past’

This topic guide is a companion to ‘Germany should pay reparations for its colonial past’

INTRODUCTION

Although the issue of slave trade reparations has long been contentious, the 2020 US election has reinvigorated the debate [Ref: The Guardian] as Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives [Ref: NYTimes] and two potential presidential candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren [Ref: Reuters] and Kamala Harris [Ref: Daily Mail], have endorsed reparations policies. Similarly, the return of H.R 40 in 2019 [Ref: Congress], a proposed law to set up a commission to ‘study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans’ has provided a platform for discussing both sides of this debate [Ref: The Guardian].

But US reparations are just one aspect of an increasing demand for compensation from Western nations to individuals and countries who were affected by the slave trade. According to some calculations, reparations for the transatlantic slave trade [Ref: UNESCO] could add up to $14 trillion [Ref: Newsweek] and those calling for reparations argue that slavery facilitated the rise of Britain as a global player. The implication of this is that slavery has filtered down through generations and had a discernible material impact on the present, benefitting the descendants of those who owned and traded slaves, and holding back the descendants of slaves [Ref: New Statesman].

Critics of reparations are concerned about the idea of apologising and paying reparations for something no modern Briton was a part of, and question whether reparations are the best way to resolve an historical injustice [Ref: spiked]. Though few would argue about the inhumanity that slavery embodied, the issue at hand is whether there is a moral and financial debt still to be paid by modern Western states, such as the UK. Would financial reparations absolve the UK once and for all from its debt to generations of people affected by the transatlantic slave trade? Or should we stop trying to find solutions to today’s problems by resolving history’s wrongs?

DEBATE IN CONTEXT

The Moral Case

In a seminal piece on the topic, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates highlights philosopher John Locke’s observations in his Second Treatise of Government that ‘he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation’ [Ref: Atlantic]. This right to seek redress lies at the heart of the moral case for reparations as a way of atoning for hundreds of years of unpaid labour, suffering and exploitation. Speaking at a congressional hearing in 2019, Coates furthered this argument to say that American citizens are “bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach” [Ref: The Guardian].

However, some highlight the role Britain played in the abolition of the slave trade, at great financial cost, as moral atonement [Ref: Forbes], while others, such as columnist Patrick West, argue ‘you can’t apologise for something you didn’t do. It’s an effortless and insincere gesture.’ [Ref: Spiked] They view the moral opprobrium surrounding reparations as problematic, and question whether it is ethically right for modern citizens to apologise or pay reparations for actions carried out by ancestors, generations ago.

For example, in his rebuttal to Coates, writer Coleman Hughes states that ‘the moment you give me reparations… you’ve made one-third of black Americans who poll against reparations into victims without their consent. And black Americans have fought too long for the right to define themselves to be spoken for in such a condescending manner.’ [Ref: The Guardian] Do we as a modern society have a collective duty to atone for this historic act of inhumanity, or is it unreasonable to expect people to make amends for actions they did not do and events they had no control over?

A lasting legacy?

Opponents of reparations are wary of attributing any modern social, economic or cultural problems to the institution of slavery, and reject the idea that the descendants of slaves are determined by the events of the past. In this vein, journalist Christian Watson warns of the legacy of a ‘victim mentality’. For Watson, the topic of reparations is weaponised by politicians to homogenise African-Americans into voting as a bloc, and that ‘encouraging people to confront societal ills themselves is a far better route to equality than reparations’ [Ref: spiked].

