The slave trade helped make their families rich. But, two centuries later, a handful of British aristocrats, part of a new organization called Heirs of Slavery, are lobbying the UK government to offer a formal apology and restorative justice to the descendants of the slave trade.
“British slavery was legal, industrialized and based entirely on race,” Alex Renton, one of the group’s founders, told the Guardian. “Britain has never apologized for it, and its after-effects still harm people’s lives in Britain as well as in the Caribbean countries where our ancestors made money.”
British complicity in the slave trade
Britain traded more slaves than nearly any other country, transporting 3.1 million Africans to its colonies in the Caribbean, as well as to North and South America.
When the UK government abolished the slave trade in the 1830s, it began paying out reparations—not to freed slaves but to former slave owners and traders. The compensation amounted to £20 million of public money, a sum so massive that it was equivalent to 40% of the government’s annual budget at the time. The government diligently disbursed these payments until the final installment in 2015.
The ancestors of the eight members of Heirs of Slavery received compensation payments from the UK government ranging from £3,591 and £106,000 (about £17 million or $21 million in today’s currency).
Their descendants say that others like them, whose families have benefited from the slave trade, could consider charitable donations to help people in the Caribbean and its diaspora. However, their main purpose is “to lend our voices as heirs of those involved in the business of slavery to support campaigns for institutional and national reparative justice,” specifically the call of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
Caribbean nations are leading the call for reparations
Caribbean nations, which have been severing residual ties with the British Commonwealth in recent years, outlined a ten-point plan in 2014 for reparatory justice from European nations. The plan includes direct actions such as formal apologies, repatriation, debt cancellation, and a development program for rehabilitating indigenous communities. It also calls for investments in righting the pervasive and damaging legacies of slavery, such as funds to develop public health, eradicate illiteracy, and psychological rehabilitation.
CARICOM’s campaign for reparations has been gaining traction. Last December, the Netherlands was the first European country to formally apologize for its role in the slave trade. The Dutch government backed up the apology with a 200 million euro ($212 million) fund directed towards initiatives meant to tackle the legacy of slavery in the Netherlands and its former colonies.
“It’s about money. Apologies are words and with those words you can’t buy anything,” Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, said at the time.
For its part, the UK government has expressed regret and sorrow for its role in the transatlantic slave trade, skirting a formal apology all the while. At least one cabinet minister has said that an apology would open the door to the accountability and potential economic restitution the UK has so far avoided.