Don’t listen to the critics: reparations for slavery will right historical wrongs

Delving into a deeply unsettling chapter of history and seeking to reshape the discourse, a groundbreaking report, Reparations for Transatlantic Chattel Slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean, has calculated that Britain owes a staggering sum of £18.6tn.

Other nations with a legacy of slaveholding, such as the US, Portugal, Spain and France, also stand accused of owing trillions. The total economic toll is thought to be as high as $131tn (£103tn). The revelation lays bare the enduring ramifications of the transatlantic slave trade and the struggle for reparative justice on a global scale.

In February, the American Society of International Law and the University of the West Indies hosted a symposium on the calculation of reparations from transatlantic chattel slavery. The economic consulting firm Brattle Group was engaged to build an economic framework to help achieve this.

Its 115-page report dissects the complex aftermath of slavery, calculating the true cost – not only economically but also the intangibles: the harrowing loss of liberty and life; the stolen potential of forgone earnings; and the deprivation that reverberates across centuries. Its recognition of intergenerational trauma, loss of heritage and resulting disparities in life expectancy, employment opportunities and income is all meticulously analysed.

Particularly incisive is its calculation of cumulative wealth and GDP amassed by nations that exploited African labour. This approach delves into the systemic enrichment of European countries, showing a web of culpability beyond individual actions. Another striking feature is the report’s dissection of the enslavement and post-enslavement eras. The figure of £103tn exceeds the 2019 annual collective GDP of the world.

Brattle’s research highlights the £20m paid to British enslavers in 1833, an amount that translates to £17bn today. This compensation, extracted through a Bank of England loan, continued to be shouldered up to 2015 by British taxpayers, including the Windrush generation and other descendants of enslaved people. It is a stark reminder of the unbroken chains that bind the present to a past that must be reconciled.

Turning to the question of how to channel compensation effectively, the report’s authors propose it should be overseen by independent bodies insulated from corruption and political influence, ensuring transparency and accountability. Compensation, they suggest, could be woven into concepts of restitution and rehabilitation, using the momentum created by the work of the Reparations Commissionset up by Caricom (the Caribbean Community). A call to action that transcends political boundaries can pave the way for healing.

Opposition voices echo the same arguments, rooted in a lack of knowledge of the slave trade’s atrocities. But critics who argue that assigning monetary value to deep-rooted suffering poses ethical challenges should not dissuade us from pursuing justice. They contend that the economic cost of reparations could overwhelm western economies, diverting resources from pressing issues such as income inequality, education and healthcare. However, a well-structured reparations programme can stimulate economic growth, jobs and innovation in marginalised communities, addressing systemic inequalities and fostering a robust economy.

The same argument comes up repeatedly: that setting a precedent might open the floodgates for other groups seeking restitution. But addressing injustices doesn’t have to lead to endless claims. Unique historical contexts and moral and ethical underpinnings guide reparations, and acknowledging specific wrongs and crafting solutions doesn’t automatically invite a multitude of unrelated appeals.

Sceptics argue reparations could have unintended consequences, reinforcing societal divisions or fostering a sense of entitlement that hinders progress. There is concern that monetary compensation does not necessarily lead to meaningful change and could perpetuate a cycle of victimhood. Again, fear of unintended consequences shouldn’t obscure a moral imperative. Reparations aren’t solely about money – they acknowledge, reconcile and commit to dismantling oppressive systems.

Another common assertion is that the current generation are absolved of blame for their ancestors’ actions – societies aren’t culpable for past wrongs and shouldn’t bear the burden. Critics of calls for reparation say responsibility should be confined to those who directly perpetrated the crimes of slavery and colonialism.

But the legacy of slavery and colonialism continues to shape our social, economic and political structures, entrenching inequalities spanning generations. Therefore, far from blaming individuals today, reparations acknowledge the impact of systemic oppression and strive to rectify collective wrongs perpetuated by systems and institutions. Western societies have inherited benefits from historical exploitation, building generational wealth while dismantling that of the enslaved, and consciously engineering inequalities.

Some also assert that official apologies and expressions of regret have made reparations redundant or unnecessary. But apologies must be accompanied by efforts to address the consequences of historical wrongs. Reparations aren’t redundant; they symbolise a commitment beyond words, promising rectification and healing.

Other critics want to see a focus on issues such as systemic racism, inequality and discrimination rather than past events, and call instead for efforts to create equitable societies. But modern problems needn’t sideline historical injustices, as they are usually linked. Reparations are part of a comprehensive strategy acknowledging past and present. Rectifying historical wrongs can complement efforts to build a fairer society.

The debate over reparations is multifaceted, influenced by historical legacies, ethical considerations and contemporary political contexts. In navigating these arguments, it’s imperative to acknowledge that reparations aren’t just about assigning blame; they can confront historical truths, foster healing and address systemic injustices.

The Brattle report compels us to transcend rhetoric and fiscal transactions – it’s a quest for reconciliation that speaks to the indomitable spirit of those who bore the brunt of slavery. It serves as a cornerstone of the indefatigable efforts of those who demand justice. It’s an acknowledgment of the human cost, the tears shed, and the lives for ever altered – a call for nations to embrace the moral responsibility of redressing history’s gravest wrong.

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