Others are also reluctant to accept that the whole Caribbean is in abject poverty as a result of the legacy of slavery. According to recent figures: ‘Most slave colonies in the Caribbean are now fairly successful middle-income countries, or better… the Bahamas has a GDP per head close to that of Italy or Spain. Barbados scores higher on the UN Development Programme’s human development index than any of its much larger South American neighbours.’ [Ref: Economist]

However, advocates dismiss these suggestions, and say that we can clearly see a modern legacy of slavery in both the UK and the Caribbean that needs redressing. A British writer and academic, Kehinde Andrews, argues that the wealth of the West would not exist without the enslavement of millions of African people, and that racial equality can only occur with ‘nothing short of a massive transfer of wealth from the developed to the underdeveloped world, and to the descendants of slavery and colonialism in the west’ [Ref: The Guardian]. Similarly, columnist Kuba Shand-Baptiste writes that sustained inequality and social segregation founded in colonial slavery persists in the Caribbean, with descendants continuing to benefit from inherited wealth and profit from plantations [Ref: The Independent].

The key point for reparation proponents is that although slavery was abolished nearly 200 years ago ‘the effects of this time are still felt around the world today’, and reparations would help address the ‘wrongs of slavery so that the countries and peoples that suffered throughout history, can begin economic and social development on equal terms with former colonisers’ [Ref: New York Times].

A realistic solution?

One of the leading arguments from those who are critical of colonial slavery reparations is that the policy is impractical. Julia Hartley-Brewer outlines the practical difficulties surrounding reparations, when she notes that the majority of slaves were actually sold by fellow black Africans to Europeans – and so asks whether Caribbean countries should be asking African nations for reparations, too [Ref: Telegraph].  

Similarly, in addition to his remarks at the congressional hearing, Coleman Hughes questions how best to resolve racial inequality by writing ‘the debate… is not between reparations and doing nothing for black people, but between policy based on genealogy and policy based on socio-economics… an ancestral connection to slavery is a far less reliable predicator of privation than low income’ [Ref: Quillette]. He also warns that reparations are likely to ‘function as a kind of subsidy for activism’.

For supporters, however, reparation and compensation programs do have precedent. Japanese-Americans descended from prisoners of Second World War internment camps, for example, were given a formal apology and $20,000 in 1988 [Ref: The New York Times] while Germany’s Holocaust reparations to Israel are argued to be the basis of 45,000 jobs and 15 per cent of Israel’s growth across the 12 years of the agreement [Ref: Atlantic]. On the other hand, not all reparation agreements are viewed as successful, as demonstrated by Japan and Korea’s ongoing feud about their 1965 agreement to ‘normalise relations’ after the war, which included a payment to South Korea of $300 million and a $200 million loan [Ref: LA Times].

Most important for supporters of transatlantic slavery reparations, however, is the injustice of the compensation of between £16 billion and £17 billion given to 46,000 British slave owners in 1834, one year after the British abolition of slavery, while the freed slaves received nothing [Ref: The Guardian]. Injustices such as this have led to a number of carefully considered reparations proposals and calculations that proponents argue are realistic, most notably a 10-point plan outlined by CARICOM (The Caribbean Community and Common Market), which includes debt cancellation as a means of lessening the financial burden that they argue is a direct legacy of slavery [Ref: Leighday].

As one Belgian performer plans to make reparations by cycling to Congo dressed as King Leopold II [Ref: The Brussels Times], can we say slavery reparations are a genuine and helpful means of rectifying a historical wrong, a symbolic gesture, or an impractical and misguided policy?

KEY TERMS

Reparations

Transatlantic Slave Trade

ESSENTIAL READING

FOR

Reparations for slavery are not about punishing children for parents’ sins
Julian Baggini The Guardian 30 November 2018

The west’s wealth is based on slavery. Reparations should be paid
Kehinde Andrews The Guardian 28 August 2017

Justice requires former colonialists pay reparations
Verene A Shepherd The New York Times 8 October 2015

Much of Britain’s wealth is built on slavery. So why shouldn’t it pay reparations?
Priyamvada Gopal New Statesman 23 April 2014

AGAINST

Reparations and the victim mentality
Christian Watson spiked 23 April 2019

Reparations and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Pyrrhic Victory
Coleman Hughes Quillette 17 March 2019

The slave trade was not my fault
Patrick West spiked 9 October 2015

Jamaican reparations: British taxpayers are not to blame for the horror of slavery
Julia Hartley-Brewer The Telegraph 29 September 2015

