As Quiet as It’s Kept, the U.K. Also Has a Reparations Problem

The issue of slavery reparations recently took center stage in the United States as the country commemorated Juneteenth. The U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary decided to open talks on reparations and held a hearing on a bill, H.R. 40, that could potentially open further dialogue on the subject. This hearing came five years after author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates breathed new life into the debate on reparations in his article for the Atlantic entitled “The Case for Reparations.”

The United States, however, is not the only country to question the need for reparations. The United Kingdom has also been petitioning on the issue. The U.K.’s connection to slavery has often been overshadowed by the transatlantic slave trade that existed between Africa and North America. While men, women, and children picked cotton in the United States, slaves in the Caribbean were made to harvest sugarcane, which the Europeans sold around the world.

How deep do the roots of slavery run in the U.K.?

The U.K., which consists of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, indulged in the trade of sugar from the sunshine islands of the Caribbean.

Sugar was a hot commodity for Europeans during the 18th century. It was considered a pleasant and expensive luxury item reserved for the wealthy and was doled out only on special occasions. It was given to kings, queens, and others in the high echelons of society. By the end of the 18th century, British and French colonies in the West Indies produced 80% of the world’s sugar.

It was this very sugar production, however, that sparked the rise of slavery in various parts of the world. The use of slaves dates back to the early 1440s in Madeira, Portugal. Thereafter, the sugar plant was taken to Brazil and the Caribbean. This resulted in millions of people from Africa being kidnapped to work as slaves in these countries. The work was harsh, and the average slave worker’s life expectancy was seven years.

Slave ships traveled across the Atlantic in a triangle between Britain, West Africa, and sugar plantations in the Americas. This became known as the triangular trade, a global trade route of sugar, spice, and molasses (a byproduct of rum).

Once slavery was abolished, the wealth generated by this cruel and demoralizing system was used to create cultural institutions such as museums, universities, art galleries, and charities, much of which still stand to this day.

It is for this very reason that many activists are calling for reparations. Several active groups in the U.K. are seeking an open dialogue on the issue.

One such campaign is the Stop the Maangamizi. This group focuses on mobilizing people’s power upon the British Houses of Parliament. It wants to establish the All-Party Parliamentary Commission for Truth and Reparatory Justice and other actions necessary to advance the process of dialogue, from the ground up, with the British state and society on reparatory justice.

Another movement is the Afrikan Emancipation Day Reparations March, the world’s largest annual march dedicated to reparations. There is also the International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations, a group seeking to challenge the discussion on reparations.

“Reparations are a multilayered remedy for groups that have experienced injustices. If you look at its root, it means ‘to repair.’”

Esther Stanford-Xosei, coordinator general of Stop the Maangamizi and spokesperson for the Afrikan Emancipation Day Reparations March Committee, says of the persistent yet ignored fight for reparations in the U.K., “Little is said about the U.K., but it’s the only one to focus on the global African people; it’s Pan-Africanism, Pan-Caribbean, and pan-nationalist. Reparations are a multilayered remedy for groups that have experienced injustices. If you look at its root, it means ‘to repair,’” Stanford-Xosei says.

“Reparations is about how the past has impacted us today,” she adds. “We are looking for compensation for what is expressed in current society, death in police custody, harsher sentencing of black people, overrepresentation in mental health, forced sterilization, land grabs, and things that are pillaging our homeland. Through that experience, we have lost our history, language, culture. We have experienced centuries of genocide and terrorism at the hands of the British state, and this continues until this very day,” Stanford-Xosei explains.

According to the National Archives in the U.K., in 1834, when slavery was abolished in British colonies, £20 million ($25 million) was given to slave proprietors as part of the Slave Compensation Commission. U.K. historian David Olusoga says this would have been the equivalent to £17 billion ($21 billion) in today’s money. These funds were being paid to the descendants of slave owners until 2015.

Yet the U.K. government has refused to listen to compensation claims from those whose ancestors were enslaved.

When you follow the money, what begins to unravel are the close links that major people in power had to slavery. University College London carried out a six-year research project showing the blatant links to slavery that are still around today. Catherine Hall, the lead researcher, says that when slavery was abolished in the U.K., the government wanted nothing more than to eradicate it from history and memory.

“What we’re demonstrating is the way in which the fruits of slavery were part of the ways in which modern Britain emerged as it has,” Hall says.

Former U.K. Prime Minster David Cameron, as well as authors George Orwell and Graham Greene, benefited from slavery compensation. But that’s not all. Many U.K. institutions have links to slavery. Money went toward establishing museums, merchant banks, art collections, and more.

Campaigners believe this shows the abuse of power and how the scales of justice have yet to be tipped in favor of the oppressed. “We are working with a historian to obtain a Freedom of Information request to find out who the people were that were being paid up until 2015,” Stanford-Xosei says. “We do know one individual who was given huge tax rebates; however, their identity was hidden. We believe it was the monarchy, and that means there is an institutional cover-up of those who are benefitting today from the institutional enslavement of African people.”

The United Nations has stated that reparations consist of several key elements, the first being that those who were afflicted are reinstated with their position, property, lands, etc. The second refers to financial compensation, which involves putting a price on the wrongdoing. In addition, there is recognition that this is not just about national apologies, but also involves changing the educational curriculum. Next is rehabilitation, which focuses on community groups and building strength in communities. Last but not least is remedying the wrong that was caused to a group as a result of injustice and oppression.

What has been the U.K. government’s response in relation to reparations? “They [the U.K. government] do not believe that reparations is the answer,” Stanford-Xosei says. “That is what they have told Caribbean nations, as well as ourselves in the U.K. We hand in a petition every year, and have done since 2014, expressing a dialogue in the U.K. equivalent to H.R. 40. We want a party parliamentary commission to be established.”

“There is very low awareness of what is happening in relation to reparations, and people are very illiterate about it,” Stanford-Xosei laments. “But we have a motto: Education is preparation for reparations.”

*story by Medium