The day before the United Kingdom finally left the European Union, Bell Ribeiro-Addy gave her first speech in Parliament. The debate that day was about the broader future of “global Britain,” but for Ribeiro-Addy, it was also about old injustices and their links to current problems. “Not only will this country, my country, not apologize—by apologize I mean properly apologize; not ‘expressing deep regret,’” she said, “It has not once offered a form of reparations.”
The 35-year-old south Londoner, who is of Ghanaian origin and describes herself as a socialist and feminist, represents Streatham, the neighborhood where she grew up, for the UK’s Labour Party. She was speaking before a pandemic devastated the British economy and global protests against racial injustice altered the tone of the conversation, giving the reparations movement a fresh sense of urgency.
A quick glance at Hansard, the database of official transcripts of every debate in Parliament for the last 200 years, reveals reparations are a rarely discussed issue. British reparations would not be straightforward. Colonialism itself was broad and complex, and its modern-day outcomes are not easily disentangled. British colonial subjects were not treated equally to one another, either, and it may prove impossible to fully account for everyone’s interests. That’s assuming the country owes anything, develops the political will to consider the issue, or even has the means to pay after the economic shocks of coronavirus and Brexit.
The UK’s key role in the slave trade was perhaps the most shameful period in its history. If and when the UK does decide it owes reparations, there are questions to answer, such as to whom compensation should be made, and how. It could be argued, for example, that the most heinous crime should have the highest priority. But whom to compensate? The west African countries, still mostly poor, whose able-bodied young people were ripped away centuries ago? The descendants of enslaved people, some of whom are now British citizens? And then, what about colonial subjects in other parts of Africa, or south Asia, and their descendants? They may not have experienced enslavement but there was indentured labor, stolen land, and tremendous wealth extraction.
A history of colonization
The British Empire was the largest the world has ever seen. By the 19th century, the UK controlled vast swathes of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, as well as Australia and New Zealand. For nearly 250 years, from the mid-1500s until abolition in 1807, the UK played a key role in the abduction, enslavement, and trafficking of people from west Africa. It became the world’s foremost superpower through coercive trade and military might, as well as its globally significant innovations in technology, manufacturing, and engineering.
Today, around 10% of the UK’s population has its origins in the former colonies, including many whose ancestors may have been enslaved. The Windrush generation was named after a ship that brought migrants from the Caribbean to the UK in 1948. Over the subsequent decades, there were waves of south Asian immigrants from the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947, and from east Africa, following the independence of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in the 1960s. Laborers, refugees, students, CEOs, doctors, and soccer stars came from the rest of the empire. After the end of World War II, a badly damaged and severely diminished Britain needed workers in order to rebuild, and still had obligations towards many colonial subjects. Many UK residents resented the new arrivals, and the 1970s saw the rise of racist organizations like the National Front, with violent intimidation a daily reality for many minorities.
This legacy continues. Many Black and south Asian people in the UK continue to face substantial disadvantages. In general, they have worse housing, poorer schools, and greater levels of unemployment than their white counterparts. They are more likely to be imprisoned, or die of Covid-19. The data are clear. In 2018, the British government apologized after dozens of descendants of the Windrush generation—many born and raised in Britain—were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, and even deported from the UK over citizenship issues. All of this means that, for activists, the moral case for reparations is clear.
It is not true that Britain has never paid any form of reparations, however. Archival research by Hardeep Dhillon, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, reveals the extent to which the British eventually compensated victims of a massacre in Amritsar, northern India, in 1919. It wasn’t much money—a total of around $30,000 at the time (around $400,000 today), divided among nearly 2,000 victims and their families—but it may have been the first example of reparations paid to colonial subjects.
The UK government was far more generous in compensating British companies and families for the loss of the slave trade. The Slave Compensation Commission, which was formed after abolition in the 1830s, awarded thousands of traders a total of £20 million of public money—40% of the government’s annual budget at the time. It was, historian David Olusuga points out, the largest government bailout until the financial crisis of 2009, and the final payment wasn’t made until 2015. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, a research outfit at the University of London, has analyzed and uploaded the commission’s records—the project website says they “provide a more or less complete census of slave-ownership in the British Empire.”
