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Slavery and reparations: a report on “Envisioning Reparations”

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History Reclaimed
Written by History Reclaimed

Following on from the report of the University of Cambridge’s Legacies of Enslavement Inquiry, its leading researchers convened a follow-up event to discuss the question of reparations. Their report has been criticised as one-sided and superficial. Was their conference invoking ‘historical and comparative approaches’ any better?

Slavery and reparations: a report on “Envisioning Reparations”, a conference held at the University of Cambridge (28–30 September, 2022)

On 28th September representatives from History Reclaimed travelled to the Møller Institute at Churchill College, Cambridge to attend a conference entitled “Envisioning reparations: historical and comparative approaches”. It was held under the auspices of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities [CRASSH], and supported by Trinity College, Cambridge. We wished to discover how the academics at the University of Cambridge would tackle this huge and complex subject and whether they would manage to bring together opposing viewpoints to generate a balanced and thought-provoking discussion uncontaminated by foregone conclusions.

Unfortunately, whereas the conference promised to facilitate “a forum to advance the rapidly evolving public debate on slavery’s long legacies and the idea of historical reparation”, there was in fact no real debate as it soon transpired that all the speakers were singing from the same hymn sheet. The conference consisted almost entirely of speeches by propagandist radical activists. Dr Sabine Cadeau, who convened the conference, is a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Cambridge Legacies of Enslavement Inquiry.  Although a specialist in the history of 20th century Haiti, not of early-modern Britain, she was largely responsible for the recently-concluded and controversial report of this Inquiry, which set out among other things to “think about how we define the complicity of universities in slavery and the role of academics and university-educated persons in perpetuating racism” and which claimed that the university had “an appalling history of abuse”.

One of the several speakers on the first day of the conference was the researcher Nicolas Bell Romero, also a postdoctoral researcher on the Legacies of Enslavement Inquiry, who was recently responsible for a controversial project at Gonville and Caius exploring links between the college and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Critics have asserted that his report contained factual inaccuracies. Henning Grosse Ruse-Khan, Professor of International and European Intellectual Property Law at the University of Cambridge, citing Marx, Nisancioglu and others, examined the role of international law in the reparations debate, even challenging the notion that slavery was once legal. He drew a comparison between the slave trade and the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, not seeming to acknowledge the significance of context and the fact that the Holocaust was universally acknowledged at the time to be evil and was also an attempt to exterminate an entire race. Revd Dr Michael Banner, Dean of Trinity College, asserted that children in the UK were taught that Britain had abolished slavery but never that Britain had also practiced it; when one attendee pointed out that all schoolchildren are in fact taught that Britain was involved in the slave trade and suggested that things might have changed in the decades since Banner himself was a schoolboy, he appeared unreceptive.

Although questions from the floor were taken, any vaguely critical or interrogative questions were met with palpable hostility from both speakers and the audience, through loud sighs and muttering. There seemed to be a reluctance to address the many elephants in the room, and several key questions remained unanswered. How would the deservingness of reparations applicants be ascertained? Where should the line be drawn – why should reparations be paid to the descendants of trans-Atlantic slaves but not to other historically subjugated groups? How far back in history could claims be made? Should people who are descendants of both slaves and slave owners receive reparations or pay them? Should the lineal descendants and the successor states of the African rulers who sold their people into slavery also pay reparations? How should present-day slavery and other forms of coerced labour enter into this debate?  In leaving such simple questions unanswered, the conference was academically unsatisfactory to any critically minded observer.

What stood out from the outset was the conspicuous imbalance between representatives of American/Caribbean institutions and of British institutions. Out of the 27 speakers listed for the conference, 20 were representing American or West Indian institutions, whereas a mere five were from British institutions (four from Cambridge and one from UCL); one was from the University of Sao Paolo and another was from the University of Ghana. This heavy skew towards American/Caribbean representation, reflected also in the demographics of the conference attendees, led to a discussion that was extremely American-centric.

Attendees were informed that “the voices of ancestors should inform the steps to take on reparations”, which would seem to make academic research and discussion such as this superfluous. Predictably, figures such as Christopher Codrington, slave owner and academic benefactor, were attacked. More bizarrely, perhaps, there was an attack on Conservative MP Richard Drax for being the descendant of slave owners; he should, it was argued, cede some of his land. Distinguished British figures, many related to Cambridge, who had held shares in slave-owning companies were conflated with the slave masters themselves and unfairly vilified by the speakers as reprehensible men, in spite of their many achievements in public life.

Importing culture wars from the US and presenting one-sided “debates” with activists is not going to enrich academia or widen thinking. At all times universities, particularly world-leading universities such as Cambridge, should make sure they operate with the utmost academic integrity and with a desire to reflect a range of views and facilitate a Millian “clash of ideas” from which reasoned conclusions can be reached. Otherwise, they lay themselves open to the charge that they are abusing academic positions for purposes of propaganda.

Appendix: list of speakers

For the full programme see https://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/34765/#programme

Convenor

  • Sabine Cadeau (Cambridge Legacies of Enslavement Inquiry, University of Cambridge)

Keynotes

  • Opening: Thomas Holt (James Westfall Thompson Professor Emeritus of American and African American History, University of Chicago)
  • Closing: Sir Hilary Beckles (Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies)

Speakers

  • Antonio Sergio Alfredo Guimaraes (Universidade de Sao Paulo)
  • Malik Al Nasir (University of Cambridge)
  • Michael Banner (University of Cambridge)
  • Caree Ann Marie Banton (University of Arkansas)
  • Marlene Daut (Yale University)
  • Michael Dawson (University of Chicago)
  • Theodore Francis (Abilene Christian University)
  • Kodzo Gavua  (University of Ghana)
  • Edward González Tennant (University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley)
  • Kamm Howard (Reparations United)
  • Jovan Lewis (University of California, Berkeley)
  • Natasha Lightfoot (Columbia University)
  • Toussaint Losier (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)
  • Constant Méheut (New York Times)
  • Guy Mount (Wake Forest University)
  • Kai Parker (Universty of Virginia)
  • Winston F. Phulgence (University of West Indies)
  • Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons (First Repair)
  • Henning Grosse Ruse-Khan (University of Cambridge)
  • Philippe Sands (University College London)
  • Alphonso Saville (Princeton University)
  • Verene Shepherd (University of West Indies, Mona Campus)
  • Christopher Todd (University of North Texas)

About the author

History Reclaimed

History Reclaimed