Pros and cons

The arguments for and against slavery reparations

Calls for Britain to pay compensation for slavery have gained momentum in recent years

Calls for Britain to pay reparations for its role in the transatlantic slave trade were renewed in Jamaica, Belize and the Bahamas during the recent tour of the countries by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

The royal couple’s trip was marred by protests and a string of PR failures, as black and indigenous groups across the Caribbean nations came together as “part of a collective push for slavery reparations” to be paid by Britain, reported The Independent

The tour has once again stirred up debate over whether rich countries that benefited financially from slavery should pay compensation to affected nations or the descendants of enslaved peoples. The campaign for slavery reparations has gained momentum in many parts of the world, including in the US, in the wake of 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. 

1

For: the moral imperative

For many campaigners, the question of whether reparations should be paid hinges on a moral argument that amends must be made for hundreds of years of unpaid labour and brutal exploitation.

Nora Blake, of the human rights coalition Advocates Network and the co-organiser of a protest against the royal visit to Jamaica, told The Independent: “It is important as we turn 60 years old as an independent nation that we stand as ‘adults’ on solid ethical, moral and human justice grounds to say to Britain, who was once our ‘parent’, that you have done wrong in enriching yourselves off of chattel slavery and colonialism.”

The payment of reparations is “not so much about money” as “confronting those responsible with their wrongdoing and getting them to recognise the value of their victims as human beings”, Luke Moffett, a senior law lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, wrote for The Conversation.

The role of reparations in making amends for slavery and its generational impact was also highlighted by UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, which sparked mass protests around the world.

“Behind today’s racial violence, systemic racism and discriminatory policing lies the failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism,” she said in an urgent debate on racism and police brutality in 2020. 

In her address, Bachelet stressed the need to “make amends for centuries of violence and discrimination, including through formal apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms”, The Guardian reported.

2

Against: the question of who to pay

Many have argued that the paying of reparations is complicated by the fact that people directly harmed by slavery, including their direct descendants, are no longer alive. 

A recent petition in 2021 from the Jamaican government seeking up to £7bn in reparations for Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade was dismissed by the British High Commission on this basis. Asif Ahmad, the British high commissioner in Jamaica, told The Gleaner: “When it comes to this direct request for reparations from government to government, the reason why it will not prosper is because who do we pay it to?

“The people who were harmed directly are no longer here,” he said.

To date, the UK government has only paid compensation to living people, Ahmad said, using the Windrush Compensation Scheme as an example. Instead, he suggested better education about the history of slavery and better development and assistance for countries in the Caribbean.

Bayard Rustin, a friend of Martin Luther King Jr, told The New York Times in 1969: “If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.”

3

For: easing impact on descendants

Many supporters of transatlantic slavery reparations make the point that slave owners were given substantial compensation as part of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which ended legal slavery in Britain. 

Compensation worth between £16bn and £17bn in modern terms was given to some 46,000 British slave owners, a sum which represented “40% of the total government expenditure for 1834”, said historian and broadcaster David Olusoga in The Observer in 2015. Freed slaves received nothing, which campaigners have called unjust. 

Writing in The Guardian in 2017, British academic and writer Kehinde Andrews argued that the wealth of Western nations is built on “racism” and the “enslavement of millions of African people and the conquest of the world by European powers”.

It is “the height of delusion” to think that the impact of slavery ended with the emancipation of slaves, said Andrews, arguing that “descendants of enslaved Africans in the west find themselves subject to steep racial inequalities in every area of social life” 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”. 

Some reject the hypothesis that all of the Caribbean experiences abject poverty, however. According to The Economist, “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”.

Any assistance to the region, therefore, should be “carefully targeted” and should “surely stem from today’s needs, not the wrongs of the past”, said the newspaper.

4

Against: addressing racial inequality

Former Tory minister Rory Stewart told Time magazine in 2019 that UK aid should be targeted to help “the poorest people in the world”, rather than paying reparations in “some weird belief that we’re going to somehow undo 300, 400 years of colonial history by writing cheques to people”. 

There are also some who argue that the idea of reparations is insulting or patronising, and perpetuates a narrative of “victimhood”. For example, Coleman Hughes, an undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia University, testified at a 2019 US Congressional hearing, arguing that reparations “by definition, are only given to victims. 

“So the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent,” he told the hearing. “Not just that, 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.”

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