The University of Cambridge has announced that it will begin an inquiry into whether the educational institution profited from slavery, and as Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope said, “it is only right that Cambridge should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour.”
The Atlantic slave trade took place between the 16th and 19th centuries, transporting an estimated 12 million Black people to the United States, the United Kingdom, and around the continent of Europe, amongst other places. In 1807, the passing of an act of Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire. It was only fully concluded in 1838 as it continued in some parts of the colonies. Of course slavery continued illegally after this, and is still prevalent around the world.
Don’t get me wrong − this investigation will make a fine piece of academic research. It has also re-energised the conversation around slavery reparations. For example, the chair of governors of the University of East London has subsequently called for universities that have a link to slavery to contribute to a £100m reparation fund, in order to support students from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Aside from the practical issues regarding precisely who owes what to whom and for what, however, there is also the moral argument. Why is one person getting money for something that did not happen to them, and why is another person repenting for an evil they did not perpetuate?
As someone who lost six family members to war, I feel no urge and have zero justification in demanding my six pounds of flesh in penance from their killers’ descendants. To pass the sins of the father onto his son is, in my opinion, a reprehensible stance to take, even more so when dealing with someone’s distant ancestor.
Earlier this year, for comic relief Stacey Dooley was lambasted for perpetuating the ‘white saviour’ narrative whilst taking photographs with children in Uganda. A rejection of the ‘white saviour’ seems to fly in the face of the notion of slavery reparations. If we do not accept ones help, we surely will not ask them to open their wallet instead.
Furthermore, we as a society should have no moral standing to discuss slavery reparations whilst 24.9 million people still live in slavery worldwide − the highest being 18 million in India. The North Korean government is the single biggest holder of slaves in the world.
We honour our ancestors by learning from the past, not using their memory for financial gain.