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Behind the headlines

Should Britain pay reparations?

Protesters in Jamaica earlier this year. Ricardo Makyn/AFP/Getty 

How much is being demanded? 

A petition from the Jamaican government last year asked for up to £7bn. It was dismissed by the British High Commission on the grounds that those directly harmed by slavery are no longer alive. Some activists have demanded an equivalent to the £20m – £17bn in today’s money – with which Britain compensated slaveowners when it outlawed the practice throughout the Empire in 1833. It’s certainly a “cost-free” exercise for those asking for the cash, says Douglas Murray in The Times: even if the former colonialists don’t pay, the question distracts from domestic corruption and misgovernance. Reparations are “one of the great shakedown attempts of our time”.

Is that fair?

No, says Afua Hirsch in The Guardian. The millions of African slaves working on Caribbean plantations enabled Britain to turn itself into a major industrial power. Many of the UK’s ports, cities and canals were built on “slave money”, and banks including Barclays and HSBC have roots in the slave trade. Practically none of the wealth remained in the Caribbean, a point British governments have been at pains to conceal. During the Second World War, for example, Britain tried to prevent African Americans being deployed on Caribbean military bases – Whitehall feared that the sight of better-off black Americans “might wake its colonial subjects out of the ignorance” of their own impoverishment. George Orwell once described England as a “rather stuffy Victorian family” which had “a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income”. Sharing that wealth with the communities which contributed towards it is right and proper.

But are Europeans entirely responsible?

Slavery has been “a wickedness engaged in by every civilisation in history”, says Murray. The transatlantic slave trade relied on African slavers who rounded up others on their continent before selling them on to Europeans. And far more African slaves – “perhaps as many as 18 million” – went east to the Arabs, who castrated all the men to ensure they wouldn’t have any descendants. A 2003 UNESCO conference declared that “the Arab-led slave trade of African people predates the transatlantic slave trade by a millennium”, and represents the largest, and longest, “involuntary removal of any indigenous people in the history of humanity”.

And didn’t Britain help end slavery?

We did – and it was expensive. A year after the slave trade was abolished by Britain in 1807, the Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron to try and suppress the practice in the Atlantic. It captured as many as 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 African slaves; more than 1,500 Royal Navy sailors died in the process. The costs of this mission and other abolition-related expenses came to just under 2% of national income throughout the middle of the 19th century. All told, says Murray, it “may actually have equalled any financial benefits accrued to the nation” during our involvement in the slave trade.

Who gets the reparation money?

There’s no satisfactory answer. California’s recently established “reparations taskforce” – the first in America – has argued over whether only direct descendants of African-American slaves should be in line for payments, or all black Americans. The first approach would be less expensive, but it would require the controversial process of applicants needing to prove their lineage from slaves. Over in the Caribbean, it’s questionable how many countries need the cash, says The Economist. The Bahamas is wealthier, per head, than Greece and Turkey; Barbados scores higher on the UN’s human development index than much of South America.

Are we really responsible for the actions of our ancestors?

Yes, says Priyamvada Gopal in The New Statesman. British society believes “passionately” in family inheritance – surely it’s hypocritical to support a parent passing down a house to their child without accepting that how our ancestors acquired their wealth matters? Similarly, we’re comfortable celebrating “historical continuities” like the monarchy, so why shouldn’t we take responsibility for the less rosy parts of our history?

But where do you draw the line?

That’s the “terrible can of worms”, says Michael Deacon in The Daily Telegraph. Because Britain hasn’t only been a perpetrator of slavery – “we’ve also been the victims of it”. The Vikings and Romans enslaved many people from Britain. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Barbary pirates from north Africa captured “countless thousands” of Britons and sold them at Arab slave markets. Worst of the lot were “the Germanic peoples who invaded England in the Early Middle Ages”: by 1086, more than 10% of England’s population were slaves. The trouble is, many of the slave-owners were Anglo-Saxons, from whom “an awful lot of us” are descended. “Which means that we’ll have to send the demand for reparations to ourselves.” Deacon’s joking, of course. But his rattle through history illustrates a serious point: deciding who should receive reparations, if anyone, is a much more complex issue than many like to make out.