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Webinar: Reparations

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Nigel Biggar
Written by Nigel Biggar

Nigel Biggar CBE is Emeritus Regius Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Oxford and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Pusey House, Oxford. He holds a B.A. in Modern History from Oxford and a Ph.D. in Christian Theology & Ethics from the University of Chicago. He was appointed C.B.E. “for services to Higher Education” in the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. His most recent books are Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (2023), What’s Wrong with Rights? (2020), In Defence of War (2013), and Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (2014). In the press he has written articles for the Financial Times, the (London) Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator, the (Glasgow} Herald, the Irish Times, Standpoint, The Critic, The Article, Unherd and Quillette. He served on the Committee on Ethical Issues in Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians (London) from 2000 to 2014, the Royal Society’s Working Group on People and the Planet from 2010 to 2012, and the Pontifical Academy for Life from 2017 to 2022. He now chairs the board of trustees of the Free Speech Union. He has lectured at the Royal College of Defence Studies, London; the UK Defence Academy, Shrivenham; the Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr, Hamburg; the US Military Academy, West Point; and the National Defense University, Washington, DC. His hobbies include visiting battlefields. In 1973 he drove from Scotland via Iran and Afghanistan to India. And in 2015 and 2017 he trekked across the mountains of central Crete in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and his comrades, when they abducted General Kreipe in April-May 1944.

 

I

The principle that those who do an injustice should rectify it, is moral common sense. No one disputes that Germany’s post-1945 government should have restored stolen property to its owners or compensated them for its loss. In those circumstances, the identities of the Jewish wronged and the Nazi wrongdoers and the relationship between original victims and surviving family members were clear. And the harm done was definite and quantifiable. In those circumstances, restitution and compensation made good sense.

The passage of time, however, muddies the waters. As the moral philosopher Onora O’Neill has written: “claims to compensation have to show that continuing loss or harm resulted from past injury. This is all too often impossible where harms have been caused by ancient or distant wrongs … Is everybody who descends (in part) from those who were once enslaved or colonised still being harmed by those now ancient and distant misdeeds? Can we offer a clear enough account of the causation of current harms to tell where compensation is owed? Can we show who ought to do the compensating?”.[i] The riotous jungle of history overgrows and obscures the causal pathways.

Take the case of British involvement in slave-trading and slavery, for example. The victims themselves are, of course, all long dead and—short of God, an afterlife and a Final Judgement—lie forever beyond the reach of human compensation. As for their twenty-first-century descendants, their present condition, while owing something to the enslavement of their ancestors, also owes much to events and choices in the almost two hundred years since emancipation. Some would not exist at all, if their ancestors had remained in West Africa to be sacrificed as slaves, buried alive with their deceased royal master. Many more would have been worse off, because of divergent economic fortunes. According to World Bank data, in 2020 life-expectancy in post-slavery Barbados was 24 years higher than in post-slave-trading Nigeria, literacy (in Barbados in 2014) was almost 40 per cent higher (than in Nigeria in 2018), and Gross National Income per capita in international dollars 482 per cent higher. The Canadian journalist, Mark Milke, summarises the general problem eloquently:

At some point, too many waves really have crashed onto the shore of our collective histories and retreated, and any effect from deeds committed long ago removed with the receding tide … Beyond clear lines of theft to thief, slaveholder to slave, or murderer to those who perished, entire countries and their populations alive today would be caught in impossible calculations if the working assumption for justice is that an act from the distant past can be partly remedied with compensation today, or even that it should serve as the basis for active discrimination between groups today … the further one travels down historical paths long overgrown by the thickets of newer generations, peoples, immigrants, and other possible causes for today’s observed effects, the more impossible it is to begin, never mind finish, such calculations. Beyond tight provable links between harm and harmed in recent generations and decades, it is otherwise preferable to avoid the impossible calculations that seek cosmic justice from the dead. Let them—and us—rest in peace.[ii]

So the first problem with the idea of reparations for slavery over two centuries ago is that the present condition of the descendants of slaves has been determined by a variety of factors, historic slavery only being one.

