Stephen McLaren’s article in The Guardian last week (Friday, 13 January ‘The slave trade made Scotland rich. Now we must pay our blood-soaked debts‘) is a timely reminder of the enduring legacy of the transatlantic slave trade that made Britain ‘great’. Two hundred and ten years (25 March 1817) ago the mother of all democratic parliaments passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, although it did not abolish slavery itself. It remained legal in most of the British Empire until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.
McLaren cites a more potent event that took place 235 years ago last month, reminding us of the insidious evil that was inflicted upon black Africans within the British Empire. The captain of the slave ship Zong, Luke Collingwood decided to “jettison” 132 sick and dying slaves into the mid-Atlantic waters so that he could make a insurance claim on their loss.
Recently, the Jamaican Government chose the ‘Zong Massacre’ to reassert its claim that the UK should formally apologise and make financial reparations for running a slave colony on the island for two centuries. Is this a just and worthwhile claim? Should the present UK Government be required to say sorry formally and pay a financial cost because of centuries-old crimes against humanity’?
Of course, the UK Government should apologise – on behalf of its citizens and well as in retrospect for those Government ministers and officials who facilitated the truly hideous trade of slavery by so-called merchants – to the descendants of the African slaves living in the Caribbean and around the world. But, that is just a first step in a total acknowledgement of the inhumane treatment of the 800,000 British-owned slaves that were considered the property of 46,000 British slave owners. Nearly 200 years later, it is a little-known fact that 1833 Act of Parliament that set the slaves free also established The Slave Compensation Commission to process the claims of compensation. The 800,00 did not receive a penny of the £20 million (the equivalent of between £16 billion and £17 billion in today’s money) set aside by the Government from taxpayer’s money. The government body evaluated the claims of the 46,oo0 and administered the distribution of this compensation to the perpetrators of unspeakable acts of inhumanity.
As the Caribbean nations continue to seek substantial reparations despite the most recent brush-off from David Cameron in 2015, McLaren asks the obvious question: “How can we compensate those who leeched off the unpaid labour of African slaves yet remain hostile to the legitimate claims of their ancestors? Slavery profits were undoubtedly the bedrock of Britain’s industrial, imperial and financial dominance throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and its legacy remains to this day. If the Government can bail out greedy, corrupt banks to the tune of untold billions, it can take the morally just decision to pay substantial reparations to the Caribbean and, thereby, honour the memory of all those innocent African slaves.