The time for reckoning
Britain has shown that it is willing to pay compensation, and that it can push difficult, controversial policies through if there’s enough political will. With the tortuous Brexit process nearly complete, the UK has also been reevaluating its position in the world. It has, for example, adopted a surprisingly clear and direct stance on China, and forcefully condemned authoritarian Chinese policies in Hong Kong, even offering citizenship to thousands of residents of the city, another former colony.
But the British economy is now in dire straits. Because of Brexit, it has lost direct access to the largest market for its goods and services, and the security of the European Union’s trade deals. The coronavirus pandemic has shrunk economic activity and output substantially, with the government forced to borrow huge sums of money to help workers and entire industries get through the ordeal. In these extraordinary circumstances, it is difficult to see where the necessary political will for reparations can emerge.
So far, the British electorate has been largely unmoved by the moral arguments. In 2014, a coalition of 15 Caribbean countries, where Britain took slaves and extracted resources, presented the UK with a plan for compensation; according to a survey at the time, nearly three-quarters of the British population opposed such payments by European countries for their roles in slavery and colonialism. The government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which oversees diplomacy and international development, said in 2014 that reparations were off the table. “We do not see reparations as the answer,” an FCO spokesman said. “Instead, we should concentrate on identifying ways forward with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st century.”
Education may be a reason why there’s so little political will. Priya Satia, professor of British history at Stanford University, told Quartz that while carrying out research in Birmingham—a city with a large Black and south Asian population—she realized many people, even those whose ancestors were subjected to slavery and colonialism, have not necessarily been taught enough of its history to be able to understand and articulate the issues around reparations.
In 2008, the slave trade became a mandatory component of the high school history curriculum in England, alongside the British empire, World Wars I and II, and the Holocaust. This means that Generation Z is the first to absorb, en masse, this vital part of history. But given that nobody who went to high school after 2008 is older than 30, the political and social consequences of this shift in education policy may be some way off. “People don’t see a direct connection between what they benefit from in this country and what enslaved Africans did to contribute to its development,” says Catherine Koroma Whitfield, a researcher at Brighter Futures for Children, an educational organization in the UK. “That’s intentional by the state, I would argue, because otherwise people would be rightly outraged, and it would give legitimacy to the call for reparations.”
A future of accountability
Following the global wave of protests after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by US police officers on May 25, the conversation in Britain soon turned to accountability for the country’s own history of subjugation. Protesters tore down statues of slave owners, and also figures like Cecil Rhodes, who played a key role in the further colonization of Africa, while major companies apologized and offered compensation for their ties to the trade. Prime minister Boris Johnson said that he was “appalled” and “sickened” by the manner of Floyd’s death, and that in the UK “there is so much more to do—in eradicating prejudice, and creating opportunity.” But he did not mention reparations.
Activists are focusing on justice rather than reparations, given the lack of popular and political will for direct compensation. Modern-day trade, tax, and debt policies ensure the continuing poverty and dependence of many former colonies, argues Naomi Fowler of the Tax Justice Network, a politically independent organization that campaigns “on a wide range of issues related to tax, tax havens, and financial globalization,” according to its website. Britain still pursues “extractive” policies through its network of tax havens and small overseas territories, she tells Quartz: “It’s a second empire.”
The modern reparations movement “is not just a call for monetary compensation; it’s also a demand for radical and justice-driven change,” writes economist Priya Lukka in openDemocracy. Debt policies are key, she tells Quartz. The poorest countries in the world, many of them former colonies in Africa, owe billions to the government, companies, and other institutions in the UK; cancellation of these debts could amount to a form of justice. Although some of this debt has been “rolled over and rescheduled” because of the pandemic, Lukka adds, “a much more progressive approach would be to look at how it was derived and question, therefore, its legality.”
For those with their sights set on financial reparations, patience is probably the most important virtue. Shifts in public and political opinion, if they ever happen, move slowly, and could be generational. “Demands that were on the table for years—such as the removal of the Rhodes statue—are now coming to fruition,” says Priya Satia. “This is the moment in which some things are beginning to find fulfillment, but the way any movement works is through the cultural shift that it causes, and that takes time. It can’t happen overnight.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, we described Cecil Rhodes as a “slave owner.” He did not own slaves, but was active in the further colonization of Africa many years after abolition.