David Cameron’s recent visit to Jamaica was notable for the furore this roused in certain predictable quarters over the demand that Britain should pay reparations for slavery. The catalyst was the apparently shocking discovery that a distant relative of Cameron’s owned slaves, and was therefore paid compensation by the British government under the terms of the 1833 Abolition Act.
I can understand the distaste people experience when considering that slave owners were granted £20 million in compensation by the British government of the time, just as I can understand the glee which rewarded the searching of the relevant records by reparations activists when they discovered that a distant (if somewhat excessively-distant) relative of a Tory PM could be found there. I wonder if they searched as avidly for the names of any of Cameron’s distant relatives in the lists of the abolitionists and abolitionist societies that abounded in 19th century Britain?
Never mind Cameron, however. The key objective here was clearly to convert that flagship of British Whig historical pride, the British state role in ending slavery, into an object of shame demanding financial reparation in the present; financial reparation which, if you read the Guardian in the new era of British politics characterised by Corbynite wealth redistribution, should naturally be directed into the coffers and/or prestige of activist organisations with the necessary identity-politics credentials, such as the ‘Afrikan Heritage Community for National Self-Determination’.
If taking on the British self-image over the issue of slavery reparations can be seen as an attempt to attack the colossal self-regard of liberals protecting their ideological shibboleths, the reparations activists need to realise that this works in both directions. The discovery might shock them, but they are actually perpetrators of precisely the same kind of selective and hypcritical denial of natural justice that they assume Cameron represents on behalf of the British state. In other words, if you want to take on a flagship of whig historical tradition, be aware that it can fire a broadside back at you in response. So prepare to be boarded, identity politics activists.
The core of the reparations argument revolves around the sense of reciprocity central to natural justice. Clearly, any reasonable appreciation of these events cannot avoid a damning moral judgement of the murderous brutality and savage exploitation involved in the Atlantic slave trade. The problem is the fixation on the British state as the agency to blame and the party required to pay compensation in restitution. Clearly, the British state did, in moral terms, take relevant steps to get their own house in order in terms of ending the legality of slavery in Britain and then British territory.
But that is not enough to get them off the hook for reparations in the eyes of many activists who consider that the tax income from the prior existance of a slave-based economy (and particularly the massively lucrative sugar trade of the 18th century, which was dependent on slave labour) damns the British government.
Luckily for the Whigs that abolition within British territory wasn’t the end of the issue. Let me introduce you to those unexpected reactionary heroes of Whig international policy, Lords Castlereagh and Palmerston, both of whom made extending the abolition of the slave trade a primary aim of British foreign policy – Castlereagh by including it in the treaties involved in the Congress of Vienna which terminated the Napoleonic War (after banning the trade in British territory in 1807), and Palmerston by relentlessly pressuring foreign states to accept treaties banning the trade and (far more importantly) by enforcing them using British naval power to board, search, capture and condemn slave ships. Indeed, in a bizarre forerunner to late 20th-century ideas of humanitarian intervention moving ahead of international law, Palmerston was to approve of naval raids on slave barracks on the west African coastline when the government law officers (and his pusilanimous successor, Lord Aberdeen) considered them illegal.
And let us not forget the instrument of that policy, the Royal Navy, which experienced significant losses to fever and disease enforcing British-led international anti-slaving operations in West Africa, East Africa, the Carribean and South America in the seventy or so years between 1810 and 1880 when anti-slavery operations were at their height.
Let us not also forget the financial costs involved. The anti-slavery commiment has been estimated at totalling 15% of available British warships and 10% of British naval manpower in the 1840s [Bary Gough, Pax Britannica (2014):186]. In the naval estimate debates in the House of Commons in 1848, one MP critical of the cost of anti-slavery operations estimated that they were currently costing around £600,000 per annumn, and had cost £21 million over the past thirty years [Hansard, 22 February, 1848]. Now there’s a certainly pleasing symmetry to that when we consider that compensating British slave owners cost £20 million in 1833. And in the fact that both sums were paid by the British taxpayer. And to whom do we send the bill for reparations for that expense in the name of natural justice? The descendants of those Africans who avoided becoming slaves largely because the British state played an instrumental, even critical, part in ending the slave trade?
Such ideas are clearly ridiculous, but British policy – and the expense involved to the British taxpayer – are nonetheless historical fact, and should alert anyone to the selectivity involved in activists seeking slavery reparations at the expense of the British taxpayer today. After all, one component of the costs of British anti-slaving operations were the complex web of subsidies (i.e. bribes) paid to local African leaders and chiefs by the British to authorise anti-slaving operations in their territory, such as the $4,000 paid to Pepple, King of Bonny by Captain Craigie of HMS Bonetta in 1839 [Gough: 175]. Is anybody considering suing their descendants to recover those costs to the British taxpayer at all? Never mind the claims of descendants of Anglo-Saxons recorded as slaves in The Domesday Book [Norman Foreign Colonialist Exploiter (1086 AD)].
Another funny thing about demands for legal reparations are how devices assumed to operate in service of a particular set of ethics can fall foul of the strict amorality of any legal system, such as when Captain Denman, RN, was sued by a Spanish citizen, Senor Buron, for damages in 1847. Denman had led a naval landing party at the Gallinas river estuary in West Africa in November 1840 which liberated 880 slaves being held for shipment on slaving ships. In the process of this Denman had been inconsiderate enough to inflict £180,000 in damages to Senor Buron’s property by liberating his slaves and destroying his slave prisons and the trading goods he used to purchase slaves [W.E.F. Ward, The Royal Navy and the Slavers (1969): 186]. I can only suppose that the charge of ‘war criminal’, which would be added to this today, was regarded as implicit at the time. The British taxpayer eventually met Denman’s court costs in his successful legal defence; meanwhile calls for reparations against the Spanish government for Senor Buron’s activies, which were typical of the continuing trade in slaves to Cuban sugar plantations, appear silent at this point. As do demands on the Portugese, Brazilian, and various Arab and East African states involved in the the contemporary slave trade and subject to consequent British naval action.
In a small but personal fashion this points up the hypocrisy of such demands for reparations against Denman’s descendants and the descendants of the people who paid his salary, the prize money he was awarded for releasing slaves and his court costs against opportunist slavers seeking reparations in the name of justice. What amplifies that all the more is that issues of slavery and coercive people-smuggling have not disappeared from the modern world. Demanding reparations from the British state for something the British ended by state action almost two centuries ago while ignoring their reciprocal efforts to end slavery internationally is a selective abuse of history to serve political ends in the present. The selectivity of focus, and the agency held to blame, tells us everything about the agenda, motivation and hypocrisy of the reparations activists. Indeed, it seems on those counts, as well as on the issue of entertaining colossal sanctimonous self-regard, the modern reparations activists can impressively claim to out-do 19th century British Whigs.
If the moral issue of slavery really did excise such activists, they wouldn’t be engaging in identity politics in search of sympathetic coverage in the Guardian and an easy payout. Instead they would be actively engaged risking their own money and personal safety combatting modern slavery and people-trafficking. Much like Captain Denman did.