As the fallout from a policeman’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Black Lives Matter protests reverberates around the world, the Commonwealth may be about to have its own moment of reckoning with its origins in the British empire.
In early July, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle declared that the Commonwealth needed to confront the legacy of slavery and the realities of institutional racism. Speaking as president and vice-president of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex said people needed to be aware of everyone’s in-built bias, adding: ‘When you look across the Commonwealth, there is no way we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past … and trying to right those wrongs.’
With the tone of media coverage of the couple becoming distinctly chillier since Harry and Meghan decamped to Los Angeles, the response of the prominent rightwing journalist Andrew Neil, like many on Twitter, was highly critical: ‘What is it that the Commonwealth has done wrong? And since they don’t live in it, what’s it got to do with them?’ But Prince Charles, Harry’s father, had already said much the same thing in 2018, when he announced in Ghana: ‘While Britain can be proud that it later led the way in the abolition of this shameful trade, we have a shared responsibility to ensure that the abject horror of slavery is never forgotten.’
But many would argue that not forgetting is no longer enough The legacy of this structural impoverishment to enrich the ‘mother country’ (as black subjects of the British empire were encouraged to regard the UK, rather than Africa) can be quantified in illiteracy, poor health etc. In terms of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, black Caribbeans ‘are the world’s sickest per capita’. Six years after the regional grouping Caricom approved a 10-point plan proposed by its Reparations Commission – with demands including a formal apology, repatriation, eradicating illiteracy, debt cancellation and technology transfer – the issue seems more pressing than ever, propelled by the Centre for Reparation Research under Verene Shepherd at the University of the West Indies in Kingston.
The British government has long resisted pressure to move towards reparations. In response to Caricom’s initial campaign in 2014, the Foreign Office said: ‘We do not see reparations as the answer. Instead, we should concentrate on identifying ways forward, with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st century. We regret and condemn the iniquities of the historic slave trade, but these shameful activities belong to the past. Governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened over 200 years ago.’
‘Britain won’t use the language of apology, out of fear this might pave the way for reparations,’ Afua Hirsch wrote in the Guardian. But, as she says, there is an overwhelming case for repaying the financial debt built up by Britain as hundreds of years of free labour provided the capital for industrialisation. No reparations have ever been paid to the victims of the Atlantic trade in humans or their descendants, according to the historian Ana Lucia Araujo. The irony is that the Treasury instead paid handsome compensation to Britain’s slave owners. The four-time Liberal prime minister William Gladstone’s father, for example, received £106,769 – the equivalent of about £83m today. The £20m paid out under the 1833 Abolition Act was 40% of the government budget, or £308bn today. As the Bristol Post discovered, the debt was only paid off in 2015.
Ron Sanders, the Commonwealth commentator and former diplomat, asked in 2013 whether a claim could be sustained, but almost answered his own question by stating that ‘while the demand for reparations for slavery plays well politically with domestic audiences, few Caribbean leaders have shown much enthusiasm for legal action.’ Despite Caricom governments consulting the UK human rights law specialists Leigh Day, there seems little progress in pursuing the claims.
Can the Commonwealth be an agent for that change? Asked on the BBC’s Newsnight whether the Commonwealth should be discussing reparations, the secretary-general, Patricia Scotland, preferred to look to the past for examples of how the organisation had taken a stand, citing the leading role played in isolating and confronting apartheid South Africa in the 1960s and 70s. She swerved past a query about Caricom calling again for reparations, noting that Commonwealth membership excludes this, but added ‘nothing is ever off the table’ and ‘the Commonwealth isn’t running away from it’.
Scotland is right to be wary of taking a firm position – the debate is a complex and fraught one, as a hearing by the US Congress on reparations proved. For the young black commentator Coleman Hughes, while the ‘failure to pay reparations directly to freed slaves’ was ‘one of the greatest injustices ever perpetuated by the US’, paying reparations to all descendants of slaves might be ‘justice for the dead at the price of justice for the living’. He suggested instead paying them to black Americans who grew up under the ‘Jim Crow’ laws that foreshadowed South African apartheid. On the other hand, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that as half of all economic activity in the US in 1836 was ultimately derived from the million or so slaves, and the average black family now had a tenth of a white family’s income, ‘the matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress’. One of the most concerted legal claims for reparations by descendants of slaves was dismissed by the US court of appeals in 2006. The class-action lawsuit alleged that a range of corporations had profited unjustly from slave labour but the claims were thrown out for several reasons, including that it was a ‘political question’ and therefore beyond the remit of the judiciary, that the statute of limitations applied, and that the plaintiffs were not entitled to bring the claims.
Other attempts at reparations have been equally problematic; a salve to the conscience of white America while doing little for the victims (the average payout to Native Americans, for example, was $1,000). The UK paid £22m to victims of torture during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising (£3,000 each). Iraq gave Kuwait $48bn in reparations after the Gulf War. Germany paid at least $80bn to Holocaust victims. However, it refused to pay anything to the Nama and Herero in Namibia, although the German president accepted that the massacres amounted to the 20th century’s first genocide. Compensating descendants of US slaves would cost $10-12tn. Used judiciously, it could close the wealth gap between black and white Americans within a decade, according to the Roosevelt Institute. However, only one in five Americans agree on using ‘taxpayer money’ for this. Britain has a huge stake in the debate over reparations in the Americas: its ships transported some 3.1 million Africans across the Atlantic, accounting with Portugal for 70% of the trade.
However, the sums are even greater for India, which probably contributed even more capital than the American colonies towards Britain’s Industrial Revolution. The Indian economist Utsa Patnaik estimates the wealth extracted from the subcontinent between 1765 and 1938 at $45tn. This prime piece of colonial real estate even funded the empire’s further expansion: ‘The cost of all Britain’s wars of conquest outside Indian borders were charged always wholly or mainly to Indian revenues,’ she asserts. As the Congress Party politician and writer Shashi Tharoor put it in a 2015 Oxford Union debate, if India’s share of the global economy fell from 23% in 1700 to under 4% by 1948, ‘we literally paid for our own oppression.’ With Patnaik’s estimate roughly 17 times the UK’s current GDP, reparations are practically impossible. For Tharoor, ‘a symbolic pound a year for the next 200 years as a token of apology’ would suffice. The Indian writer Akhilesh Pillalamarri, writing in The Diplomat, believes reparations for a specific crime, such as the Amritsar massacre in 1919, would be justified but argues: ‘It is virtually impossible to translate this tangible and definable definition of reparations to loosely defined macro-historical phenomenon like imperial rule.’
Some of the worst aspects of empire were highly defined, of course, such as the largely manmade famines in Ireland and Bengal, for example. While much of the ideology of eugenics and social Darwinism that informed Victorian British society may have been more grounded in notions of class than the explicit racism seen in the US and Germany, for example, it nonetheless helped shape British imperialism. These ideas have rarely been challenged in public discourse about the legacy of empire. Indeed, as a YouGov poll in 2014 proved, three times as many of the UK public still believe the British empire is more something to be proud of (59%) than ashamed of (19%). And overall they believe former British possessions are better off for having been colonised (by 49 to 15%). So while a robust debate about the legacy of the Commonwealth is long overdue, it is starting to happen, as the spontaneous tearing-down of the Bristol slave-trader Edward Colston’s statue in June showed.
The symbolic act of ‘taking the knee’ started as a lonely protest in 2016 by Colin Kaepernick, bringing isolation, abuse (from the US president among others) and death threats to the American football player. For a while it remained a sports story. But in the four years since then police brutality against black Americans became a front-page issue and galvanised a generation of young protesters around the world. The issue of reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans and other victims of the British empire may become equally pressing.