There are a few things about slavery trades over the last few centuries we can agree on: they are another blot on Western history’s rather questionable moral history, perhaps being the most obvious. That it was bad is rarely questioned. Sure, there are historical moral relativists who question whether we should hold old cultures to modern standards, so perhaps the truly non-contentious point is that it is preferable that it is not happening now.
One of the truly contentious points, however, is the question of whether people today should make amends for what was happening all that time ago. And, on that point, I have my own view. (Oh, really? Who would have thought Allallt has a view on this? He never normally has views on contentious points.)
We need to look at what it means for this generation to make amends. The first assumption is normally that some sort of financial compensation should take place: that a state like the modern United Kingdom should give money to a country like modern Jamaica. The problem here is that the United Kingdom’s participation in that slave trade ended about 8 generations ago. No one alive today is the slave owner or the slave from that particular trade. It is incredibly difficult to explain why the great great great great great great grandchildren of people who did something heinous should compensate the great great great great great great grandchildren of the victims. Making these kind of amends is just silly.
However, it is reasonable to expect that the ‘labour drain’ in Jamaica’s history has had lasting economic impacts on modern-day Jamaica. It is equally reasonable to expect the expansion of the labour force in the UK’s history gave a lasting and significant economic boost to the UK. So, although no modern person is at fault in this issue, there are modern day winners and losers in the consequences. It can’t imagine it is feasible to put a figure to that loss, but there is a concept there worth playing with. Although, I still struggle to see that ‘making amends’ involves holding people who weren’t involved in the slave trade responsible for its consequences.
There are other thoughts on what making amends might mean, though. We could use the blots on our history as motivation to make a commitment to ending slavery. The UK has contracts and trade deals with companies and countries that exploit slavery, perhaps we could make our amends regarding the darker parts of our history by using our economic strength to either cease contracts with modern-day slave drivers, or manipulate the contracts to encourage these slave drivers to respect human life and political responsibility.
I can imagine the response that using economic power to spread one’s own moral and political ideas is a sort of colonialism. This assumes that, somehow, countries should not encourage the improvement of living conditions in other countries; that international law is some kind of oppression; that having relationships that span countries is bad.
Making amends this way, by respecting the idea that slavery is bad and the modern UK doesn’t want to have a part in it, is something I think we should do.
I also think that modern developed countries could show this solidarity with the non-contentious idea that slavery is bad by ensuring history education doesn’t gloss over this part. Honest interrogation of historical slavery does encourage us to reject that treatment of people.