Britain should apologise and pay reparations for past slavery

1 October 2015

Britain should apologise for past slavery and pay reparations to reduce poverty rather than building a new prison

Dr Aidan McQuade, Director

image of Slave market in West Indies in 18th century
Slave market in West Indies in 18th century

During the Second World War thousands of Allied prisoners of war were enslaved and subject to horrendous and arbitrary violence by the Japanese Imperial Army. For many years the absence of an apology by the Japanese government was a deep source of anguish for the survivors of those atrocities and their families, and a source of resentment for their communities and countries.

Given the UK’s experience of this it is difficult to understand why David Cameron and the British Government are so obtuse when discussing the need for an apology from the UK to the countries and communities of the descendants of the survivors of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Cameron says we should move on and put this behind us. But this is something that it is always easier for the non-aggrieved party to say.

The enslavement of Africans as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade officially ended just over 200 years ago, almost three-times as long ago as the end of the Second World War. But slavery had lasted considerably longer than that war, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.

When slavery was eventually abolished in the British Empire the slave holders where generously compensated for the loss of their “property”, to the tune of £2 billion in today’s money. Those who had been enslaved got nothing.

As William Faulkner put it, the past is not dead; it is not even past. The legacy of slavery is still with us, from wealth of the UK which arose from that trade, to the poverty of much of the Caribbean, to the divisions of Angola, to the racism still present in large parts of Europe.

Moving forward must start with a clear understanding of what needs to be left behind and why. It requires some empathetic understanding of why there is such hurt on one side or another, and a clear, public acknowledgement of that truth: an apology.

The Caribbean also needs reparations to advance inclusive and empowering measures of poverty reduction: schools, teachers and healthcare. Not the sterile expenditure on a prison announced by David Cameron that can have no impact on poverty.

The issues of an apology and reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade are emotive ones. But to have true partnership between peoples and nations, of the sort I am sure that David Cameron desires, requires understanding and taking responsibility for the hurt of the past and the darkness, as well as the heroism, of our own histories.

Were Prime Minster Cameron to grasp this truth he could demonstrate a measure of statesmanship that would strengthen the bonds between the UK and the Caribbean nations.

Follow Aidan on Twitter: @the_mcquade

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