A second problem is unfairness in the selection of perpetrators. Why should British involvement in slavery be the sole focus? If the historic injustice of slavery is to be rectified, then it needs to be done fairly and across the board. If the British are to be presented with a bill for compensation, then so should the descendants of the inland African chiefs who sold other Africans to the slave-traders, as well as the descendants of the Arab slave-traders who sold the slaves to the Europeans on the coast.[iii] They all profited too—as some Africans admit. In a 2018 article entitled, “My Great-Grandfather, the African Slave-Trader”, the novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani has written: “African intellectuals tend to blame the West for the slave trade, but I knew that white traders couldn’t have loaded their ships without help from Africans like my great-grandfather. I read arguments for paying reparations to the descendants of American slaves and wondered whether someone might soon expect my family to contribute”.[iv]

And if the playing-field of reparations is to be level, the British themselves should seek compensation from the descendants of the early medieval Norsemen who traded English slaves down the Volga, and from the Barbary corsairs, who raided Cornwall in the 1600s and carted off whole villages into slavery on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. If the British, then the Americans, too, since, in its early years, the United States spent a fifth of its entire national budget in tribute to the pirate states of Algiers and Tripoli, in order to stop their raids on its ships and enslavement of their crews. Yesterday’s oppressors were often the day before yesterday’s victims. In a letter published in The Times some years ago, a former British diplomat recounted a conversation he had had shortly after Nigeria’s independence with one of the country’s new rulers. The ruler was pressing the case for Britain to compensate the Nigerians for decades of colonial oppression. After listening intently, the diplomat’s turn to reply came. “I entirely agree”, he said. “And you shall have your compensation – just as soon as we get ours from the Romans”.[v]

In addition to unfairness in the selection of perpetrators, there is also the issue of unfairness in the selection of victims. This is the third problem. If the intention is to right grave historic wrongs, why should slavery be the sole focus? The plight of medieval serfs or early industrial workers dwelling in urban slums may have been better than that of slaves toiling in the West Indies, but not very much better. As the Canadian political scientist, Richard Vernon, puts it, the list of all those who suffered at the hands of “the states of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whose failures of responsibility were almost universally appalling” (by our standards), is long and includes women, children, industrial workers, religious minorities, soldiers and sailors.[vi] How can we justify privileging African slaves?

A fourth problem with the idea of reparations for historic British slavery is the complicating need to factor in historic British anti-slavery. It is true that some British people profited from the trading and exploitation of African slaves for roughly a century-and-a-half from 1650. Yet British involvement in that period was not at all extraordinary. Slave-trading and slavery were universal practices, practised on every continent by people of every skin-colour. Africans were capturing and selling other Africans to the Romans and the Arabs centuries before Europeans entered the market in the mid-1400s. In the 1700s the Comanche ran what one historian calls “a vast slave economy” in the south-west of what is now the United States.[vii] At the same time, black slaves in Jamaica who escaped the plantations and hid out in the forested interior—the Maroons—kept slaves of their own.[viii] For most of history slavery was normal and the early modern involvement of Britons in it was completely unremarkable.

What was remarkable was the moral revolution that took place in the late 1700s in north-western Europe, inspired by the conviction—partly Enlightenment, mostly Christian—that all human beings are basically equal, regardless of race and cultural development. This caused the idea of some human beings owning others as their absolute property to become widely abhorrent. Consequently, in 1807 and 1833 Britain was among the first nations in the history of the world to abolish the slave-trade and slavery, respectively.

From then until the end of the Empire in the 1960s, the British used their imperial power to suppress both the trade and the institution all over the world—from Brazil, across Africa, to India and Malaysia. In the 1820s and ‘30s the Slave Trade Department was the largest unit in the British Foreign Office and at its mid-century height the Royal Navy devoted over 13 per cent of its total manpower to the West Africa Station, so as to intercept slave-trafficking across the Atlantic. The economic historian, David Eltis, has reckoned that this cost British taxpayers a minimum of £250,000 per annum—approximately equivalent to 10 per cent of the UK’s expenditure on development aid in 2019—for half a century.[ix] Moreover in absolute terms the British spent almost as much attempting to suppress the trade in the forty-seven years, 1816–62, as they received in profits over the same length of time leading up to 1807. And, according to Eltis, by any more reasonable assessment of profits and direct costs, the nineteenth-century costs of suppression were certainly bigger than the eighteenth-century benefits.[x]

Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape took a broader view. In addition to the costs of naval suppression, they considered the loss of business caused by abolition to British manufacturers, shippers, merchants and bankers who dealt with the West Indies. They also factored in the higher prices paid by British consumers for sugar, since duties were imposed to protect free-grown British sugar from competition by foreign producers who continued to benefit from unpaid slave labour. Overall, they “estimate the economic cost to British metropolitan society of the anti-slave trade effort at roughly 1.8 per cent of national income over sixty years from 1808 to 1867”.[xi] Although the comparisons are not exact, they do illuminate: in 2021 the UK spent 0.5 per cent of GDP on international aid and just over 2 per cent on national defence. Kaufmann and Pape conclude that Britain’s effort to suppress the Atlantic slave trade in 1807–67 was “the most expensive example [of costly international moral action] recorded in modern history”.[xii]

And remember: all the figures that I have just quoted refer to the suppression of the slave-trade across the Atlantic only.

So, as I see it, there are at least four major flies stuck in the ointment of the argument in favour of British reparations for historic slavery: the variety of causal factors determining the present condition of the descendants of African slaves; unfairness in the selection of perpetrators; unfairness in the selection of victims; and the need to take account of sustained British anti-slavery endeavours.

 

II

These issues hardly make an appearance in Sir Hilary McD. Beckles’ case in Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, which presents itself on the back cover as “the first scholarly work that looks comprehensively at the reparations discussion in the Caribbean”.[xiii] A Barbadian historian, Sir Hilary chairs the CARICOM Reparations Commission.

His general view of British colonialism is expressed in his description of it as a “criminal enrichment project”[xiv] and of its “known features” as “its terrorism of adults and ruthless exploitation of children; its maddening material poverty; and the racial brutality it bred within the prison known as the plantation”.[xv] He claims that “[f]rom the West Indies, the British exported the financially successful model of African enslavement to the rest of the colonized world”, and he refers to Queen Elizabeth II’s apology in 1995 for “the genocidal activities committed by the British” in New Zealand.[xvi] This description of British colonialism will seem risible to anyone who finds generally plausible the account I have given in my book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. One symptom of Beckles’ politically charged inaccuracy is that the royal apology he referred to was for the punitive confiscation of Māori lands in 1865, which, however wrong, was hardly genocide.

Against the claim that Africans themselves were deeply implicated in the slave trade, Beckles argues that they never reduced “subordinate workers, political prisoners and others subject to criminal punishment” to the legal status of “non-humans, perpetual property and reproductive chattels”;[xvii] that this “is the classic divide-and-rule defence in which victims are blamed for their victimization”; that “[t]he majority of African leaders over time opposed the slave trade” and “[f]or this they were destabilised and destroyed”;[xviii] and that African chiefs were forced to raid for slaves under pain of attack and enslavement themselves.[xix]

In response, I observe that the West African custom of burying ‘servants’ alive with their deceased master does rather imply a view of them as violently disposable property; that to blame African slave-traders is not to blame African slaves; that there are no historical grounds for the claim that African chiefs generally opposed the slave trade; and that, while it is possible that some chiefs felt themselves compelled by Europeans to raid for slaves, many of them were engaged in slave-raiding and trading for centuries before Europeans arrived on the scene. I raised Beckles’ claim that most African chiefs had opposed the slave trade, and that those who collaborated did so under duress, with Professor Kenneth Morgan, a British economic and social historian of the transatlantic slave trade and author of Slavery and the British Empire, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2007. He replied, “I have never seen any African historian support such a view”. The Beninese historian Abiola Félix Iroko substantiated Morgan’s report, saying in 2020: “When the slave trade was abolished, Africans were against abolition. King Kosoko of Lagos was against abolition at the time … Of those who were sold and had offspring … [s]ome returned home … [and] became, in turn, slaveholders and bought slaves for their correspondents who remained in Brazil. Africans resumed this trade after abolition”.[xx] The fact that, faced with the claim of African complicity, some West African states have withdrawn their support for the ‘reparations movement’ might be because of their recognition of the truth rather than because of Western intimidation, as Beckles speculates.[xxi]

