Bill Jamieson: Beware a witch-hunt over the British Empire’s crimes

Where will apologising for the British Empire's sins end? (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Where will apologising for the British Empire's sins end? (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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We should remember the British empire did terrible things, but cautious about trying to make amends, writes Bill Jamieson.

Where Glasgow University leads, Cambridge University follows. Both are now publicly engaged in the Craze of the Age – vainglorious virtue-signalling, with merciless self-flagellation thrown in for good measure.

This week Stephen Toope, human rights scholar and Cambridge University’s vice-chancellor, launched an inquiry into how it benefitted from the slave trade. Researchers have been commissioned to delve into the university’s archives to how much it gained from the “Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era”.

The inquiry, set to run for two years, will examine whether financial bequests made to departments, libraries and museums were made possible from the profits of slavery. It will also probe how far Cambridge academics “reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th Century”.

It follows news that Glasgow University is to launch a “reparative justice programme” after discovering it benefited by tens of millions of pounds from racial slavery. A study by the university into thousands of donations it received in the 18th and 19th centuries found some were linked to slave-trade profits.

In total, the money it received is estimated as having a present-day value of between £16.7 million and £198 million. University chiefs have now outlined a series of measures as part of a reparative justice programme.

Both developments follow the Rhodes Must Fall movement in 2015 when students demanded the removal of a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College.

READ MORE: Edinburgh’s New Town ‘built on black slavery’

What is the purpose, and what good does all this do? There are certainly shameful episodes in our past which require to be remembered and restitution made where practical and appropriate. Nations as much as individuals need to face up to the past, recognise where wrong was done and admit responsibility as a necessary first step to atonement. The greatest wisdom we can hope to acquire from history is humility. But it is hard to discern here what new evidence will be unearthed other than what is already broadly known, or what proposals for behavioral change will result.

The past is a different country and the iniquities of our forefathers were in a wholly different age and in circumstances wholly removed from the world of today’s undergraduates. This needs to be more than breast-beating by leftist academics.

And once we insist on exploring one area of iniquity, why not others? What are the boundaries, if any, and where does it all end? Should we not apologise to China for our role in the opium wars? What of apology and restitution for the thousands of tea pluckers we exploited in the Scottish tea plantations in India and Ceylon? What of the profits the UK enjoyed from the South African gold and diamond mines opened up by Rhodes and the British?

What apology has been made, or restitution paid, to the indigenous Khoikhoi and the Griqua who were once able to enjoy the lands of the Transvaal? Or to the Dutch settlers, the Boers, who had settled in the area where gold and diamonds were discovered and were since subjugated by the British? What of the expropriation of land and cattle tended by the Zulus and the Xhosa? Does this suffering not rank higher than that inflicted on those forced to work on the cotton and tobacco farms of the southern United States?

READ MORE: Exploring Glasgow’s links to the 18th century slave trade

Add in the plundering of Malaysia for rubber, the agricultural produce of former Rhodesia, the expropriation of diamonds from Botswana, the gold we plundered from the Spanish, and there is barely any part of the British empire that cannot be hauled to denunciatory account.

We did wrong things in the past, and these should be acknowledged. But we cannot change what happened. What we should do is concentrate on behaving for good in the future. It is only right, Toope argues, that Cambridge “should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period” and “uncover how the institution might have gained from slavery and the exploitation of labour”. Britain was the largest shipper of slaves in the period up to 1806-07. But Britain was not alone, and its pioneering campaign from the early 1770s led the world and became the most important humanitarian campaign in English history. Britain put pressure on the main slave-buying nations of Spain and Portugal to stop the trade and persuaded the reluctant ‘Great Powers’ to attach to the 1815 Treaty of Vienna a condemnation of the slave trade – the first such human rights declaration. And, ironically for Professor Toope, it was a Cambridge undergraduate, Thomas Clarkson who at Cambridge began his lifelong career as propagandist and organiser.

Nor was the British empire itself the unmitigated exploitative rape that Marxist historians portray. It brought schools, roads, hospitals and railways; farm and agricultural improvement, engineering and technical skills, and for millions the opportunity to move beyond a subsistence level of income and aspiration. Global investment poured in. Johannesburg and Salisbury (Harare as was) became thriving cities. Arguably the greatest missed opportunity was the dream of Rhodes himself – the construction of the Cape to Cairo railway.

What is to be gained by digging up the records of long dead academics to discover if they were guilty of slave-based thinking or beneficiaries of a slave system that Britain, helped by many distinguished dons, played a leading role in sweeping from history? This has all the hallmarks of an academic witch-hunt reminiscent of Salem – and one unlikely to end before innocents are devoured.