University of Sussex Students' Newspaper

The Sins of our Fathers: Slavery, British Taxpayers and Reparations

Jada Phillips

ByJada Phillips

Nov 12, 2022

Since the abolition of slavery, the world has completely transformed. Despite all the progress made for racial equality in the UK, there is still a glaring injustice that has yet to be remedied. Enslaved Africans generated wealth for Britain for hundreds of years. In 1834, the British Government paid £20 million to slave owners to compensate them for their losses with the abolition of slavery. This loan amounted to 40% of the Treasury’s annual income, which is equivalent to £300 billion today. The descendants of slave owners received compensation from the UK government for abolition, got to keep the wealth they accumulated during slavery, and were able to pass that down in their family. Meanwhile, Black people have gotten nothing. 

Reparations has been a hot topic in recent years with many in the Black community demanding economic justice for the descendants of the enslaved. In the justice system, reparations are typically given as compensation to victims of crimes as recognition for loss or injury. They serve as a mechanism in repairing the harm caused and acknowledgement of the suffering a victim has endured. Reparations can take on many forms and look very differently depending on what the needs of the victims are. 

The United Nations set out six formal components that must be satisfied in order to make adequate reparations:

  1. Restitution: restore the victim to the original situation before the harm occurred. Restitution can include return of property, protection of the enjoyment of human rights, identity, family life and citizenship.
  2. Satisfaction: includes measures such as the verification of the facts and full and public disclosure of the truth, the recovery and the reburial of remains, public apologies and commemoration.
  3. Compensation: compensation must be appropriate and proportional to the gravity of the harm and must cover physical or mental harm, lost opportunities including employment, education and social benefits and legal costs,
  4. Rehabilitation: must include medical and psychological care, legal costs and social services.
  5.  Rehabilitation includes medical and psychological care, as well as legal and social services
  6. Guarantees of non-repetition: reformation and implementation of institutional reforms aimed at preventing future harm to victims.

There have been numerous times in history when reparations have been given to victims of various states. The most successful example would be when West Germany paid $7 billion to Israel as reparations after the Holocaust. Only just 12 years after the start of their payments, Israel’s GNP tripled and large investments were made into public infrastructure.

Reparations are a chance to restore the wealth of the communities that have been historically denied the opportunities given to others. Reparations would also have a ripple effect in addressing other racial disparities. According to a report by the Resolution Foundation, the median family wealth of a White British person is £197,000 while only being £24,000 Black British individuals. Wealth is proven to result in better health outcomes, educational achievements, home ownership and more. Providing reparations can aid in addressing the inequalities that disadvantage Black communities.

The British government has been very reluctant to take any accountability towards reparative justice for slavery. In 2014, the Foreign Office said: ‘We do not see reparations as the answer. Instead, we should concentrate on identifying ways forward, with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st century. We regret and condemn the iniquities of the historic slave trade, but these shameful activities belong to the past. Governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened over 200 years ago.’

Many important figures in the British elite can be proven to have benefited from the loan. David Cameron’s Wife, Samantha Cameron, has descended from William Jolliffe, a businessman who received £4,000 for the 164 freed slaves on his St. Lucia estate. Former Prime Minister William Gladstone’s father received £106,769 in compensation. 

In 2018, the Treasury tweeted in celebration that the British taxpayers were still paying off a debt to slaveowners up until 2015. The blatant ignorance of the tweet is a clear indication that even in the largest institutions in Britain is yet to fully grasp the consequences slavery has had in the modern day. A throwaway tweet by the Treasury was a self-congragulatory mockery of the shameful fact that descendants of slaves in Britain were paying the owners of their ancestors. 

Slavery is often dismissed as a sad time in history that bares little weight in the current day. All those who lived through that time have passed on decades ago. However, the events of the past still dictate modern economics. After slave owners were compensated in 1835, it wasn’t until 2015 that the loan was actually paid off by the government. According to the Treasury, British taxpayers were responsible for paying that loan off over 100 years later. 

The painful legacy of slavery still continue to effect the material, physical and mental conditions in which the descendants of the enslaved live in. There has yet to be justice for those affected aside from minor performative platitudes during black history month. Without knowing the history of the British Empire, the truth of Britain’s wealth will never be understood. Slavery has touched almost every aspect and institution in Britain today. It is time that Britain has taken responsibility for their actions as a nation. Only when the harm is repaired and the suffering acknowledged, will equity truly be established. 

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says in his book “Why We Can’t Wait”: “Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race 300 years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.”

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