On the issue of the extent to which Britain’s wealth and power was built on the slave trade and slavery, Beckles is unequivocal: “It is important for British society to acknowledge that its development as a nation-state, the transformation of its economy to sustainable industrialization, and its global standing as a super-power among nations were founded upon a crime against humanity in the form of racial chattel enslavement of African bodies and the global trafficking of these bodies for three hundred years”.[xxii] In adopting this view, he declares himself “particularly indebted to Eric Williams, whose scholarship underpins much of this work”.[xxiii] He is aware that Williams’ thesis in Capitalism and Slavery has been criticised: “Conservative … economic historians launched a crusade against it. In most cases … there were layers of ideology, distinctly Eurocentric and sometimes with racial undertones”.[xxiv] Nevertheless, he argues that “its continued capacity to stimulate further research speaks to its essential correctness”.[xxv] In defence of his position he invokes Robin Blackburn, former editor of the New Left Review and author of The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800, and indirectly through him the Marxist tradition of British historiography, with its leading lights, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill.[xxvi] Such British scholars, steeped in the study of labour history and “with a deep intellectual commitment to social justice”, he tells us, have tended to treat the issues raised by Williams “more fairly”. Knowing the tendency for capital to subject labour to a basic subsistence level, they have recognised the importance of African enslavement to the rise of industrial capitalism in general.[xxvii] In addition to Marxist historians, Beckles also enlists some critics of Williams. The “ardent critic” David Richardson, he argues, nonetheless “essentially agreed with the fundamental correctness of Williams’ research”, when he wrote (in 1987) that “Caribbean-based demands may have accounted for 12 per cent of the growth of English industrial output in the quarter century before 1776 … Although West Indian and related trades provided a more modest stimulus to the growth of British industrial production than Williams imagined, they nevertheless played a more prominent part in fostering industrial changes and export growth in Britain during the third quarter of the eighteenth century than most historians have assumed”.[xxviii] And summarising Kenneth Morgan’s position, Beckles writes, “For Morgan, the slavery system was not the cause of British development. It was a ‘stimulus’. Williams would not have disagreed”.[xxix]

Beckles’ argument here is riddled with problems. First, he does not engage with the ‘conservative’ economic historians who disagreed with Williams—indeed, he does not even name them. Instead, he airily and summarily dismisses their views as distorted by political ‘ideology’ (unlike his own) and by racism.

Second, the works of recognised experts on transatlantic slavery such as David Eltis, Seymour Drescher and David Brion Davis appear in his bibliography, but receive no mention at all in the text. (It was Davis who declared of Eric Williams’ thesis in 2010 that it “has now been wholly discredited by other scholars”.)[xxx]

Third, he identifies himself with a theory-driven, Marxist-Leninist reading of colonial economics which, as Chapter 6 of my book shows, has not fared well when brought into contact with the historical data.[xxxi]

Fourth, his claim that Richardson and Morgan end up confirming Williams’ thesis is just not true. That thesis was not that the profits from the slave trade were merely an economic stimulus—no one denies that—but that they made “an enormous contribution to Britain’s industrial development” (the emphasis is mine).[xxxii] That is Beckles’ position, too: Britain’s wealth and power were “founded upon a crime against humanity” (the emphasis is mine). In contrast, Richardson judges the contribution of the slave trade and slavery to be “more modest”—12 per cent is significant, but hardly enormous. And Morgan reckons that it would be “incorrect” to claim that the profits from the trade were “a major stimulus for industrialization in Britain”, but rather that they played “a significant, though not decisive part” in its evolution.[xxxiii]

Fifth and finally, Beckles is completely oblivious to the century and a half of costly British imperial endeavour in suppressing the slave trade and the institution of slavery worldwide.

 

III

Calls for reparations are gathering steam in Britain in 2023. In April, Laura Trevelyan announced that she is doing penance for the sins of her slave-owning ancestors by giving £100,000 to an economic development fund in Grenada. Having left the BBC to be free to speak her mind on the issue, she began her campaign by challenging King Charles to apologise for William III’s investment in the slave-trading Royal African Company in the 1690s. Then, just under a fortnight later, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the Labour MP for Streatham, picked up the baton by demanding that Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, “offer a full and meaningful apology for our country’s role in slavery … and commit to reparatory justice”.

If the Labour Party forms the next government after the general election in 2024, we can expect this demand to intensify. Laura Trevelyan has invoked the supposed authority Hilary Beckles. Almost every one of the fifteen chapters of his book, Britain’s Black Debt, begins with a quotation of a member of a recent British Labour cabinet or shadow cabinet—including Diane Abbott.

Yet, however well-intentioned or politically expedient they may be, calls for Britain to pay reparations for slavery are, literally, nonsense. They make no sense. They simply do not add up.

