The legacy of slavery still haunts the descendants of both perpetrators and victims. Some say reparations are long overdue.

Protester calls for reparations for slavery at a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol June 19, 2020

Protester calls for reparations for slavery at a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol, 19 June 2020. (Credit: Fibonacci Blue, CC-by-2.0.)

The Church of England announced in January that it would pledge £100 million to address the past wrongs of its historic links with the colonial-era slave trade.

The acknowledgment by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, that it was “time to take action to address our shameful past” was a sign of a growing focus on reparations for the sufferings of slavery some two centuries after it began to be outlawed.

At issue is the question of whether states, institutions and even individuals, whose predecessors and ancestors profited from trans-Atlantic slavery, owe a debt to the descendants of those who were forced to endure it.

Up to 12 million enslaved Africans are estimated to have been forcibly shipped across the Atlantic from the 16th and 19th centuries by European colonisers.

The now independent countries of the Caribbean and Africa that emerged from the colonial era have long pressed for an apology and restitution from those societies that were enriched by the trade.

Slavery and civil rights

In the United States, those pressuring for reparations to be paid to the descendants of slaves have highlighted the continuing economic and social pressures on many Black Americans, a century and a half after the institution of slavery was formally abolished.

The U.S. debate has led to political controversy over who should receive reparations, with some campaigners in California pressing for potentially life-changing pay-outs to individual descendants of those exploited well into the post-slavery era. In January, Los Angeles County agreed to pay $20 million for a beach that was seized from a Black family in the 1920s and returned to their heirs this summer.

Wider attention to the issue was spurred in part by the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis in 2020.

His death galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement and prompted widespread demonstrations that spread from the U.S. to more than 60 countries.

Within weeks of Floyd’s murder, anti-racism protestors in the UK had toppled the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century Bristol merchant and slave trader who, until then, was barely known outside his home city. Other monuments to those said to have profited from the trade were also targeted.

One factor in the wider public’s previous ignorance of Colston and others might be that the history of the slave era had traditionally been taught in Britain and elsewhere from the perspective of the positive legacy of white abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, rather than on the perpetrators of slavery.

Restitution now for sins of the past

The issue of reparations — should they be paid and, if so, to whom? — raises important moral and philosophical questions.

Should modern generations pay for the crimes of their ancestors, while others are compensated for wrongs they did not personally suffer? Even the Christian Bible is ambivalent about whether the sins of the father should be visited on the son.

In the midst of the wider theoretical debate, however, some people have already made up their own minds.

This month [Eds: February], the family of BBC correspondent Laura Trevelyan announced they would pay £100,000 in reparations for their ancestors’ ownership of more than 1,000 enslaved Africans on the Caribbean island of Grenada.

They also planned to visit the now independent state of Grenada to issue a public apology.

Trevelyan and her relatives had been unaware of the slavery connection until her cousin, John Dower, uncovered it in 2016 while working on the family’s history.

Can equity be achieved without reparations?

Dower acknowledges the role of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter campaign in raising the profile of the reparations debate. But he says it was the publication of a database of slaveowners by University College London that led to the revelation of his own family’s connection.

He told News Decoder the world continued to live with the legacy of slavery. Dower is a resident of Brixton, a London neighbourhood that attracted Caribbean immigrants from the 1950s.

“I see the effects of slavery every day of the week in terms of people’s lives and job prospects,” Dower said.

Laura Trevelyan meanwhile acknowledges she is a beneficiary of the activities of her ancestors of which she had previously been unaware. “If anyone had ‘white privilege’, it was surely me, a descendant of Caribbean slave owners,” the London Observer quoted her as saying.

“My own social and professional standing nearly 200 years after the abolition of slavery had to be related to my slave-owning ancestors, who used the profits to accumulate wealth and climb up the social ladder.”

From individual action to a societal response

Dower said he hoped the family’s contribution would act as an example. “We are giving according to our means. And it will be going to educational funding. We are talking about mentorship and knowledge exchange.”

The actions of individuals may indeed put pressure on others linked to the slave trade.

The government of Barbados is reported to have been in touch with the multimillionaire British Conservative MP Richard Drax, whose ancestors were among the prime movers behind the slave-based sugar economy on the Caribbean island.

He still owns a plantation in Barbados as well as the 17th-century Drax Hall that local politicians want to turn into an Afro-centric museum.

Barbados and other states in the Caribbean Community (Caricom) have long been campaigning for the payment of reparations from former colonial powers and the institutions that profited from slavery.

It now seems that individuals might set a trend that politicians and institutions would be obliged to follow.

The reparations debate remains a live one. It raises potentially divisive issues of Black and white identity that already feed the so-called culture wars. In the light of economic turmoil, it can also spur the rhetoric of those who oppose reparations on the grounds that ‘charity begins at home’.

Those arguing for reparations perhaps have one trump card in their hand. One community was indeed compensated when the era of trans-Atlantic slavery ended. It was the slaveowners themselves.

Money that should perhaps have gone to the victims of the slave trade went, instead, to those who had profited from their labours.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Is there a moral argument for modern generations paying for the crimes of their slave-owning ancestors, while others are compensated for wrongs they did not personally suffer?
  2. How does the reparations question feed into the wider issue of ethnic identity?
  3. If reparations are paid, should they go to individuals; governments; or to institutions that might foster greater inter-community understanding?
Alistair Lyon author news decoder-150x150

Harvey Morris was a foreign correspondent for Reuters, The Independent and Financial Times. He covered revolutions, wars, politics and diplomacy in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North and South America in more than 40 years as a journalist. He did on-the-ground reporting of the Iranian, Portuguese, Nicaraguan and Romanian revolutions, three Iraq wars, Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and two Palestinian intifadas. He has written three books on the Middle East and is co-author, with John Bulloch, of the 1992 "No Friends But the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds". Morris writes an entertaining blog, "Idle Thoughts on London Walks".

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DecodersDecoder: Confronting the consequence of slavery