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“Envisioning Reparations”: reflections on the Cambridge conference

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History Reclaimed
Written by History Reclaimed

Historian Johan Gärdebo reflects on the conference “Envisioning Reparations”, held at University of Cambridge (28–30 September, 2022). He recognises the legitimacy of serious research on this legacy, but warns of the political dangers of using history to encourage Identity politics.

David Lowenthal’s words “the past is a foreign country”, also the title of his magnum opus (1985), ring particularly true for me in autumn 2022. Having recently arrived (from Sweden) in the UK, where I now live and work as a visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge, all things at first appear foreign, bewildering and new.

And many things are indeed new. The passing of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, albeit at an esteemed age, was one more unexpected event for England to grapple with. Together with the war in Ukraine and the looming ‘winter of discontent’ caused by the energy crisis, we are beginning to pick out that the end of the Second Elizabethan Era marks the beginning of a new sentiment in history.

One sign of this new sentiment was discernible at the conference “Envisioning Reparations”, held at the University of Cambridge between 28th and 30th September and organised by CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities). The conference set out to detail historical legacies of slavery in the UK and US as part of envisioning how reparations should be made in the present.

From the outset, the organisers made use of a quote from Kenyan activist Wambugu Wa Nyingi which included undertones of critique against the late Queen. It is, of course, worth mentioning that in some quarters, for instance American media outlets such as CNN, criticism has been levelled for some time against the British monarchy for not going further in its recognition of slavery, most recently in a now viral interaction between CNN host Don Lemon and royal commentator Hilary Fordwich.

Regarding the conference organisers and myself, one could say I have had a decade-long crush on CRASSH. It is they, and Cambridge, who helped pioneer scholarship on environmental history, which has become the focus of my own research. By continuation, CRASSH helped me trade political activism for academic work, and a philosophical perspective, on environmental issues. It is therefore somewhat ironic that I found the CRASSH conference had moved in the opposite direction, towards more activism.

‘Activism’, and its sibling concept ‘ideology’, are often misunderstood and misused terms in today’s debate on the purpose of universities, and in particular on the role of the humanities. On one end of the spectrum exists the notion that activism should be kept separate from knowledge production, which to the best of our ability is conducted free of other societal preferences, or political beliefs. The climatologist Roger Pielke’s solution is for academics to become a sort of ‘honest broker’ of knowledge, whereby one should use research to formulate a number of policy alternatives for society to reflect upon and to choose from. On the other end of the spectrum is the claim that knowledge production reproduces power relations, such as legacies of slavery, and that as a result academics have a responsibility to declare their own standpoint and in so doing make their research more credible. Neglecting to see one’s own position in power relations is, to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, simply pure ideology.

In the balance hangs the possibility of not only academic but also societal debates, and of the free exchange of ideas, as described in the oft-cited ‘Letter on Justice and Open Debate’ in Harper’s Magazine. My view thus far is that academics can be ideologues and activists, and that the more openly people discuss these preferences the better. The red line is where dissenting views are no longer represented, debated, or tolerated. You could perhaps say that my own ideology then is dissent, dialectics, and negation. I at times long for a sort of ideological Turing test, whereby we need to demonstrate the ability to convincingly argue for views opposite to our own.

Coming back to ‘Envisioning Reparations’, to what degree can the conference be said to be ideological or activistic? It is important to recognise that the conference nominally adhered to an open debate – speakers could be questioned by the audience. One organiser stressed emphatically that “all views are ok, we are all for free speech”, as if hoping to pre-empt critical commentaries such as this one. Moreover, all participants were treated cordially, even as differing political views among audience attendees became increasingly apparent.

The ideology and activism of which I speak concerns the lack of any meaningful debate on the issue of reparations, combined with a one-sided readiness to mobilise historical cases primarily for the purpose of envisioning reparations (hence the name of the conference). Conference speakers repeatedly meditated on the phrase “history matters” when arguing that present-day inequalities are a product of historical injustice – that is, a legacy of slavery. And from this perspective, then, there must be reparations. The big question, which remained unanswered, was how these should be designed, and when in time it was deemed opportune to push reparation policies through governing bodies.

Using history to plead for a case is the role of a barrister or lawyer. And at times, the historian can mantle this role, as in the case of Carlo Ginzburg who used his skills with interpreting historical sources to defend a friend in court who stood accused of murder. It has also been used to set up mock trials, of which the Russel Tribunal – during which academics mobilised evidence of historical atrocities conducted by the US, Israel, and Serbia, to mention a few countries – is a famous example.

But these instances of courageously bearing witness are in history also mingled with the hunger for revenge, to pass moral judgment, as described by Herbert Butterfield in The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). If history matters, then it also holds that the task at hand is understanding not only who conducted slavery, but why this was seen as acceptable by people at the time.

In my own country, Sweden, there rages a debate similar in some ways to that on slavery, but which concerns our history of colonialism against the Sami – a Nordic indigenous people. Academics have, like their colleagues in the UK and US, presented historical case studies of land displacement, eugenic programmes, and legacies of discrimination that to this day affect Sami education, economic practices, and housing. These academic studies (which I at one point took part in) often join hands with activist attempts to move from recognition to reparations. One such reparation is for Swedish Sami to be granted ethnic-specific rights, for example greater control over territories where reindeer husbandry is conducted.

What is now becoming apparent is that these ethnic-specific rights form part of a larger turn towards identitarian politics. Both minorities – ethnic and regional – and segments of the majority population rally around a sense of having been exploited, with critique levelled not only against the state but also against other minorities, among them the Sami. Therefore, despite initially being viewed as a drive towards progressive politics, reparation policies are currently fuelling antagonism and deepening divisions between these groups.

The long-term implication of this development can be seen in the recent Swedish election, where the populist right-wing Sweden Democrats and its conservative coalition emerged as victorious. Adding to this is a similar victory for right-wing populism also in Italy. We should then presume that ethnic identitarian populism is set to shape Europe’s political landscape for years to come, and we should expect corresponding initiatives also in the UK and US.

To clarify, this is not an invocation to stifle discussion of historical injustices. The concern I raise to CRASSH, and to other colleagues at the University of Cambridge, is that in our present-day willingness to recognise the evil of slavery, we risk rushing towards claims for reparation but without realising how such politics breed counter-reactions in turn. One of these consequences may be a reinforced emphasis on ethnic identity, in contrast to civic nationalism’s emphasis on the status of citizenship as a vector for nation-building.

The points of critique raised above do not, in my view, prevent academic debate on why societies kept slaves, and why certain societies still keep slaves. If the aim is academic discourse, every panel putting forward arguments in favour of reparations could also include counter-arguments against reparations, as has been done in recent years through other academic debates on slavery. This is then all within the margins, and traditions, of what a university should be able to do.

History matters once we visit the strange land of the past, to hark back to Lowenthal, in order to make our present less strange. And with regards to recognising the legacies of atrocities, our challenge is to provide stories of how people could come together to build societies, despite them being strangers to one another. To weave from their differences a commonality, and a commons.


Dr Johan Gärdebo is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Uppsala specialising in the history of climate. 

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History Reclaimed

History Reclaimed