IN DEPTH

What reparations for slavery might look like in 2019
Patricia Cohen The New York Times 23 May 2019

The case for reparations
Ta-Nehisi Coates Atlantic June 2014

BACKGROUNDERS

World Development Indicators
World Bank 20 December 2019

If Glasgow University is serious about slavery reparations, it would pay those still affected
Claire Heuchan Huffington Post 23 August 2019

Japan, Korea and the messy question of how to pay for historic wrongs
Victoria Kim Los Angeles Times 17 August 2019

While the US debate heats up, why won’t the UK even talk about reparations for slavery?
Kuba Shand-Baptiste Independent 17 July 2019

If you think affluent black people or mixed raced people shouldn’t qualify for reparations, I have something to tell you
Christabel Nsiah-Buadi Independent 28 March 2019

Britons suffer ‘historical amnesia’ over atrocities of their former empire, says author
Matt Broomfield Independent 5 March 2017

H.R.40 – Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act
116th Congress 1 March 2019

Are Trans-Atlantic slave trade reparations due?
New York Times 8 October 2015

Big debate: should Britain pay reparations for its role in the Atlantic slave trade?
Iain Burns Newham Recorder 7 October 2015

We shouldn’t pay blood money for slavery
Tristram Hunt The Times 3 October 2015

Cameron, slavery, history and the enlightenment tradition
Tanzil Chowdhury Critical Legal Thinking 1 October 2015

The Guardian view on Britain’s slavery inheritance: reflect and atone
Guardian 30 September 2015

The history of British slave ownership has been buried: now its scale can be revealed
David Olusoga Guardian 12 July 2015

Blood Money
Economist 3 October 2013

We British Would Be Delighted To Accept Reparations For The Slave Trade
Tim Worstall Forbes 26 July 2013

Slavery Abolition Act 1833
Wikipedia

ORGANISATIONS

Caribbean Community Secretariat

Colonialism Reparation

National Commission on Reparations

UNESCO

IN THE NEWS

Belgian performer to cycle to Congo dressed as Leopold II to ‘ask forgiveness’
Brussels Times 17 December 2019

How a growing number of US colleges are paying ‘reparations’ to descendants of slavery victims
Carolyn Thompson Independent 14 December 2019

Glasgow University to pay £20m in slave trade reparations
Severin Carrell Guardian 23 August 2019

Should America pay reparations for slavery? Ta-Nehisi Coates v Coleman Hughes
Ta-Nehisi Coats and Coleman Hughes The Guardian 19 June 2019

House Democrats, with Pelosi’s support, will consider a commission on reparations
Sheryl Gay Stolberg New York Times 18 June 2019

Kamala Harris says she will sign legislation studying reparations ‘when’ she becomes president and takes a dig at Trump for stance on white nationalism
Francesca Chambers Daily Mail 5 April 2019

Reparations: Democrats renew debate over how to heal the legacy of slavery
Oliver Laughland and Hubert Adjei-Kontoh The Guardian 21 March 2019

Senator Elizabeth Warren backs reparations for black Americans
Ginger Gibson Reuters 21 February 2019

David Cameron rules out slavery reparation during Jamaica visit
Business Insider 30 September 2015

Slavery Reparations could cost up to $14 trillion, according to new calculation
Douglas Main Newsweek 19 August 2015

CARICOM nations unanimously approve 10 point plan for slavery reparations
Leigh Day 11 March 2014

AUDIO/VISUAL

Coleman Hughes talks to Quillette’s Jonathan Kay about his reparations testimony
Quillette Podcast 22 June 2019

Coleman Hughes testifies against reparations
C-Span 19 June 2019

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Danny Glover make case for slavery reparations
C-Span 19 June 2019

Should Britain pay Jamaica reparations for slavery?
Phoebe Greenwood Guardian 30 September 2015

Dr Shashi Tharoor MP – Britain does owe reparations
Oxford Union 14 July 2015

The morality of empire
Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 18 July 2012