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No, Britain doesn’t need to pay reparations for the slave trade

30 September 2015

4:27 PM

30 September 2015

4:27 PM

A Jamaican official has called on David Cameron to ‘personally atone’ for the slave trade, and especially for his ancestors’ involvement in it.

I hope Cameron tells this guy to do one. The PM has nothing to apologise for, far less self-flagellate for. He bears no more guilt for the slave trade than Justin Bieber does, or Mother Teresa, or Barack Obama, or any of the other millions of people born years after the slave trade ended. The pressure on Cam to weep publicly over the sins of his forefathers, to atone for a wrong he did not commit, is an ugly, medieval spectacle.

Cameron’s trip to Jamaica is being overshadowed by the slavery issue. Jamaican leader Portia Simpson-Miller has formally raised the question of reparations, the idea that Britain should pay Caribbean nations millions in compensation for the hell we put their people through 200 years ago.

And in the wake of revelations that Cameron’s first cousin six-times removed was involved in the slave trade (seriously: a man who snuffed it in 1839), Bert Samuels of Jamaica’s National Reparations Commission says Cameron must ‘apologise personally’ because ‘his lineage has been traced and his forefathers were slave-owners’.

This is sinister stuff. If we were all held responsible for the wicked things our first cousins six-times removed got up to a couple of centuries ago, we’d spend our lives in a state of bent, tearful contrition.


Your great-great-great-great grandfather sent kids up chimneys? Shame on you! Make a donation to the NSPCC! Your distant, distant cousin lit the match at the stake of some poor dear judged to be a witch? Say 20 Hail Marys and get checked out for possible pyromania. Punishing people for what their ancestors did, for the sins of the fathers, is a nasty, pre-modern idea; it has no place in the 21st century.

The slavery reparations debate speaks to a really worrying, backward trend: historical determinism, the idea we’re all just products of past events, putty shaped by something evil a dodgy great-uncle once did.

Slavery in particular has been turned into a secular original sin. If your forefathers were involved in that unspeakable trade, you are apparently marked, invisibly branded, and you must scrub yourself clean of this historical black spot. Everyone from Cameron to Benedict Cumberbatch to Ben Affleck have had their vague familial ties to slavery splashed across the papers in recent years, the idea being that they must feel deep shame over something they had nothing to do with. ‘Meet the prime minister’s slave-owning ancestor’ screamed a salacious headline in the International Business Times yesterday. Perhaps everyone on earth should apologise for Eve eating that apple.

If anything, how the reparations debate treats black people is even worse than its metaphorical branding of the descendants of slave-owners. If Cameron is viewed as being infected by historical sin, black people are treated as the pathetic, psychologically damaged goods of historical events.

In one of the key texts of the reparations movement – 2001’s The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, by African-American activist Randall Robinson – it is said that slavery ‘debilitated a whole people psychologically, socially and economically’.

More recently, Joseph Harker at the Guardian argued that black people’s character and attitudes are still being shaped by slavery: ‘For many black men, the only way to endure this historical inhumanity has been by combining physical strength with an aggressive-competitive mentality.’ American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued earlier this year that we need reparations to help with the ‘healing’ of black people. We need ‘an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts’. In other words, reparations are therapy, designed to cure black people of the psychological trauma allegedly transmitted to them through time, like an intergenerational pathology.

This is profoundly patronising. It implies black people aren’t really in control of their destinies. Instead, their outlooks, even their aggression levels, are shaped by historical events. Racists once argued that black people’s biology made them behave badly; I’m not sure it’s a great leap forward now to argue that another powerful, deterministic force – history – is harming their psyches and making them aggressive. In both cases, black people are treated, not as the authors of their lives, but as hapless characters in a play written by someone or something else.

Everyone loses out as a result of the slavery-reparations obsession. The West is encouraged to flagellate itself endlessly, to institutionalise self-loathing. And black people are induced to self-pity, invited to think of themselves as history’s victims rather than as autonomous people. Cameron, strike a blow for reason and enlightenment: don’t say sorry for what your cousin did.

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