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Much of Britain's wealth is built on slavery. So why shouldn't it pay reparations?

The benefits of slavery have accrued down the generations, so why are we so nervous about the responsibility for the slave trade doing the same?

The chained fist of the statue celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the US. Photo: Getty
The chained fist of the statue celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the US. Photo: Getty

“Should we be responsible for the sins of our fathers?” Any discussion about the deeply polarising topic of reparations for slavery, if it happens at all, takes place in these quasi-religious terms.  Unfortunately, the language of the confessional immediately constrains, indeed skews, the debate. Turning a matter of material justice into one of proxy atonement does the question of our demanding relationship to history a profound disservice. It implies, wrongly, that historical events of such vast reach as slavery have no discernible material impact on our present, as though what happened to or was done by our ancestors doesn’t filter down and impact our present.  This is a curious belief in a society which believes so passionately in inheritance. How is possible, at one and the same time, to believe deeply in the right to inherit wealth and property acquired by progenitors while insisting that we in the present cannot, in any way, be responsible for the mechanisms of wealth-making in the past?  It’s convenient enough: my grandfather’s house is my house but how he came to own is none of my business.

“Say NO to paying for something that happened 100s of years ago,” screamed one meme that was doing the rounds on social media around the time tabloids began to claim that Caribbean nations were “suing” for reparations. They aren’t, strictly speaking, and nor can something which ended only in 1838 be compared, as it often is, with the Viking invasions or Roman conquest.  The CARICOM group of nations, led by Barbados , is really calling for a wider dialogue about historical justice.  Why should Britain – or any other former slave-trading nation – shy away from it?

After all, in almost any other sphere, historical continuities are acknowledged, even venerated – aren’t we told ad nauseum that the monarchy is important because it represents continuity?  Even something like the “Commonwealth” – whose Games will be held in Glasgow this summer – celebrates the international “links” forged by Britain’s Empire and its apparent historical achievements. Britons are constantly reminded by politicians and some historians to take pride in having “given” former colonies those two old chestnuts, the railways and the English language. Seems a bit odd, if not thoroughly hypocritical, to then swiftly put distance between our “proud” present and the Empire’s rather less flattering legacies, which include gargantuan impoverishment and dislocation across swathes of the globe.  How is it possible to keep up the endless national self-congratulation for the abolition of the slave trade while insisting that no one today has any connection to slavery itself?  The Trinidadian historian Eric Williams once noted wryly that it was almost as though Britain had set up the slave trade for the sole purpose of abolishing it.

But in truth, Britain gained rather more out of slavery than the retrospective joy of abolishing the trade in slaves, celebrations of which obscure the role rebellious slaves themselves played in their emancipation. The Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without the wealth generated by slave labour. Britain’s major ports, cities and canals were built on invested slave money. Several banks can trace their origins to the financing of the slave trade. Apart from the Barclays Brothers, who were slave traders, we also know of Barings and HSBC which can be traced back to Thomas Leyland’s banking house. The Bank of England also had close connections to the trade. Hundreds of Britain’s great houses were built with the wealth of slavery (pdf) and the Church of England also acknowledges its pecuniary gains from slavery. As an excellent project at University College London is showing, not only many contemporary millionaires and politicians but also perfectly ordinary middle-class people come from families which were compensated for the loss of slaves. The freed slaves, of course, never received such compensation and their families inherited, instead, the poverty and landlessness which blights them to this day. Capitalism itself, along with cheap beach holidays, would have been impossible without slavery.

The Foreign Office responded to the invitation to discuss reparations with the patronising suggestion that we concentrate on “identifying ways forward”. That’s great if you benefited, however little, from slavery. How exactly does “moving forward” work if the slave past holds you and your society back in poverty? It’s a mistake, however, to think of the question of slavery as something that only pertains to its direct victims, past and present. Sensationalised tabloid reports about paying out to foreign countries have stoked an understandable, if false, resentment among the less well-off in Britain who don’t  themselves feel particularly advantaged by the legacies of slavery.

A more honest debate would engage with slavery’s crucial role in helping to set up capitalism itself, the system under which all of today live and labour, inextricably connecting us not only to its enslaving foundations but its controlling mechanisms and values, especially that of under-valuing labour and repressing serious challenge.  “Do you ever try to understand,” thunders the Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid, “why people like me cannot get over the past, cannot forgive and cannot forget?” As a descendant of someone whose ancestors were in themselves “capital”, she notes that the denial of the extent to which “got-for-nothing” labour underlies capitalism only adds to the injury, “for not only did we have to suffer the unspeakableness of slavery, but the satisfaction to be had from ‘We made you bastards rich’ is taken away too.”

“They took our boots, no less our straps,” anti-racist African-American campaigner “Queen Mother” Audley Moore once memorably put it, challenging the capitalist cherished myth that all achievement is solely due  to individual effort rather than at least a degree of inherited privilege. This is surely an insight that will resonate with the millions today who are at the receiving end of capitalism’s profiteering viciousness?  They include the low-waged, the unemployed, the disabled, the undervalued, the over-worked, the ill-treated, the indignant, the resistant, the ill-adjusted, the trafficked and the needlessly criminalised – indeed, the vast majority of us, to different degrees.

Plantation slavery may no longer be with us in the same form but its founding principle has never really gone away – take as much as you can from the labour of the many and concentrate land and wealth among the few. A debate about reparations – and redressing historical injustice – can help us ask the question more starkly: for all the pious talk about “addressing inequality”, can capitalism really move so far from its beginnings as to be inherently fair? How can a system which won’t acknowledge its origins become “responsible” capitalism? Rather than feel “we” have to unfairly pay to help “them” – any reparations money should clearly come from banks, large corporations and multi-millionaires, in any case – perhaps we should talk about the possibility of economic justice under capitalism itself?

Maybe this is why there is such resistance at governmental and corporate levels to opening up the question of reparations.  It might lead us to ask why large corporations, like slave owners, receive bailouts or compensation for losses incurred, as did slave owners, but people who inherit landlessness and poverty, whether descendants of slaves or not, are repeatedly to told not to expect help or benefits, to look to themselves. The “sins of the fathers” notion, separating past from present, allows the question to conveniently be turned into one of private faith and individual responsibility (that beloved capitalist buzzphrase) rather than how some inherit privilege and many inherit disadvantage within a stratified social order.  That’s a move which ultimately benefits not you and me, but the wealthy and the privileged in whose favour the global order is disastrously skewed.