Sunday 24 September 2023

Should Britain pay reparations for slavery?


The president of Guyana Mohamed Irfaan Ali recently argued that Britain owed his country reparations for slavery. So too an international judge from Jamaica claimed that Britain owed nearly £19 trillion for its involvement in the slave trade. We are constantly reprimanded for the British Empire and urged to decolonise. Yet nobody in Britain living today took part in the Atlantic slave trade.  Britain did more than anyone else to abolish it by Acts of Parliament in 1807 and 1833 and by enforcing those laws with the Royal Navy. This involved enormous costs at the time. But it seems we must pay twice.

I would have preferred that there had been no British Empire. If you compare the standard of living in modern day Britain with European countries which had minimal involvement in colonisation, then you will find people who have a similar standard of living to us or higher. The people of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Luxembourg are not obviously worse off because they didn’t have an empire.

It is true that the English language spread around the world because of the British Empire, and this can be advantageous to us, but Finns manage fine with a language no one else speaks. We could have managed too.

For the same reason British people do not continue to benefit from slavery or colonisation. If we did continue to benefit you would expect us to be in some obvious way better off than Swedes, but we are not.

It would be very hard indeed to prove much of a connection between economic activity two or three hundred years ago and now. If the UK benefited from having an empire with slaves hundreds of years ago our present economic condition owes far more to economic choices made in recent decades. The Greeks after all don’t benefit today from Alexander having no more worlds to conquer.   

The logical problem for the president of Guyana seeking reparations for slavery is that if it had not been for the slave trade and the British Empire his country would not exist at all. If Europeans had not colonised North and South America and the Caribbean, if we had all stayed in Europe and if there had been no slave trade then African people would not have been forced to move from Africa to the New World. Under those circumstances Mohamed Irfaan Ali either would not exist or else would be living somewhere else. He certainly would not be president of Guyana because there would be no Guyana.

Let’s say there had been no European colonisation and no European involvement in the slave trade. Would that have meant that no Africans were enslaved? No. Africans enslaved other Africans. Arabs also were involved in enslaving Africans. But oddly no one asks for reparations from the descendants of Africans who enslaved other Africans or indeed from present day Arabs.

Slavery has existed since time began. Europeans were enslaved by other Europeans and by North Africans. Russians were able to own other Russians until 1861, but no Russian ever asks for reparations from a descendent of a former owner.

If you go back enough generations then everyone in the world has an ancestor who was a slave and also an ancestor who was a slave owner. The descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings are descendants of a slave owner just as much as the descendants of Gladstone. The same situation will apply to much of the population of Guyana.

But more importantly the concept of demanding reparations for empire and slavery ignores the historical alternative. If there had been no colonisation, then none of the countries in North and South America would exist. There would be no black people in the Caribbean nor in the USA or anywhere else. Would they prefer not to be living where they are? But if you are happy being president of Guyana, how can you demand reparations for what put you there?

If Europeans had remained in Europe and had not explored beyond our continent there would have been no sharing with other people, any of the discoveries or inventions that have been developed over the centuries.

We have then the president of Guyana wearing a suit and tie, wearing glasses, and speaking over the Internet using a computer and speaking English. But if British people had remained in our island and had never gone anywhere else, he would be doing none of these things.

Colonisation, empire and slavery are part of what gave us the modern world. Europeans travelled the world for profit. They went to places like Guyana and imported slaves. The descendants of slaves can wish that slavery never happened, but it is to wish for a world unimaginably different to the one in which we live.

The historical circumstances of empire and slavery were part of the development of the modern world. You cannot logically blame Britain and demand reparations for slavery while accepting the benefits of modern knowledge, medicine, science and everything else that was shared only because of European involvement in Africa.

Who knows what the world today would be like no European country had ever explored, there had been no colonisation and no slavery. It would be vastly different, nowhere near as developed and much of what we all rely on would never have been discovered.

If we have to pay 19 trillion for the slave trade, how much do you have to pay for your existence in Jamaica and all of the knowledge you would not have if Europeans had never seen Africa?

Everyone has benefited from the discoveries that took place when European powers were involved in colonisation and slavery. Who knows the interconnections between the profits made from empire and the scientific discoveries of early modern science. But all humans benefit including the descendants of slaves.

It would have been better if Europeans had never colonised anywhere. It would have been better if we enslaved no one. But that is to imagine a world where every descendant of a slave is somehow miraculously back in Africa.

The modern world is a consequence of human history both good and bad. Trying to obtain reparations for wrongs done centuries ago is senseless because it goes against the moral principle that I am responsible for my own actions, not the actions of my ancestors. We don’t blame modern day Mongols for the invasion of Europe any more than we blame the Goths Huns and Vandals.

Reparations of nearly £19 trillion is five times the UK’s national debt, but the UK population is multiracial. Some are descendants of slave owners, others the descendants of slaves, but others have ancestors from places that were never involved in the slave trade. Should they all pay the descendants of slaves in Guyana or is it only white people who are guilty?  

If I am to pay reparations because my ancestor owned slaves, then I should pay reparations because my ancestor murdered someone. Murdering must be worse than enslaving. This rapidly becomes morally senseless.

The truth is that it is hard to imagine anything worse we could do to a country than give it free money for something that happened centuries ago. Would this free money make Guyanese people work harder? Would it encourage them to be more innovative in business and trade? Would it make them more self-reliant? Would it make Guyana less corrupt or more democratic?

It would be far better for Guyana to try to become prosperous by its own efforts. It is blaming someone else for its poverty that keeps it poor. It’s not blaming anyone else that makes other countries rich.