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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Daniel Hannan: The Absurdity of Demanding Reparations for Slavery

I am descended from slaves. So are you. From slave-owners, too. Given the history of the human race, it could hardly be otherwise.

Slavery was the normal form of social organization from the discovery of agriculture onwards. It may have been common among hunter-gatherers long before that, but the evidence is inconclusive. What we do know is that ownership of human beings is at least as old as civilization. The cities of Ur and Sumer, of Egypt and Persia, of the Indus Valley and Xia Dynasty China were built by forced labor.

Slaves raised the Acropolis in Athens and the Pantheon in Rome. They piled up the ziggurats of Meso-America. Incas, Maoris, Apache: All accepted slavery as part of the natural order. An Aleutian tribe kept a special caste of boys raised as girls for the sexual gratification of its chiefs. An early Indian clan bred slave children for the specific purpose of sacrificing them. Slavery was so endemic in Africa that it became more common following the abolition of the Atlantic trade.

This history is what makes arguments about reparations so bizarre. The people paying up would be statistically certain to have both owners and owned in their family tree; so would the people accepting compensation.


Jamaican politicians are currently demanding reparations from Britain for its role in the trans-Atlantic traffic. Because slavery was such an abominable practice, people naturally feel a need to express their revulsion. When we read of the monstrous conditions on the ships and in the plantations, we want to tell someone how wretched we feel about the whole thing.

But tell whom? There has been much press comment in the Caribbean about the fact that David Cameron is descended from a slave-owner called General Sir James Duff, who was compensated for the emancipation of 202 slaves when the institution was abolished in 1833.

Still, here's a hard thing that needs saying. Cameron, like most British people, is only very distantly related to a plantation owner. General Duff is, as far as I can work out, his sixth cousin. Isn't it statistically likely that some of the Jamaican politicians demanding compensation are more directly descended from plantation owners than he is?

Which brings us to the absurdity of assigning collective national guilt in these situations. Should a Jamaican who migrated to Britain in the 1950s now be liable to pay reparations to his family who remained behind?

Don't get me wrong, Britain and Jamaica have been through a great deal together. Jamaicans volunteered in large numbers to fight for Britain in two world wars. The reason this whole debate has come up is that Mr. Cameron visited Jamaica to announce a substantial trade and investment package, rightly recognizing the ties between our two islands.

But valuing such ties is a world away from assigning hereditary guilt — which was, paradoxically, the justification for slavery in many societies. Quite apart from being immoral, the argument is unsustainable.

When the issue of reparations comes up, half-clever white people in Britain sometimes say things like, "Well, in that case, I want reparations from Denmark for the Viking invasions." To which one answer is: You're the one likely to be descended from Vikings; the Danes of today are descended from the ones who stayed behind. Similarly, who is likelier to have slave-owners in his or her family tree: An African-American, or a Polish-American?

Britain, unlike the United States, followed a policy of compensated manumission: Slave-owners were bought out, meaning that the institution was abolished much earlier, and without a civil war. Some leftist activists regard these payments as shameful, and Ron Paul was excoriated when he suggested that the U.S. should have done something similar.

But surely the fact that people were prepared to pay to abolish slavery is a cause for pride, not shame. If we absolutely insist on singling Britain out, let's consider the truly exceptional factor, namely that, after thousands of years of slavery, Britain was the country that poured its resources and energy into stamping out the traffic, even diverting ships from a life-and-death struggle with Napoleon to intercept Atlantic slavers.

Should we Brits demand compensation from the rest of the world for having played that role? Of course not. We're all individuals, responsible for our own actions. That, if you think about it, was the philosophy that destroyed slavery in the first place.


Daniel Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.

This article appears in the Oct. 5 edition of the Washington Examiner magazine.


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