 

IV

Notwithstanding the implausibility of Beckles’ case, I do not mean to say that there are no colonial cases closely analogous to that of the Nazi theft of Jewish property—that is to say, where it is clear that a just law or treaty was broken, what right was violated, who held the right, who are the descendants of the right-holder and who should make good the loss. In such cases, reparation or compensation would make sense.

However, many—perhaps most—cases where native peoples now assert historic rights to land allegedly stolen from their ancestors are not of that kind. The rights they assert are not legal, but moral. They cannot be legal, because when Europeans first arrived on the natives’ shores, there was no international law that fixed what the native peoples held, and what the migrants could claim, by legal right. However, to talk of non-conventional, natural, moral rights misleads, because the very concept of a right—being originally legal—implies a fixity that does not exist.[xxxiv] I note that the American philosopher, David Lyons, agreed with me on this, when he wrote that “moral rights to land are inherently unstable or variable with circumstances”, and that when migrants land on the shores of a native people, what share of goods the former may justly claim and what the latter justly owe is not determinate: “[o]ne cannot say, a priori, what form such sharing would have to take … property rights themselves, and not just their exercise or contents, are relative to circumstances”.[xxxv] For that reason, I suggest that we jettison talk of ‘rights’ altogether in such cases and talk of ‘justice’ instead. For justice varies according to circumstances. What is just in an abundant environment with a small population is not just in the same environment with a large population or depleted resources: “entitlements are sensitive to circumstances” and the very same act of snatching that is unjust in one set of circumstances may not be unjust in another.[xxxvi]

What this means is that, even if there was an injustice done in the past, reversing it may not achieve justice in the present. For example, the historic theft of land meant a gravity of loss to my ancestor in 1800 that it cannot mean for me in 2020, now that I am supported by a welfare state.[xxxvii] Similarly, even if you now sit on the land stolen from my ancestor, simply returning it to me would do you an injustice, insofar as you have built a life and an economy on it and are not culpable for the original wrong. “[T]here have been huge changes since North America and Australasia were settled by white colonists”, writes the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron. “The population has increased manyfold, and most of the descendants of the colonists, unlike their ancestors, have nowhere else to go … the changes that have taken place over the past two hundred years mean that the costs of respecting primeval entitlements are much greater now than they were in 1800”.[xxxviii] Besides, trying to respect alleged primeval entitlements by rolling time backwards and restoring aboriginal land and self-government does not always benefit the natives. Some in Canada argue that such a policy continues to “keep natives isolated and dependent, thus perpetuating existing social pathologies … [and] has resulted in a large amount of corruption where powerful families siphon off most of the resources while the majority remain mired in poverty and social dysfunction. Privileged leaders live in luxury and are paid huge salaries, while most aboriginal people rely on social assistance”.[xxxix]

In the face of these intractable complications Waldron concludes that our focus should lie on addressing present injustices rather than trying to untangle historic injustices: “it is the impulse to justice now that should lead the way … not the reparation of something whose wrongness is understood primarily in relation to conditions that no longer obtain. Entitlements … fade with time, counterfactuals … are impossible to verify, injustices … are overtaken by circumstances”.[xl] Onora O’Neill agrees with him: “Compensation is required for present harm caused by past wrongdoing, not simply for current disadvantage however caused. Unless we can trace the causal pathways, we cannot tell who has gained from ancestral wrongdoing, and should now shoulder the costs of compensating those whose present disadvantage was caused by past wrongdoing. It may therefore make more sense … to argue for a distributive – or redistributive – account of aspects of justice, which seeks action to redress present disadvantage, whatever its origins.[xli]

 

V

In summary, where there are cases closely analogous to that of the German state’s post-1945 restitution of Jewish property, reparations would be appropriate. Historic British involvement in slave-trading and slavery is not such a case, and the claim that the British owe reparations for their involvement raises at least four objections. Not one of these objections does Hilary Beckles’ book-length case for ‘Britain’s Black debt’ address, far less dislodge.

Reparations by the British state for slavery do not make good sense. For sure, as a generally and comparatively wealthy people, the British do have a moral duty to use some of their wealth to support those less fortunate than themselves. Since the British cannot save the whole world, they have to choose which parts to help. Historical association is one reasonable criterion for their choice. So, by all means, let Britain give aid to former colonies in the West Indies.

But not reparations.

