Posted on May 24, 2024

If Anyone Should Be Paying Slavery Reparations, It’s West Africa

Lawrence Goldman, The Telegraph, May 20, 2024

The Dean of Chapel in Trinity College, Cambridge, the Rev Michael Banner, has computed that Britain owes more than £200 billion to Caribbean nations as reparations for slavery. Banner is not a historian nor an accountant but a clergyman and his calculations, both mathematical and moral, are wrong.

In 1833, when Parliament emancipated slaves in the British empire, the cabinet initially offered the slaveholders about £15 million in compensation. The two sides eventually settled at £20 million. To have paid the slaveholders to free their slaves was highly controversial at the time, but it was the only way to secure their freedom finally after years of campaigning.

Banner’s calculations start with the valuation initially advanced in the negotiations by the slaveholding interest, which, at £40 million, was twice the amount they actually received. Why he has taken this as his baseline isn’t clear from the reports, but in so doing Banner has ensured that his final figure for what you and I apparently owe is both astronomical and nonsensical.

It is moral nonsense because the whole British nation in 1833 can hardly be held responsible for the actions of the 45,000 Britons who owned slaves. At least 10 times as many Britons signed the dozens of anti-slavery petitions presented to Parliament from the 1780s onwards.

It is even more nonsensical to ask Britons today, millions of whose ancestors did not live in the country until recently, to pay for something that occurred three centuries ago.

Some descendants of slaveholding families, such as Laura Trevelyan and Charlie Gladstone, have felt it right to offer personal reparations. That is their choice. But the rest of us are not responsible for something we rightly lament, though over which we had no say or control.

Nor is it clear why Britain alone should pay these fictitious sums. British slave traders are estimated to have enslaved and transported about a quarter of the Africans shipped across the Atlantic over a period of four centuries. This hated trade was begun by the Portuguese and Spanish and involved French, Dutch, Danish and even Norwegian traders as well.

Then there is the problem of African responsibility for the enslavement of Africans. The slave trade across the Atlantic and also into Arab lands in North Africa and the Middle East would not have been possible without the collaboration and complicity of African kingdoms and their rulers. They sold on captives, often taken in tribal wars. If we are to pay for the sins of our fathers, surely the descendants of the Oba of Benin, the King of the Asante and many others beside should be paying as well?

The strangest aspect of Banner’s case is that it should be made by a Christian clergyman. Some British subjects were sinners, yes. The vast majority had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery. After 50 years of struggle, the British anti-slavery campaign succeeded in ending the British slave trade and slavery itself. Thereafter, we became what has been called an “anti-slavery nation”, leading the world in multiple efforts to end slavery around the globe.

Slavery was – and still is in its modern forms – a lamentable stain on civilisation. It was also ubiquitous. Its intrinsic sadness and tragedy should make it obvious to everyone that its history must be told accurately and respectfully, and not sensationalised in this and other ways.