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Amazing Grace and the Amazing Sums of the Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge

The Revd John Newton 1725 1807
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Written by Lawrence Goldman

The Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge has computed that Britons today owe the peoples of the Caribbean more than £200 billion in reparations for slavery. But neither his sums nor his moral calculations make sense.

(This is a longer version of an article that was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 21 May 2024)

The Dean of Chapel in Trinity College, Cambridge, the Revd Michael Banner, has computed that Britain owes more that £200 billion to Caribbean nations as reparations for slavery (Daily Telegraph, 19th May). Revd Banner is not a historian nor an accountant but a clergyman and his calculations, both mathematical and moral, are wrong.

In 1833 when Parliament emancipated slaves in the British empire the cabinet initially offered the slaveholders some £15 million in compensation. The two sides eventually settled at £20 million. To have paid the slaveholders to free their slaves was highly controversial at the time, but it was the only way to finally secure their freedom after years of campaigning.

Banner’s remarkable calculations start with the valuation initially advanced in the negotiations by the slaveholding interest, which, at £40 million, was twice the amount they actually received. Why he has taken the hated slaveholders’ valuations as his baseline isn’t clear from the reports but starting from what was essentially just a bargaining position in 1833, Banner has ensured that his final figure for what you and I apparently owe is both astronomical and nonsensical.

It is moral nonsense because the whole British nation in 1833 can hardly be held responsible for the actions of the 45,000 Britons who owned slaves and received compensation. Many of them owned a just a single slave or had an interest in half of one. At least ten times as many Britons signed the dozens of anti-slavery petitions presented to Parliament from the 1780s onwards.

It is even more nonsensical to ask Britons today, millions of whose ancestors did not live in the country until recently, to pay for something that occurred three centuries ago.

Some descendants of slaveholding families, like Victoria Trevelyan and Charles Gladstone, have felt it right to offer personal reparations. That is their choice. But the rest of us are not responsible for something we rightly lament, though over which we had no say or control.

Nor is it clear why Britain alone should pay these fictitious sums. British slave traders are estimated to have enslaved and transported about a quarter of the Africans shipped across the Atlantic over a period of four centuries. The hated trade was begun by the Portuguese and Spanish and involved French, Dutch, Danish and even Norwegian traders as well. One imagines that Revd Banner is also doing his sums for presentation to the Cortes, the Élysee Palace and the Norwegian parliament.

Then there is the problem of African responsibility for the enslavement of Africans. The slave trade across the Atlantic and also into Arab lands in North Africa and the Middle East would not have been possible without the collaboration and complicity of African kingdoms and their rulers. They sold on captives, often taken in tribal wars. Recent arguments over the proposed restitution of the Benin Bronzes and Asante Gold from British museums to Nigeria and Ghana respectively has reminded us that African nations also held slaves, and that the British made concerted, moral efforts to stamp out slavery within Africa in addition to the Caribbean. If we are to pay for the sins of our fathers, surely the descendants of the Oba of Benin, the King of the Asante, and many others beside should be paying as well?

The strangest aspect of the Revd Banner’s case is that it should be made by a Christian clergyman. Some British subjects were sinners, yes. The vast majority had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery, however. After fifty years of struggle the British anti-slavery campaign succeeded in ending the British slave trade and slavery itself. Thereafter, we became what has been called an ‘anti-slavery nation’, leading the world in multiple efforts to end slavery across the globe. In the words of the hymn Amazing Grace, ‘I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see’.

Those words were written by John Newton, a slave trader who literally saw the light, condemned his former self, and became a Christian minister. Rather than forgive the sins and sinners of the past, Revd Banner wishes to resurrect their evils, exploit them, and make those who are absolutely blameless pay for sins they never committed. It can hardly be called a Christian view of the matter. He needs to rethink not only his history but his theology as well.

Slavery was a lamentable stain on civilisation, though at the time of British emancipation far more people worked as coerced and forced labourers across the world than as free men and women. It was ubiquitous, in fact. Because of the sadness and tragedy intrinsic to slavery it should be obvious to everyone that its history should be told accurately and respectfully, and not sensationalised in this and other ways.

As a Christian, rather than rake over a past that cannot be changed, might the Revd Banner’s efforts be better employed investigating and ending modern slavery on the high streets and in the sweatshops of Britain today?

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Lawrence Goldman