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the University of Oxford and author of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning

 


 

NOTES

[i] Onora O’Neill, ‘Rights to Compensation’, in Justice across Boundaries: Whose Obligations? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 51.

[ii] Mark Milke, The Victim Cult: How the Grievance Culture Hurts Everyone and Wrecks Civilizations (Parksville, BC: Thomas and Black, 2019), pp. 237, 246. Eric A. Posner and Adrian Vermeule, both professors of law, analyse the difficulty of ‘netting out’ the benefits and costs of the wrong of slavery: slaves benefited from European enslavement insofar as the alternative was slaughter back home by an enemy; many wrongdoers passed their unjust profits to descendants who made sacrifices for the sake of slaves; some descendants of slaves are also the descendants of slave-masters and would not exist but for slavery (“Reparations for Slavery and Other Historical Injustices”, 103 Columbia Law Review 689 [2003], pp. 702, 708, 740).

[iii] John Torpey reports that in the Organisation of African Unity summit of 1993, which was convened to consider the African reparations campaign, “[t]he role of North Africans and Middle Easterners—not to mention sub-Saharan Africans themselves—in the slave trade threatened to muddy the historical waters” (“Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: Reflections on Reparations”, Journal of Modern History, 73/2 [June 2001], p. 353).

[iv] Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, “My Great-Grandfather, the African Slave-Trader”, New Yorker, 15 July 2018: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/my-great-grandfather-the-nigerian-slave-trader.

[v] Unfortunately, I have been unable to identify the date of the letter’s publication. The same point was made memorably in an episode of the incomparable television series The West Wing, where Josh Lyman, the White House’s Deputy Chief of Staff, is talking to Jeff Breckenridge, an African American lawyer who is pressing the case for reparations for slavery. Says Lyman: “You know, Jeff, I’d love to give you the money. I really would. But I’m a little short of cash right now. It seems the SS officer forgot to give my grandfather his wallet back when he let him out of Birkenau” (Torpey, “Making Whole What Has Been Smashed”, p. 356).

[vi] Richard Vernon, Historical Redress: Must We Pay for the Past? (London: Continuum, 2012), pp. 108–9.

[vii] Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 1-2.

[viii] As did freed slaves in the State of North Carolina on the eve of the American Civil War in 1860, according to what I read in the North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, NC, nwhen I visited it in January 2023.

[ix] The lower figure of £1.367 billion was reached by the following method: (1) take an estimate of the average peacetime defence spending by Britain in the nineteenth century of 2.5 per cent of GDP (B. R. Mitchell, British Historical Statistics [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988], p. 587); (2) assume that half of this (1.25 per cent) was directed at the Royal Navy (as both Professor Andrew Lambert of King’s College London and Dr Stephen Prince, head of the Naval Historical Branch at the Ministry of Defence, have recommended to me in personal correspondence); (3) apply 1.25 per cent to the UK’s 2019 GDP of £2,214 billion to reach a figure of £27,675,000,000, the equivalent total naval expenditure in 2019 values; (4) take the average percentage of naval manpower assigned to West Africa in the fifty-year period 1816–65 (4.94 per cent) as a proxy for the proportion of the Royal Navy’s resources committed to anti-slave-trade operations in the Atlantic (following David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987], p. 91); (5) apply (4) to (3) to reach a figure of £1,367,145,000 for the expenditure on anti-slave-trade operations in the Atlantic in 2019 values.

The higher figure of £1.742 billion was reached by this method: (1) take the average annual expenditure of £7,512,000 on the Royal Navy during the fifty-year period of 1816–65 (Mitchell, British Historical Statistics, pp. 587–8); (2) take the average percentage of naval manpower assigned to West Africa in the same period (4.94 per cent) as a proxy for the proportion of the Royal Navy’s resources committed to anti-slave-trade operations in the Atlantic; (3) apply (2) to (1) to reach a figure of £371,093 as the average annual expenditure by the Royal Navy on suppressing the Atlantic slave trade; (4) enter the years 1816, 1826, 1836, 1846, 1856 and 1866 into the calculator on the MeasuringWorth.com website (https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ppoweruk/), and select the ‘project’ (for example, item of government expenditure) and ‘economic cost’ (per cent of GDP as an indicator of ‘the importance of the item to society as a whole’) options, to reach an average figure across those five years of £1,741,680,000 in 2019 values.

[x] Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, pp. 96, 97.

