HISTORY has always been a battlefield, and today is no exception. With the launch of the film 12 Years a Slave, the director Steve McQueen complained that too few movies address the issue of slavery – compared with films on other historical events. McQueen argues that it is time the balance is addressed. Questions have also been raised about the place of slavery in the school curriculum: to what extent it is ignored, overshadowed by the extensive focus on the Holocaust and the world Wars.
Take any past event and you will find disagreement over the meaning and consequences of it. History is never just about simple facts, it is about the significance and interpretation of what happened. And, of course, facts never speak for themselves, so it’s vital that all kinds of debates take place. A country that doesn’t engage with and reflect on its history and history in general is rootless, lacking a grasp of change and sensitivity to what is significant about their own time. The Roman politician Cicero noted: “Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to continue always a child.”
But there are limitations to the way history is used today. Too often we avoid tackling the problems confronting us in the here and now and instead assign blame for them to some event in the past. Nowhere is this more evident than the campaign for reparations for slavery. Steve McQueen may be right that slavery has been somewhat off the agenda in recent times, but it is an issue we will hear a great deal about in the coming year, and for all the wrong reasons.
Fourteen Caribbean countries that once sustained the slave economy are actively building a case for reparations – financial compensation, in this case – to be paid to them by Britain, France and the Netherlands. They have hired a firm of London lawyers that last year won compensation of around £14 million to more than 5,000 people in Kenya, who were tortured under British colonial rule in the 1950s.
The argument made is that whilst Britain outlawed slavery in 1807, its legacy endures. Interviewed on Radio 4, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, who is driving the campaign on behalf of the Caribbean Community Reparations Commission, explained: “These crimes ought to be studied and redress made.” Britain, in particular, he said, “was the main financial beneficiary of these crimes … making the lion share of all of the profits.” And that financial compensation is necessary because: “The legacies are very strong. I know there are those who say today that this was a long time ago … but there are people in the Caribbean today whose great grandparents were enslaved ... it is living history.”
Slavery destroyed lives. That in 1833 compensation of £20m was paid to former slave owners by the British Parliament – which amounted to around 40 per cent of government expenditure that year – is shocking. Even so, the campaigners should not succeed. The turn towards reparations is step in the wrong direction for all concerned.
Many problems beset the countries claiming reparations. Beckles specified severe health issues, especially the high rate of diabetes. Are these serious? Certainty, but they are not directly caused by slavery nor alleviated by financial compensation. Whilst there may be a historical component, they and other urgent problems are essentially due to the contemporary political, economic and social situation, rather than the legacy of slavery. What is also serious is that the attention and energy spent on demanding reparations means evading tackling those issues, and others, because too many look to the past – to history – rather than the present or the future, in seeking to understand and alleviate them.
This campaign is not an isolated one. In his book on the proliferation of reparations – Making Whole What has been Smashed – the academic John Torpey identifies that campaigns took off in late 1980s, with a dramatic rise in the 1990s. They span the globe and include many different groups: slaves, Holocaust survivors, as well as indigenous movements. Although Torpey is sympathetic to attempts to hold old aggressors to account, he argues that the claim for reparations are a significant change in direction for political movements, which he thinks is negative. These campaigns, he argues, are a consequence of the weakening of political movements, situating their rise in the context of a failure of expansive visions of an alternative future, discredited since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Instead of fighting for a better society, many now fight over the past, arguing that they are determined by it. There is a questionable determinism at play which suggests that we do not make our own histories (if not in the circumstances of our own choosing), that it is already laid out for us by events that happened long before us.
There are further problems with the campaign for compensation for slavery. The idea that present day generations in Britain should pay up is suspect. We were not responsible for slavery. The suggestion that we are is morally questionable, it severs the link between action and responsibility, a link that is essential to maintain. The idea of reparations presents groups of people as bound by their ethnic identities: so British people today should pay compensation because they are British, which doesn’t stand up. Nor does viewing all black people today as simply descendants of slaves. It pits people – black and white – against each when our interests are aligned.
We will not address the problems of today by blaming each other for past wrongs. Instead, we need to fight for improvements in the material conditions of today, for economic development, advances in medicine, and social equality, to tackle the immediate problems. As for our duty to the history of slavery, we should investigate, as openly as possible, what happened, pursued in the spirit of open inquiry, not to assign blame, nor to make us feel better about ourselves (in regard to its abolition), but in order to know and understand the past.