Alan Lester

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I’ve been spending a lot of time recently talking about slavery in British history to people who really don’t want to hear it. I don’t mean haranguing shoppers in Oxford Street, but talks to church, community and business groups comprised of small ‘c’ conservative White people who’ve been willing at least to hear me out.

I’ve kept it factual and based it on two main databases: https://www.slavevoyages.org/ on British participation in the trans-Atlantic slave ‘trade’ and https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/ on slave ownership.

On every occasion, there have been the two main objections. In case it’s useful for others, here they are with my own attempts to answer:

1. What about other slave systems – notably the Muslims/Arabs/Barbary Corsairs. Weren’t they just as ‘bad’?

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a) The Arab slave trading system along the east African coast, across the Red Sea and the Sahara Desert took some 4-10 million people into captivity over a 1000 year period. The trans-Atlantic system was far more intense, taking over 12.5 million captives across the Atlantic in a 350 year period.

b) Islamic systems of slavery largely disregarded ethnicity or race. Captives were taken from sub-Saharan and North Africa and from Barbary raids across the Mediterranean into Western Europe. In the trans-Atlantic system, captivity was exclusive to Black African people, with enduring implications for European ideas of racial difference, developed to ‘explain’ and justify the system.

c) In the Arab system, captives often became free through conversion to Islam and their children were not necessarily born into a state of captivity. It was possible for many who were initially sold to reach a high rank in the ‘host’ society’. In the trans-Atlantic system few captives could gain manumission and captives’ children were not only born into a state of slavery but were regularly separated from their parents through sale to other owners.

d) In the Arab system, captives were taken for domestic or military service or for sexual exploitation. In the trans-Atlantic system, captives were exploited for all these purposes, but their primary purpose was twofold: to serve as capital assets upon which loans could be leveraged, and to produce and refine commercial crops on semi-industrialised plantations. Both their value as ‘assets’ (which amounted to 40% of British government revenue when compensation was paid to their ‘owners’ for their emancipation) and their unpaid work transformed the global economy and helped transform Britain into an industrial power.

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2. Why should we worry about/consider reparations for something that ended long ago. After all we don’t demand reparations from the Romans?

a) The inequalities inherited from the Roman Empire in Britain in c400 AD have dissipated over the intervening 1,600 years. We would find it very hard now to distinguish people who are structurally disadvantaged by it. By contrast the inequalities inherited form 350 years of trans-Atlantic slavery ending around 200 years ago are still deeply inscribed in our society.

b) The reasons for this include the racialised nature of the system, the ‘explanations’ of racial difference invented to justify it (i.e. racism), and the fact that when the system was ended, it was slave owners who were compensated to the tune of £20 million, while enslaved people were ‘released’ without assets to pass on through subsequent generations.

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c) There is plenty of data demonstrating enduring racial inequalities within the UK, let alone between the UK and Caribbean countries:

Caribbean and British Black employees have consistently earned less than White employees between 2012 and 2022 (ONS, Ethnicity pay gaps, UK: 2012 to 2022)

Around 17% of the total British population live in social rented housing. This figure is 48% for Black, Black British or Caribbean. The highest percentage of people who are unemployed is also in this category, and especially among those aged 16-24 (ONS, Ethnic group differences in health, employment, education and housing shown in England and Wales Census 2021)

Black offenders are more likely to be remanded in custody and to receive higher sentence lengths than White offenders, for the same offences. People classified as Black are 3% of the population but account for 18% of stop and searches, 9% of arrests, 11% of prosecutions, 10% of convictions, 12% of custodial remands, 10% of criminal sentences and 13 % of prison population. 32% of children in prison were Black (Ministry of Justice, Ethnicity and the Criminal Justice System, 2020, Published 2 December 2021)

d) As the official report into the Windrush scandal explained, it had happened in part ‘because of the public’s and officials’ poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration, and the history of Black Britons’. ‘Those wrongly caught in the dragnet of the hostile environment were the children of men and women who had been encouraged to migrate to post-war Britain … These people with their centuries’ long links to Britain and British history, were suddenly classified as illegal immigrants in the country they had called home for decades’ (David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History, 2021, 532).

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e) If we care about social cohesion, perhaps it is best not to dismiss Black Lives Matter and other antiracist protestors as US-influenced radicals, and not to turn a blind eye, distract from or deny the role of slavery and racialised exploitation in British history, but to enquire what can be done to address the structural inequalities it initiated?

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