[xi] Chaim D. Kaufmann and Robert A. Pape, ‘Explaining Costly International Moral Action: Britain’s Sixty-Year Campaign against the Atlantic Slave Trade’, International Organization, 53/4 (Autumn 1999), pp. 634–7, esp. 636.

[xii] Ibid., p. 631.

[xiii] Hilary McD. Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide (Kingston, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2013).

[xiv] Ibid., p. xvii.

[xv] Ibid., p. 2.

[xvi] Ibid., pp. 3, 12.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 18.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 168.

[xix] Ibid., pp. 181–2.

[xx] “Historian: ‘Africans Must Be Condemned for the Slave Trade’”, interview with Abiola Félix Iroko on Benin Web TV, Free West Media, 28 July 2020: https://freewestmedia.com/2020/07/28/historian-africans-must-be-condemned-for-the-slave-trade/ [accessed 29 June 2021]). The dissident intellectual from the Ivory Coast, and winner of the Nelson Mandela Prize for Literature in 2017, Ernest Tigori, concurs: “this [slave] trade happened strictly between local leaders and European merchants, as European governments had not yet set foot in Africa. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Africa included powerful kingdoms such as Ashanti, Dahomey, Kongo, and the notion that they could have been forced by mere merchants to sell their people to slavery against their will is simply ludicrous” (Raymond Ibrahim, ‘“I’m Saddened by the White Man’s Emasculation”: An African Sets the Record Straight’, PJ Media, 15 January 2020: https://pjmedia.com/columns/raymond-ibrahim/2020/01/15/im-saddened-by-the-white-mans-emasculation-an-african-sets-the-record-straight-n123156 [accessed 29 June 2021]).

[xxi] Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt, p. 168.

[xxii] Ibid., p. 23; see also pp. 82, 84.

[xxiii] Ibid., p. xiv.

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 101.

[xxv] Ibid., p. 4.

[xxvi] Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800 (London: Verso, 1997). Blackburn is emeritus professor in the department of sociology at the University of Essex.

[xxvii] Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt, pp. 101–2.

[xxviii] Ibid., p. 105.

[xxix] Ibid., p. 106.

[xxx] See Chapter 2, section V.

[xxxi] Beckles prefaces each of his fifteen chapters with a quotation. One of these is of Jeremy Corbyn, four of

Diane Abbott and two of Dawn Butler. Corbyn was leader of the Labour Opposition from 2015–20, and Abbott and Butler both served in his Shadow Cabinet.

[xxxii] See Chapter 2, section V.

[xxxiii] See Chapter 2, section V.

[xxxiv] See Nigel Biggar, What’s Wrong with Rights? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 121–31. Out of my examination of natural rights in general I concluded that it is best not to talk of natural, moral rights at all, since they connote a stability and fixity that does not exist apart from conventional law and its supportive institutions.

[xxxv] David Lyons, “The New Indian Claims and Original Rights to Land”, Social Theory and Practice, 4/3 (Fall 1977), pp. 263, 269.

[xxxvi] Jeremy Waldron, ‘Superseding Historic Injustice’, Ethics, 103/1 (October 1992), pp. 20, 23.

[xxxvii] Jeremy Waldron, ‘Redressing Historic Injustice’, University of Toronto Law Journal, 52 (2002), p. 148.

[xxxviii] Waldron, ‘Superseding Historic Injustice’, p.26.

[xxxix] Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), pp. 8–9.

[xl] Waldron, ‘Superseding Historic Injustice’, p. 27.

[xli] O’Neill, ‘Rights to Compensation’, p. 52; the emphases are O’Neill’s. The political philosopher David Miller and the political scientist Alan C. Cairns concur. Miller writes: ‘Thus we might think that colonial nations have special remedial responsibilities to their impoverished former colonies without delving into contested questions such as whether colonialism unjustly enriched the metropolis at the expense of the periphery’ (National Responsibility and Global Justice [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007], pp. 139–40). Cairns reports, with approval, that Canada’s prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, resisted attempts at redress for past injustice, quoting President John F. Kennedy in 1972: ‘We will be just in our time. This is all we can do. We must be just today’ (Citizens Plus, p. 52).

About the author

Nigel Biggar

Nigel Biggar

Nigel Biggar, CBE is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, Oxford, and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life. His works include What’s Wrong with Rights? (2020), and Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (2014). His latest book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning will be published by William Collins in 2022.